I left for college on a Sunday afternoon in August, crawling into a Thunderbird with three other students, waving goodbye to parents and siblings, and looking east toward Grand Rapids, Michigan and a college campus I’d never seen. We drove through the lights of Las Vegas, our feet thrown out of open windows, radio blasting, spent a night in a sketchy hotel in Denver, and cruise controlled our way across the country.
I could only look ahead, my head swirling with possibilities and anxieties, the concern about academics, the uncertainty of dorm life, the newness of life without my twin sister, the excitement of experiencing seasons and snow.
I didn’t consider, really, what it was like to be left behind.
Until hundreds of my students walked away after graduation, launching their lives, finding their way — as they are supposed to. Until I watched my children do the same thing, leaving one at a time, each sibling recalibrating as the older one departed — as they are supposed to. Until I lost my mom — and more recently, my father-in-law — as will happen in this broken world.
Leaving and being left are part of the cycle of this life.
But I find I am living in this tension — the leaving, the launching, and the loss — with a new awareness.
We’ve been celebrating our Denver Christian seniors as they answer the perennial questions of Decision Day: What are you doing next year? Where are you going? What will you study?
These questions are important, forward-looking, identity-driven. Their answers are written with hope, sometimes in pencil, sometimes in Sharpie. These questions — and the respective answers — are all about who my students want to become.
But more than ever this year, I struggle a bit with these questions — not because they’re not important — but because another question is swirling within me. It is not as forward-looking, but perhaps just as identity-driven. It is not about what lies ahead, but instead about what is left behind. And more specifically, what it is that I leave in my wake.
A few weeks ago, I pulled on a sweatshirt that once belonged to my mother. Pink and cozy, it was her go-to choice for cool spring days. When I put my hand into the pocket, I pulled out three shells, remnants of a walk on a California beach, now a treasure I hold close in Colorado.
She left behind so many artifacts: those shells, journals filled with scripture and diary entries, hats and gloves she knit together, a rough draft for a memorial service. In her yard bloom the bulbs she planted, the succulents she cared for, the perennials she tended. Her house is filled with the literal objects she left behind — things she liked but items that never defined her, things that are useful but not necessarily revelatory. And of course, she left us behind, a living legacy of sorts. I have her (premature) white hair and her brown eyes. I hope I have her resilience and grit, her grace and generosity of spirit.
I can see now that she left behind a roadmap for a life of faith: the comments she made about her readiness for heaven, the hymns we sang on the couch after the trauma of a car accident, the verses she wrote in calligraphy — gifts for her friends and family.
And as I reflect on her life, I wonder about my own. And I wonder: What am I leaving behind?
We leave things all the time, moving away from places, friendships, beliefs, stages of life, trauma. Some of us are doing the moving; some of us are watching others move. Often we’re doing both simultaneously.
We leave for a multitude of reasons. We leave because we’re supposed to. We have somewhere else God wants us to be. We are restless, unmoored, unsure. We are running away. We are running towards a destination, fulfillment, a dream. Sometimes we simply cannot stay. There is sometimes excitement in the leaving, sometimes grief, often both.
When we leave, at least in those momentous moves, we deliberate, list pros and cons, weigh our options. We consider.
Perhaps we should be as thoughtful and intentional about what we leave behind.
If my seniors’ answers to the perennial springtime questions reveal their hopes for who they want to become, what they leave behind reveals who they are at this moment.
Sometime in the next month, I’ll sign a copy of Dr. Seuss’ famous book Oh, the Places You’ll Go for a senior, I’ll celebrate their journey, and I’ll cheer them on as they become more and more who God created them to be. And as they go, I pray I will have left them something that they can carry with them — some artifact that directs them to God somehow — as I ponder the tension of our life lived in the broken space between leaving and being left.