Goodbyes are hard in the South. We start saying goodbye about midway through a conversation. We really have no intention of leaving abruptly like that. This is the preparatory goodbye. A first sally to ease the eventual pain of departure. “We really must be going.” But we won’t be going for about another half hour. We hate to see you go, and we hate to be going ourselves. So we linger on in the space of a conversation. A southern goodbye can start in a kitchen, move to a living room, linger on a doorstep and end with one person hanging on the window of the others’ car in the driveway. A southern departure has a beautiful formality to it that must be observed whether on the phone or in person.
In the North, when you are going you go. It’s a quick brutal process. Like the chopping off of a hand. “Bye now. Gotta run. Be seeing ya.” That’s all I get. I feel cheated. You must not really love me if you can let go that easily.
My dad who doesn’t even like phone conversations all that much can’t help himself. Well, he says. Then, he thinks of another question. He asks about my fantasy football team. Dad, I know you don’t really care about my fantasy football team. You just hate saying goodbye. I’m happy to prattle on about the miserable season Tom Brady is having, but I know you could care less. Should I put Colin Kaepernick in Brady’s place? You don’t know. It’s a tough one. You just hate to say goodbye. I know how it is.
When I left Sanford, North Carolina to move to Zelienople, Pennsylvania in my first incursion into northern climes many years ago, my good friend Jerry Lankford and I were trying to say goodbye. I nearly cried. We had been roommates in a ramshackle house on Poplar Springs Road that was under constant threat of invasion by field mice. We tried every humane way of disposing of them, but we found resorting to brutality was our only recourse. We put out glue traps baited with cheese. Usually the mice died in them. But sometimes they lingered, and we were forced to dispatch them to a better place by braining them with a beer bottle.
I was leaving Jerry to a long and lonely war against the field mice. It was so hard to go. It was only after I accidentally backed the moving truck over a small table I had meant to take with me that I gained any momentum at all. I was trying to back the truck a little closer to pick up the table. After I smashed it up, I leaned out of the window and looked back at it and him. “You know what, you can keep that little table,” I said. Jerry nodded. He was too sad to laugh. He wanted me to stay. But he had a broken table instead.
When I left Wilmington to move to New York, Robyn’s dad helped me pack. That was one of the longest best goodbyes I’ve ever had. I had a ton of stuff to fit into a tiny space. This is something Robb knows everything about. He diagrammed the floor space by the inch after my wife took measurements of the new place in Manhattan. She had already started work up there while we waited for Avery to finish the last couple months of middle school. “I have done the math,” he said one day. “It seems to me, you cannot keep the two large couches, nor the coffee table. Nor the beautiful wood desk. Basically, look around the living room as it now stands. If you see something in it, that is something that will not fit in your new apartment.”
Robb is a practical man. We had been walking together in circles for a long time. Going around the seven tenths of a mile path around Carolina Beach Lake. Walking a big loop by his house at Kure Beach that he measured out using his smartphone to get almost exactly 3.6 miles from, including a sunrise walk on the boardwalk by the pier. The sunrise is a beautiful thing over the ocean, but you must not linger there with Robb or you will be left behind. When you want to have a conversation with Robb, it is best done on the move. He is a man always and forever on a project. Never one to sit still.
When Robb had quadruple bypass surgery, I drove Avery, Robyn and the dog down to Kure Beach. Robyn stayed with him through the surgery and a few days after that before she had to fly back for work. She had beautiful t-shirts made up to specifications and express delivered that said “Team Robb.” They cost about $200 all told. Robb and I looked at each other. “Hell, I would have done shirts with crayons for everybody for less than $20,” I said. We all had these t-shirts. The only one that didn’t have one was the dog.
I went out that first morning back in the South with our six-month old King Charles Cavalier Boo Radley and walked him around. He was a puppy born and raised in New York City. I introduced him to the South. This is grass. What about that? You’ve never peed on grass before. Take it in. Pretty outstanding stuff, don’t you think? He loved it as I knew he would. He wasn’t as sure about walking in the sand on the beach. No traction to speak of. Just plain weird. There’s only so much new stuff you can introduce to a city dog at one time. We headed back home.
At the hospital, Robb went through his surgical preparations surrounded by family. They were about to cut open Robb’s chest and reshuffle his wires. Snip this. Move that. It was complicated stuff. He was in good spirits. He was laughing about a crazy obituary somebody had as his pretty wife Jayne read it. I told him later, if I am ever about to have quadruple bypass surgery, the very last thing I want you to do is to read a crazy obituary. But that is Robb.
After the surgery, I walked with him as he tried to regain his stamina, washed clothes, washed dishes and picked up groceries. I walked their two small dogs, Misha and Maya. Neither Yorkie walks in a straight line. It is like trying to fly two small kites as they are constantly crossing leash lines when they run to sniff out some new smell. I got a couple of the gigantic water bottles from Food Lion and schlepped one up to the second floor and plopped it into his water cooler. These were no big things. But I was happy to do them. I knew there were always things to be done in Robb’s mind. But he was at a point where he wasn’t the one who should be doing them. Jayne studied the bible extra hard and made food for everyone, something well beyond my powers.
We all sat watching Dancing with the Stars one night. I am so not into Dancing with the Stars. But sitting there with Robb’s heart on the mend, I was happy to watch it with him. Boo kept racing around the room trying to eat throw pillows and chew up bible verses and drink Jayne’s after-dinner wine when she wasn’t looking. I held him in a friendly bear hug, and he sat plotting his next move.
Robb got better with time. After a few weeks, we realized it was time to go North again. But it was hard to leave. I had just been through my first frozen winter in the North where everyone was still recovering from Superstorm Sandy. I had gotten a taste of Spring in Kure Beach. Spring wasn’t scheduled to arrive for another month or two in the frozen North. And I was leaving my old walking buddy for a second time.
He was coming back strong. Able to walk down stairs on his own. Able to go on walks without a hand nearby to steady him. He didn’t need us there like he had. We needed to get back. But it was so hard to leave. I got all the stuff by the door. And I tried to think of something that we didn’t have.
I couldn’t pack the sunshine and the grass. Couldn’t slip in the beach and the pier with the pelican sitting placidly there on a piling five feet away waiting for a fishy handout. I couldn’t pack Robb my old walking buddy up in our bags. I guess I left sooner than I would have liked. But I didn’t leave as quickly as I might have. It was a slightly faster goodbye than the standard southern one. I was out of practice. But a much slower goodbye than is practical by northern standards.
Why do Southern goodbyes take a year off your life? Because they should.