You hold out your autograph book, the one with the multicolored pages and the dinosaur cover, the one you got when you were a child. You hold it out with pride, not embarrassment, for the decade and a half of memories it carries — of names and notes, of crossed-out words and hard-to-read cursive. You’ve taken this book overseas twice, and you safeguard it in ever-increasing ways after each pen or pencil addition.
More than twenty people come to your goodbye party. You and your family aren’t used to hosting parties, so you call it an informal open house. But you’re still nervous and rushing around as the first few guests trickle in. Not everything’s ready, but you quickly relax and realize that that’s okay. Even though Christmas was two days ago and you live half an hour outside of town, people still come.
Larry and Dona bring Ozzie, the border collie/Australian shepherd mix that leaped and licked and chased his way into your heart last year. You rush outside and crouch next to him in your dress. He remembers you.
You are not an extrovert, but you feel like one today. You spend the afternoon playing Taboo with teenagers and twentysomethings, parents and grandparents, jumping up occasionally to hug someone hello or goodbye, or to mingle with those who are still here.
You’re tired later, but in the best possible way.
You don’t want to ruin anyone’s Christmas, so you wait until the 26th to start saying goodbye to your radio listeners. Or at least that’s when those comments go out over the airwaves. Because of the gap between the recording and the airing, you don’t hear from listeners until after your last day of work.
Before that, though, before the questions and best wishes and Bible verses from people you don’t know, you have to come to terms with leaving. It was your own choice, and you know it’s right, but that doesn’t make it easy. You were invited in, once, and now friendliness has turned into love, and the force of it staggers you and sweetens everything in that old building.
When the time comes to record your final voice tracks, you feel it, and anyone listening will probably be able to hear it. That’s okay. You don’t feign emotion for radio, but when it’s there, you don’t try to stifle it. You are as real as you can be. You’ve read whole books of the Bible over the last year and a half, and now instinct causes you to reach one last time for the passages you hold most dear. As the last song in the last hour comes to an end, you say goodbye, you read Philippians 2:1-11, and even though you are in a room by yourself, you feel the pain of parting.
You are so glad you’re still in town for the 45th anniversary open house. Some people know by now; others find out partway through their tour of the station. You meet people, you hug them, you explain as best you can (though it sounds feeble to your own ears) why you’re leaving. You eat cake and drink sparkling cider, and then, before year 46 can begin, you’ve gone.
You know you will always treasure the memory of this Sunday morning, the day of the youth group Christmas party but separate from it. They are sitting down in a circle, and there you are, on the inside of the circle holding your journal and a bundle of cards. You are uncharacteristically nervous as you stand in front of these teens and preteens and adults you love so much. You’re tempted to take the easy route and simply hand out the cards with a smile, but you know, you know, that you will always regret it if you miss this chance to speak truth and beauty from your vantage point of two years … to speak publicly these words you believe, these words of hope. So you slowly move around the circle, looking into their eyes and delivering love the best way you know how.
And then everyone takes a gel pen and it becomes an exchange of encouragements. Here are the picture frames all holding fancy paper, one for every person, and look at the beautiful calligraphy printed at the top of each one! Yours says Lizzie. The room is quiet now, frames dancing from table to laps until their contents are covered in words and color.
Your idea was just for words and simple paper; Luba brought the elegance, the lettering, the frames with the glass. You are so grateful for her. You have so many wonderful words hidden away in boxes and folders and books, but to have words you can prop up on a table, a shelf, a dresser — oh the joy! That’s what you do with your frame, later, after holding it your heart and weeping.
Two weeks after the Day of Encouragements, it’s time for final goodbyes. You show pictures of your new house in Colorado and write your contact information on the white board. You have a few words to say, not as a leader, but as a friend. And so you read them clumsily, these words you wrote with tears but are saying without them. You repeat certain words, words like belong and friend and thank you. The tears will come again later, but there’s too much laughter in the room for that now.
As you hug them, you remember gift exchanges and Capture the Flag, Guardians of the Galaxy and the Star Wars marathon, the Super Bowl parties and Winter Camp 2014. You remember the conversations over ice creams and lunches, over drives from here to there and while sitting and standing all around the church. You remember sleepovers, desperate prayers, oh-so-much laughter, and sitting in front of the sanctuary baring your soul.
You’ve woven together your life with theirs over the last two years, and you’re so glad you did. Your life is richer because of them. You love them.
This autograph book with the dinosaurs on it, it’s gone with you everywhere lately: to work, to church, to your own parties, carried in your purse just in case you see that one person or two who hasn’t written in it yet. Fourteen years ago, it was just a fun birthday present. Today, it’s a reminder of the people you love, many of whom you just left behind in the mountains and forests of northern California.
These last two weeks have been so rich and full, but most importantly, they’ve been reminder after reminder that all of the words and little moments and ordinary choices and all those daily battles have mattered, have built these edifices thick with meaning and friendship, have made it possible for such goodbyes as these.