When you are going somewhere you love and you know it’s the last time, you look at it differently, with great care and attention. You want to take it all in. You want to imprint it on your mind’s eye so you can savour it later. Maybe you take photographs, hoping that they will capture some small element of the sense and feeling of the place.
But life is not a photo album, and pictures may become a way of grasping at past experience, trying to hold on to it.
I had this experience recently when I went to a garden for the very last time. Now I know I won’t go back because it’s closed forever. And even if in the unlikely event it opens again, it will be a different place.
I knew I wouldn’t go back when I arrived, there was no uncertainty and I was prepared, so I wasn’t exactly sad. But it was a perfect day, the sun was out, no clouds in the sky, the roses were all in bloom. It was quiet, with only a few other visitors. So there was a feeling of saying goodbye to something that was as close to perfect as you could imagine. Even with a few faded blossoms, it could not have been anything more than it was. I would not have changed a note, a colour, a leaf, a blossom.
And I felt in that moment a strong longing mingled with quiet acceptance. I could say goodbye – without sorrow or holding on to the past. Maybe take a few pictures, though I would rarely look at them. Like other gardens I have visited, it would be there inside of me to remember with deep fondness. And in remembering it, I would be in that place of beauty, peace and near-perfection just for a moment.
Every time you leave someone who matters where there is a risk of it being the last time -perhaps an elderly parent – you brace yourself and maybe give the farewell that extra edge of attention, care and love. Or maybe you don’t. Every time I hang up from my weekly phone call with my father, part of me wonders if I will speak to him again. And, invariably, I am conscious of the gross imperfections of our communication, what I don’t say to him and how I say what I do, as well as how he communicates. It will never be much better and sometimes it’s a lot better than other times. It is as it is, much as it always has been, good enough, with the characteristic quirks that any relationship develops over time.
I don’t know if I’m saying goodbye till next week or Goodbye. I always remember the last phone conversation I had with my mother before she died and what she said and the tone of her voice. Nothing out of the ordinary, but the last time gives it a special resonance in memory anyway. And I remember wondering then, is this It?
When something or someone really matters, perhaps you always have that edge of awareness that ‘this could be it’. You’re not taking it for granted, you’re valuing it, even if that internal valuing doesn’t always translate into words or behaviour. You’re on that knife edge, wondering. You’re not over-anxious that this is it, you just feel it might be.
Sometimes you go somewhere and you have the feeling that it might be the last time even though you really don’t want it to be. You don’t know why. For reasons you don’t fully understand, you feel that it might be. And then you realise it was the last time already, and you missed it, something has changed. You feel there is something else there, as palpable as another person, in-between; things that will not be revealed or discussed, now complicated by the interventions of others.
And when you arrive, it all goes wrong, or that’s how it feels. Or maybe what happens is right. It isn’t the last time, but everything is not all right – is it?
It just is.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half heard, in the stillness
Between the two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always–
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
–T S Eliot, Little Gidding V