I started learning an important lesson in goodbyes when I was 18 years old.
My med-prep class was a dual credit course through Glenwood Springs High School and Colorado Mountain College. In those days, I was teetering between a career as a surgeon or the life of a writer. Sometimes when it’s time to pay the bills — especially medical insurance — I have a tinge of regret. Oh, the practical matters that don’t matter to the teenage spirit. Nevertheless, the doctor’s door was still slightly open during my senior year of high school.
The med-prep class was two semesters. The last three months entailed clinicals in hospitals and such. We were encouraged to try at least three different places, but I fit in so well at a children’s clinic in New Castle that everyone agreed I should stay on an extra month.
I worked with a nurse named Renee. She taught me how to calculate the heart rate of a squirming infant — which is no small task for the uninitiated, for the pulse is fast, and it’s a challenge to hold the stethoscope on the wriggling baby’s chest for 10 seconds. She also taught me how to protect myself by holding a diaper up when weighing a baby boy. For an accurate weight, the tiny people are placed on the scale without diapers. For some reason, boys are especially prone to pee when their diaper is off, so it’s wise to hold the diaper above them to protect yourself from the line of fire.
Renee was very supportive and encouraging. In my mind, however, I never imagined that I was particularly special to her. I assumed she knew when my time was up at the clinic and that to her I was just another student in a string of many. My last day came and went, and later I was surprised to hear through my CMC instructor that Renee was very upset by my unceremonious departure; I had left without saying goodbye.
When I thought about how I had offended her after all she had invested in me, I got a green feeling in my stomach. Still do.
We probably agree it’s important not to leave loved ones hanging. It’s easy to pay lip service to the idea. Much harder is to realize in the moment just how much someone matters, and how you matter to them, even if it’s in a small way. When I notice how I miss a person after the fact, a nauseating sense of tragedy sets in.
I’ve found that it’s not even restricted to people. It’s helpful to give myself closure with places and times in my life as well.
During my senior year at the University of Colorado in Boulder, it sunk in that my time there was limited. As tired as I was of late nights at the library, I suddenly couldn’t spend enough time there. I made a point to soak up afternoon sun on the sandstone steps. I took naps on campus benches, listening to ravens caw in quiet amphitheaters. Those moments now define the memories I have of college.
As I age, it becomes increasingly clear how easy it is to take the present situation for granted. Even when I know this, I make the mistake of dwelling on even the tiniest problems nagging me in an otherwise happy moment. How many years I’ve wasted on the assumption that I will be happier when the challenges at hand are overcome, only to understand later how good life was then. That is the story of childhood.
The advantage of being an adult who knows struggle is perpetual is that I can hold onto life more consciously. Happiness is so much more pleasant in the present than in the past.
I remembered that on my final day at the Eagle Valley Enterprise last week. I made a point to say farewell to everyone who might care. It ended up being a gift I gave to myself — the warmth was returned to me two-fold.
Though each farewell does not necessarily mean an absolute end to what has been, it always marks a new beginning. Perhaps it’s even a necessary first step toward a fresh start, so we don’t end up carrying more baggage of regret.
That might be the true meaning of New Year’s.
So kiss the past goodbye — relinquish everything that can’t be changed — and see new opportunities at hand when your eyes open in 2014.
— “Open Space” appears on the second and fourth Friday of every month. Derek Franz lives in Carbondale and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.