Life can be viewed as a succession of endings. We finish attending a particular school, going to a particular job, living in a certain house, being part of a given neighborhood. A particularly precious ending occurs when our time in the house and neighborhood where we lived as a child comes to an end or when we stop being friends with our first best friend. All sorts of connections come to an end, many with people we once called friends. Connections end, often inexplicably, with those with whom we explored the many facets of the mysteries of intimacy. We become partners in work, in love, in life and these often end sooner than we ever could have imagined. We sometimes end being a child to a parent who is still living. We sometimes end being a parent to a child who, likewise, is still living.
Many firsts are markers for endings. Our first romantic kiss; first sexual experience; first claim to being in a relationship; and first use of alcohol, marijuana, or other health-risk behaviors are all markers of the end of innocence. A first real job and paying one’s own rent or mortgage are markers of the end of economic dependence. Receipt of a first pension or social security check and enrollment in Medicare can be viewed as markers of the end of economically productive years.
What do endings mean? Some are less decisive than others, so they often look more like transformations or transitions in our roles or connections to people, places, or groups. We can end a job but still do similar work and remain in touch with some of those with whom we once worked. We can leave a house but still visit the neighborhood or get together with those who were once our neighbors. We can even go back and visit an old house, as I did when I was nine and was welcomed in; however, the old fridge was gone, and my old bedroom’s wallpaper was gone, and it no longer smelled like my room.
When connections to life partners end, we may still manage to stay in a day-to-day relationship, because we’re not ready for it to end. We may let the relationship end, yet remain in contact for practical reasons, such as money or the benefit of the children: that they continue to experience the love of both partners who, though apart, remain amicable. Sometimes we manage to leave a life partnership and later paradoxically become friends with the person who had been the source of dissonance and discord in our lives.
We usually end being a child to our parents when we become independent, but we still choose to remain their children out of love, respect, and family. Sometimes we remain their children too much and longer than we ought, because we can’t cut the apron strings or they hold us in that role (at least when we go home and revert to old ways). Conversely, many parents cease to serve as parents because they move on to another life, perhaps another family and even another place. Sometimes time and distance can erode a bond that once existed; sometimes the bond never fully formed, and a parent absconded slowly, often not quickly enough.
Our parents may morph into children because physically and mentally something has happened to them; they’ve lost their independence; they can no longer perform their activities of daily living. They’re not sure who they are or who they once loved, not even recognizing them in person or in photographs. Children can transform into parents of their own parents.
Many endings transform us and engage us in another’s transformation. The old house remains the place where one once lived and perhaps becomes hallowed ground. A former life partner or lover turns into someone with whom a different but nevertheless fulfilling relationship can be had. An aged parent, once strong, now becomes dependent on the child, and each may learn to love a different way.
Many endings come slowly and are scarcely noticed. Only when enough time has elapsed can we say, after the fact, at some point love ended. The same applies to commitment to a particular employer, viewing someone as a friend, longing to visit the volcanoes of Iceland, being a long-distance runner, drinking five cups of coffee a day, or being dependent on alcohol or drugs. For such things as these, often we only know that something once integral to ourselves has ended because it has dropped from our lives. Part of me ended and was replaced by some new aspect of me that I didn’t anticipate. We ask ourselves questions: “Why did I take so long to cease being a runner and take up yoga? Why did I take so long to end letting work to consume me at the cost of family and the larger community?” The most important thing is that the endings usually proclaim new beginnings, too.
Some relationships simply end. Whether ended by choice or circumstances, whether initially one-sided or mutual, relationships to individuals and to entire communities do come to an end. Some end decisively because you know the connection you once had to this person, and all the possibility that may have existed in that connection, is irrefutably dead. We may mourn, rejoice, or do first one and then the other or both simultaneously or in rapid alternation. We may feel confused about how a connection ended, whether it was through slow erosion or cataclysm. We may simply realize one day that the energies that once existed between us and another person, or group of people, or an organization have changed, and perhaps have dissipated entirely. Recognizing endings for what they are, appreciating the meaning of endings is central to growth.
We do ourselves and the communities of which we are part a disservice if we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to say farewell. We all take leave many times throughout life. When we leave the workplace and retire; when a parent, life partner, or child dies; when we move away from the community in which we have spent a good portion of our lives, we may experience these things as a death in life, but they are also transitions. We need to allow ourselves to feel that and also recognize how every ending somehow transforms us.
How many endings represent such important markers in a lifetime that they ought to be celebrated and even recognized as Quakers? Most religions recognize the end of the in utero period (the baptism following birth), the end of being single (marriage), and the end of life (last rites prior to death). Many also recognize the transition from childhood to adulthood (confirmation or bar/bat mitzvah). The World Health Association says adolescence ends at age 28; if so, then when does childhood end? One could make a strong case for Friends experimenting with some observance of the transition to adulthood that so many religions recognize at around age 11 to 15, in addition to recognitions of birth, marriage/committed partnering, and death.
In the end, we all die. The “I” that represented our personal consciousness comes to an end. Some argue that we each live beyond such endings and that death is just a transition, a mere pause like a comma or at most a semi-colon but certainly not the end of a sentence. Some will even argue that we return in some form through re-birth. No matter; each of us takes leave in various ways many times during one lifetime. Meantime, many others take leave of us. Knowing how to take our leave, and to accept others’ taking leave of us, over and over, is one of the most important things to learn and share.