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When People (and Pets) Leave Us

"Will you leave me?"

I was looking at my hound dog Wags. His tail wagged. I could have swum in his big eyes, swirling with devotion to me— even if only for that moment. But that’s just it. It was only a moment. Wags prefers to depart when nobody’s looking. He slips out the door to chase deer or fox through tall trees. When his brain switches to hunting mode, he could care less if he’ll ever see me again. I once tried to lure him by lying down on a trail and moaning as if I'd been injured. But he just galloped by me, baying on his scent. One day he could be shot by a Swiss hunter (that’s another story,) hit by a car, or he could just disappear. I know this.

And he’s not the only one. People in my life leave— all the time. When I was a teen, I still recall the throb in my chest lasting for weeks when my two best friends from Grand Rapids, Michigan left for their colleges, and I for mine in New York. Jen and Chris had stayed up countless nights with me, chattering about dreams and fears, smoking cigarettes, developing code names for cute boys— yet now they were no longer a regular part of my day, my life.

My great-grandmother Mimi who lived with me for much of my childhood left me when I was in my early twenties. I recall sitting beside her still body, my hand on her cold one, attempting to comprehend where the rest of my chit-chatty grandmother had gone. I recall touching her nightgown, sniffing her rose scented powder, unable to process how her scent could still be there, but not her soul.

Five years ago, my younger sister left Marin County California while I still lived there. As I watched her head to North Carolina, grasping the hand of her four-year-old and carrying her newborn, I knew that we might never again live in the same neighborhood, never know one another’s lives in quite the same way. Our daughters wouldn’t share ballet class, wouldn’t grow up trading clothes.

This summer more friends have left me where I now live in Switzerland. My Indian American friend who wears vibrant loose clothing and calms me with every meditative word that slips from her lips— she's gone to Chicago. Another friend left who participated in my writing workshops where she wrote honest poetry that transformed me every time she read it. A super social, unusually kind newer friend who lived just across the field— she left for Australia.

They’ve all gone.

So what do we do when people leave? I wonder.

Maybe we search for these people, still here— inside our own bodies. My sister gave me sibling love— and so I work to unify my children. She granted me the tangy taste of her green bean recipe, the quiet reminder to turn off the water while brushing my teeth, the desire to stain my fingers black while picking pounds of blackberries for pie and jam (that I never find time to make.) My grandmother taught me to organize drawers and closets, to lose kindly at cribbage, to listen to the stories of the old woman, sitting alone. My high school friends instilled in me the need to leap from a pier into the cold water, to stay up late talking even if I know I’ll be tired. My Indian American friend demonstrated what kindness and calm looks like, even while moving to a new country— what inner peace can do. The Lebanese Australian mom showed me that every friend can disco wildly on a boat, can cry, can be made to feel special. And the poet mom friend taught me that true words will only come when we’re ready to share them… And that's okay.

Look what each of us is given— a chance in the other. A chance to learn, to be nutty, to get messy, to get hurt, to grow.

Maybe today I’ll try to look into the eyes of those who are here: the hound, my friends, my children, my husband, that stranger who I'll see at the lakeside— and I’ll try to see that none of us will stay forever, in this moment. We will leave. Yet every time we smile, embrace, we laugh, we talk, we cry, we give, receive, forgive. Every time we give thanks — we transform each other, again, again, again…never leaving, never ending….

"No, you won't ever really leave," I'll say to the hound. And off we'll trot up the hill into the wood.

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