How to Say Goodbye

Sam W. Pisciotta

Photo by Eric Muhr

“Doctor Perez. Step back into the compound, please.” Two SecGuards motion me towards the perimeter fence. “We’re close to departure, ma’am.”

I pause, almost willing to let rules and regulations save me from the pain of saying goodbye. How easy it would be to hide my emotional anxiety behind protocol and procedure, to blame the intellectual rigor of exploration for my emotional detachment.

From the trees that line the field’s edge, the whirligigs screech and hoot. They crowd the branches below their nests and skitter in the light of our transport vehicles. The fleet of shuttles blaze like a star cluster in the twilight. The throbbing hum from the propulsion systems has set the gigs on edge.

“I’ll only be a moment,” I say to the guards. “I need this last observation.” I touch the video lens at my sternum to remind them of our mission, to remind them of the importance of data collection. After we had acquired and secured the area, Command prioritized research and information gathering.

They groan and look at each other but don’t argue when I walk into the field.

Fifty meters out, between transport and tree line, Yeah-Yeah hunches alone in the tall grass; her vermillion head peeks above the blond stalks. Crablike eyes, like binoculars above her beak, point toward the shuttle lights. She’s small for a whirligig, the size of a house cat. Otherwise, she’s typical for her species—blood-dark fur to help her camouflage within the native trees and ear tufts that twitch with the wind.

In truth, she’s the reason I’ve come; I need to say goodbye. My fingers tremble on the record switch. My heartbeat circles around the moment—an echo of a goodbye made in a Christchurch apartment twelve lightyears across the galaxy.

I had gone to visit my mother before I left for Luyten 726-8Ab. We sat across from one another during an uneasy dinner. Hardly able to speak. Afterward, I stood to consider our memories. And there was something new there. On a wall with shifting images from the past—mother and daughter, lost relatives, and places forgotten—I gazed at a printed photograph within a bamboo frame. It held a position of reverence at the wall’s center, the surrounding holographic images serving only to support this two-dimensional relic.

Mom stepped beside me. “That was taken in Auckland, at the botanical garden.”

I fingered the far edges of my memory, trying to remember the child-me of this photograph. Dad holding one hand and Mom holding the other, my feet lifted from the ground like an astronaut in orbit.

“I found it tucked in with your school art projects,” she said. “I’d forgotten all about this vacation.” She reached up and touched the frame. “I like this better than the holos.”

We never had any holograms of dad, only a few digital image files. By the time holo technology had become popular, we had already lost him to a pulmonary infection not long after this photo was taken.

I leaned in to take a closer look at him. So young. Younger than me now looking at him through all these years between us. His sudden absence had taught me the importance of the word goodbye—and the luxury of sharing it with those who leave us.

In my memory, the loss of my father sounds like the pounding of water, a thrashing of arms and legs as I struggle toward the shore. The summer after he died, Mom and I left Christchurch, heading south to Pinders Pond to spread Dad’s ashes. At sunrise, we took off our shoes and waded mid-calf into the water. Fog in the chill air touched the mirrored surface painting dark pines and clouds over the water’s depth. As we released Dad’s ashes into the water, the heavier parts sank at our feet and his finer ash drifted across the pond. Mom and I stood there watching the sunrise in a long moment of silence; I should have been thinking about my dad, I guess. Instead, I stood at my mom’s side and watched her cry. She spoke, and her voice was a whisper, but she wasn’t speaking to me; instead, it felt like she was speaking to the universe.

“I’d like to dive into that world and swim across the water’s sky.”

I followed her gaze out across the water. The cloud’s reflections shifted over its surface, and I suddenly wanted to dive into them also. I waded deeper, up to my hips, and she called out my name. I could already swim, but I was only six years old, too young to navigate the deep water alone.

“It’s too dangerous,” she said, but I could tell that she wanted to follow. So, I lunged forward and swam.

A moment later, I felt my mom beside me, her hand supporting me from beneath. I struggled and fought to stay afloat, to reach the other side. That first summer, my mother helped me swim the length of the pond.

Each year, I got stronger, and the swim became easier. We returned to Pinder’s Pond throughout my childhood and teenage years. In a sense, they were both there, Mom and Dad, supporting me, lifting me. But it was there that my mom taught me about strength and determination.

When I approach Yeah-Yeah, the other gigs spiral up the trees in the whirling motion that gives them their name. Anyone spending time with them knows that Luyten-Species: NM034 is a tragically insufficient name. The nickname whirligig caught on quickly with the research team. The moniker captures their energy.

Yeah-Yeah notices me and springs into my arms. Whirligigs hold on tight; it’s in their nature—prehensile hands and feet and tail. They nest in trees, clinging to limbs and branches. They’re an extraordinary species—seminomadic and arboreal. They live in intimate pods of seven to ten individuals, but the pods rely on the larger community for safety and food resources.

I’ve encountered hundreds of gigs during my months on Luyten, but this one’s been following me around since our first week on site. She has the unusual tick of nodding as if agreeing with everything I say. Yeah-Yeah.

She hugs my core, head-to-chest, as if locking onto my heartbeat. I cup her head in my hand and stroke her back. “It’s time for me to go,” I say. I’m sure she doesn’t understand our language, but she responds to emotion. She tightens her grasp on me.

When I first met Yeah-Yeah, I was camouflaged in the brush, recording interactions between the individuals and whirligig pods. I had the strange sensation of being observed myself, and when I turned around there was this petite female gig sitting a couple of meters behind me. Watching. Probably taking her own mental notes. She cautiously extended her hand. I reached back and our fingers touched. After that, she became my constant field companion.

