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Michael Perry: Choose words carefully when parting

February 11, 2019
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Michael Perry

This morning I sat beside my suitcase in the lobby of a big-city hotel, waiting for a ride to the airport. Nearby, a group of people bid each other good-bye as their individual rides arrived. They interacted with a familiar and friendly air, but there were no hugs or demonstrations of affection that would indicate they were family. Rather it seemed they were dispersing from a work-related event.

One by one as each member departed, a woman who seemed somehow central to the crew sent them on their way with the phrase, “Safe travels!” They were a populous bunch, so she uttered the words again and again. Shortly I began hearing the phrase as mantra and drifted down a pleasant wormhole of reflection.

I remember adopting the phrase “Safe travels” a few decades ago, using it when a departure seemed grander or more significant than usual and deserving of more than the standard “See y’later,” favored by my immediate family. “Safe travels,” on the other hand, has a more sweeping, mythic feel. It also has the tone of something I would have picked up at a youth hostel while backpacking around Europe in the days when I was working hard at becoming more cosmopolitan.

This line of thinking led me to consider other forms of farewell, starting with that very word. Who in our day and age can say “Farewell!” without feigning a desperate swoon? Perhaps I am an immature goon. Your common and basic “Good-bye” always leaves me a shade nervous what with its intimations of finality. “Bye,” on the other hand, may take parting too lightly, and uttered carelessly may sound dismissive. “Godspeed,” it seems to me, should be reserved for persons embarking on especially critical or noble missions, as a posthumous honorific, or specifically humorous occasions, for instance when your neighbor Donnie decides to root out that septic tank problem once and for all.

I have learned that my Spanish-speaking relatives favor “Chao” over “Adiós” when it’s time to hit the road. As I understand it, this is a matter of informality. Speaking of informality, I enjoy a nice “Catch ya on the flip-flop” every now and again, if for no other reason than to recall the memory of the man who taught it to me, my Uncle Stan the long-haul trucker. And perhaps my favorite valediction? The one the farmers of my youth uttered time and time again when milking time drew nigh: “Weellll … I s’pose …” Shortly thereafter, off we would go. Well, not so shortly, as where I’m from good-byes often take part in extended stages, usually only terminating when the driver’s-side window goes up. In fact, saying good-bye can be a journey in and of itself.

“Safe travels.” The more she said it, the more I spun it around in my mind, the more it took on poetry and beauty. Two words, reminding me to never take for granted the precious gift of surviving point A to point B. No matter the distance, we set out into uncertainty. “Safe travels,” the stranger said, and off we went, our sails filled with a blessing.

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