This is, in part, why I have not written all spring. I needed to say this first, but did not (still do not) have the words.
I have never known how to say goodbye.
Oh, yes, I can say the word. Those two easy syllables, balanced perfectly between consonants and vowels, moving through one’s mouth from back to front – urgent, simple, quick.
But the meaning? The irrevocable ending? My life turned, once again, into nothing but memory, and the threads to my past cut like so much insubstantial mist?
I can never wrap my head around the bigness of it.
I have moved countries nine times. Watched dear faces (too many to count) disappear in rear-view mirrors (both literal and figurative). Packed and unpacked suitcases. And the enormity of change, of time, have never ceased to overwhelm me.
The whole landscape of my inner world is made up of places that no longer exist (not as I remember them), of people who have grown and changed in my absence (even as I have grown and changed in theirs) – and I do not know, have never known, what to do with that reality.
I always swore that I would not become one of those MKs – those TCKs – who could not settle. Who could not stay in any one place long enough to risk roots. And yet, looking at my life, I know that is indeed who I have become. Any one place can only ever hold a fraction of who I am – of the worlds contained beneath my skin – and so I must keep moving, must keep searching for those other pieces of myself. Those other faces, other tastes, other sounds, that make up my definition of “home” – my definition of what it means to be me.
And I know, deep down (have always known), that what I am really looking for is a certain combination of colors, of scents, of sounds, branded upon my imagination during my earliest years and rendered sacred.
As children, the world is shaped by our imaginations as much as it is shaped by the “reality” of our senses. All the world is miracle because we are not old enough to have become used to it yet – to take any of it for granted. Thus, snails making tracks across a white wall, and flowers blooming to life every spring, and the wonder of other human beings, thinking their own thoughts, inhabiting their own realities, existing behind their own eyes, are all as much magic as talking fauns or invisibility rings might be. Anything might happen, and the world seems – the world is – rife with possibility.
This is a reality that all our great myth-makers have known – and the names of C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, and George MacDonald were certainly significant to my childhood.
But the person truly responsible for unlocking my imagination was someone much closer to home.
Karem Boubaker spent hours in the courtyard of his family’s dwelling (or sitting on the edge of my very own bed), telling me stories about displaced ducklings, or the man who had come one night and stolen the roof from right over his family’s heads.
He filled my childhood with wonder and set my feet upon a path I still walk today.
I cannot remember a time in my life before his stories, and somehow I had never considered a time in my life after them. Never considered that on some ordinary February day, still much too young, with so much still to do and to say, with no warning whatsoever (no chance for loved ones near or far to say all there was to say), his heart might stop beating.
Never thought I would be left trying to figure out how to say goodbye.
How do you bid farewell to the man who taught you the power of stories? Who baptized your imagination in the colors of the Mediterranean sea and the swirling patterns of Tunisian courtyards? The man who stood gatekeeper for your memories, and – even when Aslan’s own rules declared you too old for Narnia – held the door open to Mahdia, to your childhood, to your home?
I do not know.
I can call myself a writer all I like, but I have no words for this.
Marilyn Gardner uses the Portuguese “saudade” to encapsulate the longing (the homesickness) that refugees and immigrants (and TCKs) feel for a world that no longer exists. For a place that is no more. The unique lostness experienced by those who can’t ever, quite, be found. As Frodo Baggins knows too well, the world is very large, and very lonely, when home is no longer a word that truly applies – truly exists. Is no longer a place that can be returned to.
I have lived inside that word for many years now.
Lived inside it, as Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy must have done when they returned from Narnia and found themselves once again children in a world that knew nothing of them. A world that did not recognize the kings and queens they had been, or the people (be they talking animals, or living trees, or forest fauns) that had made them such.
Have lived inside that word, yet never as fully as these past few months.
I thought my home was a place – a place that didn’t quite exist any longer. I discovered this spring that it was, in part, a person – a person who had carved a door for me and held it open. Who will hold that door now?
Who will remind me that life is magic? And serve me tea – strong and bitter – in tiny shot glasses, surrounded by laughing family? Who will know about Pinky 1, and Pinky 2, and all the other Pinkys, along with Blacky 5? Who will make me feel like a princess, tucked away in a canopy bed, fingers bright with henna dye? Who will serve me marka, and sit with me on cool summer evenings (when jasmine lies heavy on the breeze) beneath the Tunisian stars? Who will know – as Karem always seemed to – that all those smells, and sounds, and sights, still swirl inside me even now? Still call to me like the taste of home?
Who will remember who I was, and thus recognize who I am?
I wrote today in my journal that maybe “Goodbye” is not so much a letting go (because how does one let go of the very fabric of one’s own identity? what am I, if not a composite – a mosaic – of all the places and faces I have loved? what will be left of me, if they are no more?) but rather a relinquishing over to God. I do not know how to weigh these memories. How to balance what is against what was. How to rightly name this loss. C.S. Lewis says that we are not at home in time because we were not created for it – we are infinite beings inhabiting finite space and it hurts with the hurt of death and decay and endings. The hurt of “gone” and “goodbye” and – most scary and painful of all – “forgotten.” But God can hold what I cannot.
So in God’s grace and mercy, I entrust you, Karem, to God’s care. May you be welcomed home with the same hospitality you always offered us, the strangers on your doorstep. May you ever journey further up and further in – deeper and deeper into the wonder and mystery you pointed me towards from my earliest memories. May you be swallowed up in love (that same love you offered us, unconditionally, even when my tongue no longer spoke your language, and the little girl I’d been had disappeared into this other me, no longer quite so certain of anything at all), and may you know yourself, at last, at last, at the place where all true stories grow into the truest story – the story where all goodbyes shall cease.
I hope, one day (when days themselves are no more), to sit at your feet again and hear your tales. Until then, I will try to find words to tell the stories you planted in my being. To let out the colors that saturate both my memories and my dreams – and that remind me, oh so strongly, of a certain courtyard in Mahdia where I sat on a stool (in the company of my brother) and listened in wonder to the discovery that roofs could disappear, and carpets could fly, and ugly ducklings could turn into swans. What a world it was I lived in; what a miracle to be alive.