On Saying Goodbye
Matthew Stephen Sirois
Part 1: On Being a Jerk
In August 2016, I left Seattle. My home of ten years, the Pacific ocean, the place where I made countless friends and met my wife and taught myself how to write and became a father and established the beginnings of an artistic career and truly, finally, maybe figured out who the fuck I am. I packed up my assorted pots and pans, books, sweaters, flannels, an elderly cat—not to mention Signe and our daughter, Ramona, whom I didn’t “pack” as they are autonomous beings, unlike the cat—and shipped all of them off to western Massachusetts, to a region known as the Pioneer Valley. Or, as the Narragansett people call it, “The Valley of... Goddamn, Why So Many Liberal Arts Colleges?”
The problem was, and is, that I’ve never been good at saying goodbye. I tend to leave workplaces, for instance, with little fanfare—consciously erasing any trace of myself as I exit the back door. My romantic disentanglements have generally been short and sweet, or shorter and not so much. Social engagements are worse: I leave a party the way D.B. Cooper leaves an airplane. Just excuse myself for a quick piss and drop, whistling, into the night. I tell myself this affectation is part of some writerly mystique, like J.D. Salinger disappearing into a shack behind his family home for months on end (he was a jerk) or Norman Mailer stabbing his wife with a pen knife (the word “jerk” is clearly insufficient for describing the likes of Mailer.) My friends, however, don’t think of me foremost as a writer. They think of me as Matthew. And Matthew is, more often than he’d like to admit, a jerk.
Part 2: On Death
2014 was, from where I sat, a year full of death.
Signe had just come back from Europe with her Masters degree, I was writing a book, and our general trajectory seemed to be toward adulthood. After two years of long-distance relationship, it took us remarkably little time to get her pregnant. We were following our chosen paths, doing so together, and soon the two of us would be three.
Our home at that time was a derelict, three-story walkup where two of my old work buddies also resided. Like myself, Daniel and Archie were service industry veterans under 35. They’d suffered similar frustrations, entertained similar hopes, and the three of us shared an easy, kickin’ it at the bar kind of friendship. I guess we still had a bit of feral, late-20s nervosa to work through, but things were on track. Daniel was instilling himself as a fixture of the Seattle music scene, and Archie’s painting career had gained momentum, with shows and commissions regularly coming his way. I was taking classes, doing readings. Everyone felt they were at the beginning of something; even the changeable drafts snaking through our crumbling apartment complex seemed to bear the scent of change.
And then, preceded only by a series of headaches that were easily written off as hangover symptoms, Daniel collapsed at a punk and metal club downtown. Just suddenly hit the floor, laying there among the boot heels and crushed PBR tallboys. When he didn’t immediately come-to, somebody called a car and shipped him off to Harborview with a 20 in his hand. Daniel’s MRIs later showed an inoperable mass in his brain. He kept his job for a while, but chemo slowed him down, forcing him to move in with a neighbor. She, a mutual friend, soon became his hospice nurse. Daniel eventually swore off his chemotherapy, the drugs only making him sicker and doing nothing to reverse his slow fade from the visual spectrum.
I remember coming home one evening and seeing the whole block strobing with ambulance lights. I was returning from the bar, having read a book alone while Signe worked and Daniel presumably slept and Archie just wasn’t around. Upon seeing the ambulance I thought, “They must be here for Daniel.”
I entered cautiously, ready for it, but no: there was Daniel. Feebly standing in the hallway, watching as Archie’s body was wheeled past his friends and neighbors. Past me, over the weed- eaten marble steps, and away. Archie’s girlfriend had found him in his studio, after two days without contact. The coroner let us know he’d died of heart failure, that he was slightly overweight and that his undiagnosed arrhythmia and so-forth were not uncommon in young, Black men. As if the commonness were meant to temper our feelings of shock, confusion, and singular loss.
About a month later, Daniel was gone, too.
Signe and I began looking for child-friendly living spaces we could afford. Our folks all flew out from the east coast and we threw a shoestring-budget wedding by the sea.
We left that apartment building, with its hangover memories and overall condition of sinkage. I didn’t say goodbye to anybody. Neither Archie nor Daniel had a funeral, in keeping with the tradition of those who bank at Payday Loans. Daniel got a rock concert in his honor, a night of noise and body heat where the line between mourning and reveling was crossed and re- crossed repeatedly. Archie got a party at our local dive, standing room only, the proceeds from whiskey and Rolling Rock donated to pay his long, lonely way back to Georgia. To somebody raised on the dour misdirection of Catholic funerals, these consecutive send-offs were like wakes for Lost Boys—memorializing the casualties of Neverland.
I was still coming to terms with the notion that my generation is mortal when my father was diagnosed with cancer. I kept that news away from any upper-level thinking for months. Ramona was born during this time, which conjures up all manner of metaphor regarding diamonds or any shining, immaculate thing that one pulls from the otherwise dark, subterranean miasma of existence. I flew home to Maine, to sit with Dad, to listen to his deep, broad voice, now confused alternately by pain or morphine. I told him, “Hey, Signe’s coming with the baby. You’ll get to meet your granddaughter.”
Dad would end up missing that introduction by a maddeningly significant two days. Just a circumstance of living far from home that was blameless, but caused me a lot of additional grief.
See, with Archie I didn’t have a chance. His death was a bolt out of the ether and nobody was prepared for it, not even Archie. But Daniel and I had months, and spent them more-or-less like the months before his collapse. Sure, the idea of departure hung around every conversation. It was on everyone’s mind. But whether in fear, or denial, or simple politeness, we avoided the topic. With Dad, too, all talk was rooted strictly in the present. How are you feeling? What do you think of this book? Let’s see what’s on TV.
In the end, I never actually said goodbye to any of these people. I merely, at some point, and without knowing it, said hello for the last time.
Part 3: On the Universe
Okay, look: If you subtract the movement of the Earth around the Sun, and the movement of the Sun around the super-massive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy, then we are still moving through space at 1.3 million miles per hour. Away from the “Big Bang”, and out into the Great Fuck-All.
What this means is that we are never, and won’t ever be, in the same place and time for long. Remember reading the words “Fuck-All” just then? Well, that happened ten thousand, eight hundred and thirty three miles from where you are now. I’m not making this up. Everything is constantly departing, and fast.
I can’t put a balm on that type of pain; just like the coroner’s report, my philosophy offers nothing in the way of condolence. The world is rushing past us, we’re rushing past it, and in the presence of all that movement you could easily spend your whole life saying goodbye.
So I don’t.
Matthew Stephen Sirois is a fiction writer and essayist. Apart from Split Lip Magazine, his work has appeared in The New Guard Review, Necessary Fiction, The Ghost Story, and The Stranger. His debut novel Near Haven is forthcoming from Belle Lutte Press, September 2017. Matthew lives in western Massachusetts with his wife and daughter.