The things I’ll keep

Learning how to say goodbye

June 1, 2022, 7:30 p.m.

1.

Growing up, I was taught how to meet new people, but I was never taught how to say goodbye to them. I was never taught what it means for something to end. I want to know — how can I bring more intention to departing a relationship? What does it mean to say goodbye?

2.

I’m five years old when my grandfather is diagnosed with dementia. Nine when he’s forced into memory care. 10 when he forgets our names. My family never talks about this.

“Is grandpa okay?” I ask after each visit.

“Yes,” my father replies curtly. “I’ll wait in the car, okay?”

I’m 13 when we hold his funeral; my uncle is last to go up to the podium and see his open casket. Almost immediately, he collapses to the floor, and eight years of tears break loose all at once. The rest of the church falls silent as he clasps onto my grandmother’s thigh.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he cries. And he says something to the departed body, something else I was never taught how to say: “I love you.”

3.

Last September, I say goodbye to my family for the first time. I travel 5,700 miles west. As orientation starts, as I introduce myself to stranger after stranger at events with hundreds of people, I can’t help but start feeling homesick. One night, after everyone has left for an event, I’m the only one left in our dorm.

An RA notices me sitting alone in the lounge.

She sits down next to me. “Hey, everything okay?”

I’m about to say I’m fine, before I notice she’s looking me in the eyes — the first time anyone has done so that week.

I reply, “I think I made a mistake coming to Stanford. I’m so awkward at those events.” I tell her how I think I’ve forgotten how to socialize with other teenagers, that I’m better off withdrawing before school starts and taking another gap year.

“Hm…” A few seconds later, she says, “I guess you have two choices here. Option A, you go to the event and try to find just one person to talk to, and maybe you make a new friend? Option B, you can hang out with us. We have chips!”

She continues, “I think you should do whatever feels the most comfortable. But either way, we’ll be here for you to come home to.”

I choose option A, and hate the event. I get back to my dorm lounge and am met with, “You came!” For the rest of the night, I eat chips with my new friend.

4.

One Friday night, I’m talking to some friends in the dorm, and the topic of aging comes up.

One friend shows us a TED Talk clip; the speaker talks about a hospice patient with breathing problems. “Well, guess what? She wants to start smoking again. French cigarettes, if you please. Not out of some self-destructive bent, but to feel her lungs filled while she has them.”

Another says, “I never want life to just stop. I want to learn everything, experience everything.”

We spend the rest of the night playing cards, giving each other nicknames, warm mugs in our hands.

Later at 2 a.m., I take a walk around campus alone. I never expected the feeling to come like this — music blaring in the background, bodies tumbling around me — but I finally feel at home.

5.

Other memories I’ve kept:

I’m singing along to a Korean ballad song when he, someone who grew up in a village 4,500 kilometers away from me, walks into the bathroom. We stare at each other for a few seconds in deadlock. Then, he starts singing with me.

The day after my breakup, one of my friends notices me eating lunch alone. “Do you want peanut butter?” She dashes to the dining hall and back, balancing two plates on each hand.

A few days after the breakup, another friend knocks unexpectedly on my door. Looking down at the floor, he says, “Hey, I just came to say…” After swaying side to side for a few seconds, his back straightens, and he looks me in the eyes. “I came to say that I feel bad. I’ve been so busy doing work instead of thinking about you … I’m sorry. Are you doing okay?”

Later, my voice quivers as I tell another friend about how it bothers me that I fought so much with my mother last winter break, and how I sent her the most awkward voice message on her birthday. I’m scared she’ll judge me; instead, she says, “Wait — I’m so proud of you!”

6.

During spring break, I receive a text message from the South Korean military.

‌Date of Enlistment: August 22, 2022.

Date of Discharge: May 22, 2024.

One week later, my friends submit their housing applications for next year without me. Some of them I won’t see until they’re seniors; some will have left by the time I come back.

“Don’t worry — we’ll call every weekend,” one of them says. “We’ll draw housing together when you’re back.”

But what if we drift apart? I think to myself. I’m going one direction, you’re going the other — what if our friendship dies?

7.

My best friend from high school texts me for the first time in a year: “Hey. I know that summer after senior year was a messy time for both of us, but our friendship still means a lot to me. I’m coming to SF next week. Can we talk things out?”

Later during our meal, while he’s using the bathroom, I tap on his phone on the table. His wallpaper is the same one from high school: a photo of us sitting crisscrossed on our school’s football field, our arms around each other’s shoulders.

8.

During a day trip to the beach in Half Moon Bay, I see one of my friends standing alone near the shore. Her body looks like a speck against the backdrop of the ocean, and there’s a panorama of mountains far in the distance.

I walk over and place a hand on her shoulder. “Hey, everything okay?” Her eyes look misty, as if she’s been crying for the past few minutes.

“This thing we call ‘the present.’ It’s so small. So fragile.”

She pinches her fingers together. “Come, look.” I peer into the tiny gap between her fingers, and I see the rest of our friends in the distance, huddled on a picnic blanket and pouring lemonade for one another, oblivious to how small they look.

“That’s my happiness right there, my ball of joy. And I love you all so much.”

9.

I have an image: a few weeks from now, my friends and I are approaching the entrance to my gate. Tears start falling from our eyes; each one feels like a slipping away of parts of ourselves.

“Don’t go,” they say uselessly. A pain stabs my heart as I look ahead to the security checkpoint.

But, we also huddle together one last time. I hug each of them — longer, tighter, more fully than I have done so in the past, when we still had so much time. As my friends look into my eyes and smile, I realize, I don’t feel scared anymore. Seldom have I had the chance to cry so purely. I finally say, “I love you.”

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