(A phrase given to me as one of the best graduation gifts I could ask for.)
This past Saturday I graduated from SUNY Oswego. The day went wonderfully: the commencement ceremony was beautiful, the reception allowed me to take plenty of pictures with friends, my Oma gave me a beautiful bouquet of orange roses, my mom brought a delicious lunch of tabouli and hummus (which we ate in the true college spirit— cramped in a little kitchen, eating off paper plates), and I was greeted with family, thoughtful cards, and triple-chocolate cake. But it was also the saddest I’ve been in a long time.
Whoever I was before I spent my first night on campus, I don’t know anymore. That person is lost to the past, and the self I know now came into being when I became a student. I think that a lot of who someone is comes from who influences them. I believe that I am, to some extent, everyone who I grew to love. I am everyone who I carry with me.
And so, there is something especially hard about graduating. The SUNY Oswego that I know is one of a specific community of intelligent, caring, funny, wonderful people at a point in our lives that we will never repeat. Graduation signifies the dispersing of that home entirely. I can visit the collection buildings, and I can visit individual people, but I can never go back.
Equally difficult to face is the reality that everyone is always changing. I cannot know with any certainty that the people I hold so dear will remain exactly who they are today. I cannot have absolute faith that my relationships will hold strong through this mass dispersal.
The whole week leading up to the event left a hollow feeling in my chest. Is the anticipation of loneliness the same as loneliness? I knew that I would have to say my goodbyes to the people who have made me who I am, and I wasn’t ready.
Even the word “goodbye” seemed to feel wrong to me. What was so good about these byes? I have tried to tell myself that change leads to great new things, but at times it feels more like an empty saying. I will probably grow from the experience, but seeing how I’ve grown alongside my peers, I don’t think that our separation is the magic ingredient for my personal development.
I cried just writing notes, because I wanted so badly to say everything. As a creative writer, I have repeated “show, don’t tell” as a mantra for years, but when I came down to it, I didn’t know if I had shown everyone how much they meant to me. When I started to tell, my ability to express myself with the written word faltered with my breath. I was terrified that just placing these big emotions on paper would somehow lessen them.
I went to see one of my favorite professors, and we spent a long while talking as if it was just another conversation. I could almost imagine that I would be able to walk over to her office any day to laugh, ask for advice, or talk about poetry. It came time to leave and she said that she didn’t do goodbyes and that we would see each other again soon.
I had planned to meet up with someone I had been dating through the semester for our last time. She arrived unannounced, surprising me out of my anxious anticipation of her future absence, and I almost started crying just from her hug. We watched old cartoons and pretended it wouldn’t be the last time we would be together. When she went to leave, she smiled and said, “this is not goodbye.”
Thursday I had an absolutely delightful dinner, walk by the river, and evening of movie watching with two of my best friends. They are both incredible people in many ways and we made sure to make vague plans to visit as soon as possible. We all told each other over and over that our hugs were not our last and our expressions of appreciation and love were not goodbyes.
The exchange was repeated among so many of those close to me. We spoke of how many hours away we were and how we would find time to visit. We each mentioned ways we would bribe each other with milkshakes or lunches, even though we all knew that the real lure was conversation, company, and closeness.
And this was the last beautiful gift that college (not the campus or the institution, but the temporary home made up of incredible people) gave me. This phrase of “Not Goodbye” means so much. At a time when it often feels as if a part of myself is closing off forever, this phrase opens up my life to a possibility of future growth. It contains all the sentiment and love of a goodbye but still maintains the hope and reassurance of “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Not Goodbye” are the words of those who know that physical distance does not mean emotional distance. It is for those who carry each other inside themselves and continue to live and be the person who embodies the character of those who shaped them. It represents going forward. It is not the same as promising to visit in order to recreate the past with people who might change while they’re away. It is a promise of maintaining those relationships in some form and continuing on into the future, growing together despite any distance that may rest between us.
It is a promise that leaving this college is not the death of a self that has come into being there, but a furthering of that person. It is not the death of our community of friends, but merely our spreading out and having the opportunity to bring new people along. “Not Goodbye” tells me that, while I might be pained with nostalgia, I can look forward to the future too.
Thank you for these words.