If I had to guess, I’d place her cognitive abilities on par with the brown capuchin monkeys of Earth. She and her companions work together and problem-solve; they’re curious and eager to learn. I once caught Yeah-Yeah grooming herself while looking at her reflection in a panel on my land transport. Certainly, an indication that she’s self-aware.

But if whirligigs have a gift, it’s their emotional intelligence.

Early in my research, I was in the field observing a group of gigs in the branches overhead. Three juveniles sat grooming on a bottom limb. Using their fingers, they picked out bits of leaves and bugs from each other’s fur. Yeah-Yeah sidled up beside me and grabbed a stick lying on the ground between us. She dug into the soft soil and pulled out the purple grubs that gigs like to eat.

One of the juveniles screeched, and the entire colony went on alert. The young male rubbed his neck and continued to whimper. He’d obviously had his fur plucked too hard, and the offending juvenile sat skulking on the branch a few paces away. The mother came over and embraced her child, stroking his fur and kissing his head. The child, still crying, nestled his face into his mother’s fur.

Yeah-Yeah left her grubs and walked toward the mother and her child. She made a show of strutting tall and cocky. When she got near the tree where the whimpering child sat in his mother’s arms, Yeah-Yeah pretended to trip, tumbling over and rolling onto the ground. It was a moment of slapstick comedy, meant to ease the tension, to elicit delight. The young gig hooted with joy, and his mother hugged him tighter and echoed his hoots.

I suddenly felt closer to home than I had since I’d left. Simple acts of love span the universe, and the bond between mother and child echoes between worlds. My own mother had kissed away my tears when I had fallen or failed to live up to my own expectations. She would have done anything for me, including letting me go.

I wasn’t prepared for these memories of her, and I wasn’t prepared for the tears that came with them. When Yeah-Yeah saw me crying, she crept closer to touch a tear on my cheek with her finger.

“I’m okay.” I tried to smile, not wanting to upset her.

Yeah-Yeah caressed my cheek and gave me a hug, and her tenderness stole my breath. She smiled and stepped back, made a show of walking a few steps, and then tumbled onto the ground. She looked up to see my reaction, and at that moment, I knew she included me in her world, considered me a part of her community. I smiled, and she hooted and fell over again, leaning into the joy of the moment. I think she was exhibiting true empathy. She understood the pain of those she cared about and wanted to make them feel better—and now that included me.

In the field where we say our goodbyes, the transport vehicles sound the pre-departure alarms. Yeah-Yeah squeezes me tighter, and I hug her back. I don’t want to leave her either. I’ve considered sneaking Yeah-Yeah onto our transport and taking her to the next research site with me, but I would never be that selfish. She needs to be here with her community—in the home she belongs.

Mom leaned in towards the old photograph like she wished she could dive back into that moment. “He loved you so much.” She reached out and touched my arm. “I want you to take this with you.”

“No, Mom. This is your photo, and besides, I have other digital images saved to file.”

“Not the same.” She took the framed photo from the wall and handed it to me. “This connects us. This is something we’ve all touched—you, me, your father.” Her eyes held the pain of letting go.

“I’m sorry, Mom.”

“No. Don’t do that,” she said. “I didn’t raise you to stay home and look after me.” She turned to hold me with her gaze. “I raised an explorer. You were born to fly, my daughter.”

We stood at the door, moments away from the last time I would ever see her, touch her. She pulled me closer and held me so long, so tightly, I didn’t think she’d ever let go. I stiffened (I don’t know why), and she released me and took a step back. A smile crossed her face that couldn’t mesh with the sorrow in her eyes. “I’m so proud of you,” she said.  But she rushed her words, cut them short like she didn’t trust their strength. She reached for my hand, and our fingers laced. This time, I couldn’t bring myself to let go, so she did it for me. She stepped away, the holo wall flashing our memories behind her. And then she said, “Goodbye.”

The SecGuards wave me over. I motion back, letting them know I’m coming, but Yeah-Yeah won’t let go. I pry off one hand and move to the next, but the first hand reattaches. The more I struggle to free myself, the tighter she holds me; my muscles tense. The guards start walking toward me. “Let go, Yeah-Yeah!”

There’s an unintended sharpness and frustration in my voice. She releases and springs back a few paces. Confused. She gives a whimper and pretends to fall off her feet. It’s the gesture intended to ease the moment, to make me feel better.

“It’s all right,” I say. “I’m all right.”

The shuttle engines drone in the background, and Yeah-Yeah looks up from the grass to judge my reaction, but I can’t find a smile; the moment feels too heavy. Even this act of caring, this act of love she offers me, only adds another weight that threatens to pull me under. She stands, puzzled; her attempt to lighten my mood hasn’t had the intended effect. The other gigs watch the approaching SecGuards and begin to hoot from the trees. Yeah-Yeah looks to them before turning back, now caught between forces that pull her in opposite directions.

This is not how I want to leave. I gather myself and reach for her hand, caressing her grasping fingers.

For me, waking from cryo-dream lightyears in the future, the goodbye I shared with my mother seems only a handful of months ago. A fresh wound. But my mother lived with our goodbye at the doorway for the rest of her days. Her smile remains frozen in my memory, not the happy smile of a mother lifting her child from the ground, but the sadder smile of a mother saying goodbye for the last time.

For decades, she and I had only each other. She taught me how to live a life with meaning, how to be a good person. And on our last day together, she taught me the right way to let someone go.

Yeah-Yeah’s eyes meet mine and soften. My smile reveals nothing of the crumbling foundation within me. A touch. A turn. Then a deliberate step back. My voice echoes my mother’s, and that single word, goodbye, fixes to my tongue, sticky and bitter. I note the taste of love, then turn away.