The Courage to Say Goodbye

About a month ago, when I was asked to decide what my yearbook photo quote would be, I hesitated.

Should I go with something witty, a funny quote, some allusion to a fun fact others knew about me? What is the one thing which I would most like to be remembered for? The one thing which I would most like to say?

I did eventually make up my mind and send something in. The actual wording of the quote is beside the point – suffice to say it alluded to a sense of longing, loss and uncertainty. These emotions had to do with the fact that I would be leaving the college for good in about two months, and I tried my best to convey what I most wanted to tell my peers. Since then, these emotions have only grown stronger as the inevitable farewell drew near. But even so, nothing could have prepared me – and my peers – for the events of 28th March.

On the night of 28th March, the Dean of Students published an update on the Covid-19 situation. In her update, A/P Leong Ching wrote that she had “written to all Masters to encourage students with homes in Singapore to move home”, so that the NUS community could better adhere to the latest safe distancing measures.

That was only the beginning. Soon after, a notice came in stating that non-Tembusians would no longer be allowed in the college premises; then came the reminder that Tembusians who had checked out early could no longer come back, except for academic reasons. And finally, as I write this hours after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s nationwide address, all Tembusians were presented with a stark choice: stay for good, or leave for good.

Since 28th March, the college has been abuzz with conversations on the mechanics and processes of moving home, speculating about how things might play out. Amidst it all, we have also been grappling with a question we were never truly ready to confront: how do we say goodbye? For those of us whose journey in Tembusu was coming to a close, this would not just be a temporary break, but a permanent end; this is it. Even those who would be staying on in the next academic year must face the prospect of bidding farewell to those who would be leaving for good. Furthermore, with staying home now the new normal, any lingering hope that we could meet up over the summer has also met an untimely demise.

To be fair, the ending of an academic year would have happened anyways, but at least it would have happened at the time it was supposed to – when we were more mentally prepared, when we would have bid our formal farewells or even scheduled holiday meetups. Sure, in an age of instant communication, we can all still keep in contact via social media, but in our heart of hearts, we know that things can never be the same again.

Our goodbyes will be quick, abrupt, an e-gathering at best, symbolic of the sudden end to our time here. In times like these, it might be tempting to just go with the motions of farewell without accepting the reality of what’s going on, or even decide not to say goodbye, keeping the social status quo in the hopes that every relationship stays just as it is.

But it won’t, because things will never be the same again. Even without coronavirus, we know full well that the structure which bound us as a community will begin to gradually erode, just as it did in our previous schools. We would always share an identity of having been part of the same home, but that would be a part of our common past, and not a shared future. We will most certainly keep in touch with the best of the friends we made, but even then, the late-night talks, the shared morning rush, the regular meals – even these would be no more. And for the foreseeable future, it remains uncertain when we will even get to see each other again.

Thus, more than ever in these uncertain times, we must therefore have the courage to say goodbye to life as we know it today.

We must have the courage to say goodbye to the best friends we have made here, promising that we will meet as soon as possible, even if we would no longer share the same home.

We must have the courage to say goodbye to the acquaintances we have come to know, whether we met them in or out of the classroom, promising to stay in touch, even if it’s just via social media.

And for the acquaintances whom we still hope to befriend, we must especially have the courage to say goodbye – for the very act of doing so signifies that we valued their presence, enough that we don’t wish for things to completely end. In an age of acquaintances where far too many friendships end before they even began, we must then have the courage to tell them that we still want to know them better, and hope that they would like to do so too.

And once we do so, once we have the courage to say goodbye, we will be liberated from the dread of the present, and free to imagine the possibilities of the future. We will gain the closure we thought we missed out on, whilst opening new opportunities for future interaction. We will realise the strength of the relationships at stake, and resolve at best as we can to keep them as they are, against whatever odds we may face.

Only when we have the courage to say goodbye, will we have the courage to ensure that it’s not really goodbye, the will to bend our paths towards a faint chance of crossing in the months to come.

Goodbye doesn’t mean it’s the end – and if we have the courage to say it, we can have hope that it will not be.

As I eventually wrote for my yearbook quote, “someday, we will meet again”.

About the author

Chia Wee is a second-year student from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and a member of Polity. He likes joining in the national conversation through writing commentaries, which he contributes to The Straits Times and CNA. He hopes to publish a book one day, documenting his journey as a young writer unpacking the uncertainties of a disrupted future, whilst discussing the writing skills needed for readers to craft their own adventures.