Goodbye, farewell, amen

A preview of my last column for The Island Packet, running Sunday. For some reason I'm still not emotional about all this "leaving" stuff. Wonder when it will hit me. Probably when I'm sitting in Harrisburg, shivering, penniless, unemployed and alone.

By Robyn Passante
I hate farewell columns; they’re cliche and self-indulgent.

I find myself writing one anyway.

About a year ago I emptied my desk at The Island Packet newsroom and left the building for good as a full-time employee. I’d been there eight years, and it took three boxes and a few tears to haul away my stuff. I was happy about my decision to stay home with my newborn son, but sad at the prospect of leaving the job and co-workers I loved. Fortunately, I was given a part-time writing and editing position from home, which kept me in the loop and in the paper, and for that I’m most grateful.

Those three boxes sat largely untouched in a closet until recently, when it was deemed necessary to properly condense and pack them for my family’s impending move to Pennsylvania.

The first thing I tossed were most of my South Carolina Press Association award plaques. It’s not that they were unappreciated, just unneccessary (and bulky!). It seemed drastic at first, to have worked hard for something that just gets thrown in the garbage. But the awards are on my resume, and I don’t need a few blocks of wood to remind me that some fellow journalists judging my work liked what they read.

I did, however, keep a T-shirt made for me by an angry reader — the strangest “gift” I’ve ever received. The shirt was in response to a profile I wrote about a local doctor who helped recovery workers at Ground Zero in the days after Sept. 11. The reader came storming into The Packet a few days after my story ran on the front page, waving a T-shirt he’d had screen-printed with my cover story, obscured by an expletive in bold block letters running across it.

This gentleman had a bone to pick with the doctor and didn’t think he should have been given such a positive spotlight. But I had proof of my story’s integrity in the form of a VHS tape with shaky footage of a soot-covered Ground Zero and the Burger King-turned-first aid station where that doctor had spent several days serving others.

Still, the shirt was the most creative way a reader has ever expressed a dissenting opinion to one of my stories, and I kept it because not only does it amuse me, it reminds me there is always another layer to any story subject.

Of the many notes and cards I’d stored in a stack, I saved but two: Both of them inter-office birthday cards signed by my fellow newsroom employees, both bearing the names of journalists who have died. Former copy editor Sharon McIntire and former business editor Rex Buntain were not close friends of mine, but they contributed to the witty banter and fine journalism that fill the newsroom day in and day out. Those simple signatures remind me of the fragility of life, that none of us are here forever, and that our time better be well-spent.

I tossed all the annual performance evaluations I’d saved for no reason, along with other forms of flattery I’d so vainly kept. But I’ll never forget the words from one particular message I received, left on my office voicemail by a reader mad about one of my stories. (I wish I could remember which one.) “The work you do is only bad,” the anonymous caller had said. “You will never amount to anything. I wish you no luck in life.”

The fact that the written word can invoke such passion is a testament to what I do for a living, and a warning about the weight of those words on people’s lives. I wish I’d been at my desk to answer his call and learn more about his perspective.

The clippings of cartoons about deadlines and quotes about how much words matter didn’t really seem to matter anymore. Most of the trinkets I’d displayed on my desk also were thrown away. But the framed picture of the May River — taken by Bluffton photographer Greg Smith and given to me by Greg’s wife, Janet, my mentor and friend — was wrapped and packed for the move. While I’m trudging through snow under perpetually gray skies in southeastern Pennsylvania this winter, that photo will be a pleasant (if not painful) reminder of the beauty and climate I left behind.

One other keepsake that made the cut was a small bottle of holy water given to me by my friends at Holy Resurrection Greek Orthodox Church. I’m still not sure what I’m supposed to do with holy water, but it seems like the sort of thing that might come in handy. Plus it reminds me of the generosity of so many parishioners and clergy I interviewed along my journey here.

I sorted and tossed and reminisced until three boxes had become one, with room to spare.
From piles of memories and hard work, just two items were deemed important enough to be kept in hand for next week’s move.

The first was the grainy sonogram picture of our son that had hung on my cubicle wall. It was the first glimpse we’d gotten of his angelic face, and still brought a tear to my eye. I put it next to a similar one taken two weeks ago of his younger sibling, whom we won’t meet until early March. Those two images are the real reason for our move, one that gets us closer to family.

The second treasured item was a photocopy of a quote from James Baldwin that had moved me a year ago and did so now, perhaps more than ever. (What could be more cliche than ending with a quote?)

“Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one identity, the end of safety. And at such a moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will bring forth, one clings to what one knew, or thought one knew; to what one possessed or dreamed that one possessed.

“Yet it is only when one is able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream one has long cherished, or a privilege one has long possessed, that one is set free — that one has set oneself free — for higher dreams, for greater privileges.”

Thanks to The Packet’s readers for allowing my occasional self-indulgence in this space. And thanks to everyone over the years who gave me a piece of their lives, and their minds, so that I might share it with our community. I hope I did right by you.


Maestra said...

You may be shivering, penniless, and unemployed but you will not be alone as long as you pick up the phone. And I'll even bring an afghan and some hot chocolate.

Lisa said...

I second that.

Kostyn's Grammy said...

It may take me a little longer to get there, but get there I will. We are Family !!!
And just maybe it might not be a time you need us but that I need a Robyn fix. Love you and see you all soon.

Amy said...

love the column. and your perspective on things, as always. can't wait for you to be able to stop over on a saturday afternoon and spend time with alyssa, bogey, sammy and us!! :)

Amy said...

you didn't save the surgical mask? After how sick you got from our cats? I'm shocked. oh, the memories...

Sheila said...

Whether you've done right by your readers is for them to decide, but man oh man have you ever done right by me. Thanks so much for posting your columns here from time to time. You're so full of talent, but what's even better is that you're full of insight too. Can't wait to see what your next assignment(s) are, even if they're not comprised of a weekly column. Whatever the project is, it'll be privileged to have ya....

Robyn said...

Amy — That mask was so dusty it would have given me another asthma attack!

I definitely kept the memories, though. There are lots of 'em. :)

Robyn said...

Amy P - I can't wait either!!

Sheil - Thanks man. I can't wait to see what my next assignments are either. And my checking account DEFINITELY can't wait.
"Full of talent," eh. You're one to talk...

Tara @ Feels like home said...

This is wonderful. I hope your SC readers will love it as I did.

You might be penniless and unemployed in Harrisburg, but you won't be cold and alone. You do have friends here (even if we're the only local ones) and we have a new furnace and a back-up wood stove, so we rarely shiver.

I love the quote, too. Everything will be okay.

FYI - Harrisburg considers itself southcentral PA not southeastern PA if your story didn't run yet.