“What is it like—saying goodbye?”

Her eyes misted as her mind tumbled backward, down spiral staircases and through doors—some which were locked, some open, a few dark, and yet others inviting.The winds of change were blowing behind her. The winds that pushed her forward—the winds that sometimes made her forget.

“It came very quickly—faster than anyone could have convinced us it would,” she said, pressing her steepled fingers into the bridge of her nose. Her eyes closed slowly, and a smile spread across her face. “It was beautifully heart-wrenching in the best sort of way… like the last day of Kindergarten when you believe for a day that you’re not a child anymore because your best friend told you boys have cooties and your mom told you to act more grown up after bullying your sister off the swing set yesterday—but really you still are a child, you just don’t know it. You cry because you think you’ve lost something that you’ll never find again—and in some ways you have, but—“

Her fingers wandered across the table, pausing as she drew in a deep breath and opened her eyes, “Then you realize that it’s not so hopelessly dark and scary that you can’t go on. Which you do, because that’s what people do—what we must do.”

“Do you remember all of them, then? All of your goodbyes?”

She sighed. “I do.” And she did. She remembered imagining her tears filling mason jars and, with trembling hands, placing them on shelves etched by sweet remembrance and colored by time’s sometimes-gentle aging.

She remembered hugging everyone she could, knowing that this would probably be the last time she would see some of them, and there was, of course, no way to tell which goodbyes were the last and who would show up, years and years later, walking down the same aisle in Walmart. Even in those cases, though, there wasn’t certainty, because it was just as easy to give a long-lost friend the cold shoulder of intentional ignorance as it was to embrace them and rejoice in the coincidence of reunion.

She remembered the words she said. It was not the first time she had felt that her words were inadequate, but it was the most important, and she prayed that, if a hundred times of speechlessness followed, that this time everything she wanted to say would be understood and that it would be meaningful.

She remembered an overwhelming sense of celebration and love and the disguised pangs of sorrow and loss that hung behind. She remembered the nights that followed, wondering what it all meant and where their lives would lead them. And she promised herself during those very long, insomnious moments that she would never forget any of them. She told herself she would never be ashamed of her tears. Because, in those fragile moments while she was still clutching a diploma, she knew them all to be soldiers, going off to a war that none of them quite understood. They were leaving the rolling hills and gentle winds of the Shire to find home. But what was home? She was only beginning to understand.

“Do you miss them still? If you’ve moved on?”

She wiped at the corners of her eyes, but whether it was to discourage the renewal of tears or to simulate waking up from a very brief sort of sleep was indiscernible. “Absolutely… All the time. You mistook me. I said we go on. I didn’t say we move on. People who don’t care move on. People who care a whole lot don’t—they keep going, because their love for what’s behind them is greater than their fear of what’s in front of them.” She smiled, revisiting the days and weeks before graduation. Feelings of speculation, wonder, trepidation. Asking herself again and again if she were ready, and answering every time with no. Sometimes she attached reasons to her response, but more often than not it was just a defeated whisper—just an echo in a whirlwind of doubt.

“Am I a cold person?”

She smiled, shaking her head. “No, no you aren’t.”

“So it will hurt?”

“You can’t prepare for it, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“Then how will I keep going?”

She sighed and smiled her prepare-yourself-for-an-extended-metaphor-that-probably-only-works-about-half-as-well-as-I-want-it-to smile. Every author had that look; hers was somewhere between a general’s half-smile before delivering a stirring speech and a mother’s expectant smile as her child opens the really big Christmas present that is wrapped in a box almost as big as the aforementioned child. “You’ll realize that on a scale between Bilbo leaving Bag End to follow the dwarves and Neo waking up for the first time in the real world, the do-ability of the impending future is a lot more like starting book two in your favorite series ever and then being forced to read at a frustratingly slow pace, and, of course, you can’t look ahead. Everything’s a total surprise, so you just roll with it. You’ll discover that it’s not graduating that scares you. It’s losing the people you love.”

“And have you?”

“Not the ones that really mattered,” she replied thoughtfully,

Frustration dripping from his reply, he asked, “And how do you know who really matters?”

“I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”

She was smiling at him as one valedictorian to another. She knew it would be over soon—her mentorship of this one who came after. He had grown up, and now it was time to let go and watch him accept the torch that had been carefully passed from class leader to class leader since there had been class leaders to pass torches to. To what end would he carry it? Perhaps it all depended on these last few questions before he too became an alumnus of their shared high school. An unspoken goodbye had begun between them, and the uncertain future had taken a place at their table in a little forgotten coffee shop. During those moments, she knew they owned that little coffee shop as everything around them seemed to fall away into silence and obscurity. Every little movement, every breath mattered in these fleeting moments. The clock, ticking behind them, counted down to the end, but it would not come yet. Even the clock—even time that waited for no one hesitated. She had one final piece of advice to share.

Her thoughts continued to wander until she realized he was speaking again.

Still unsatisfied, he hung another question in the air: “Were you afraid?” And it stayed there, in the air, but only for a few, brief moments before—

“I was terrified.”

“And what are you now?” he asked, hoping, perhaps a little, to stump her. But she remained unflustered, smiling again like this, this was the question she had been waiting for. As the clock began to tick again, as the little coffee shop began to return to life, he began to believe that this was perhaps the most important answer of all. And it was. Her final piece of advice was simple, wound up in a single word—a single action that would always push them forward: