My Goodbye Story

It was my 9th birthday, and I was having a little backyard party with my best friend, his little bro, and one of my three older sisters. We were enjoying dad’s grilled hamburgers and mom’s lemonade. Sitting around the round backyard picnic table, we were just kids being kids on a lazy summer afternoon.

26 years later… I was an industrious 35 year-old. While I was visiting mom and dad there at home where we enjoyed all our childhood birthdays, I was in an adventurous mood. Feeling a bit nostalgic as well, something made me want to climb up into the musty attic over the garage and rummage through odds and ends that had been stored up there for years.

I came upon one of many stacked boxes with an intriguing label written in marker on the top. The words read  Home Movies. As I opened that box with care, I felt a tinge of excitement. Dozens of small, 8 mm film reels were stacked and labeled. One of those little, long-forgotten reels caught my attention after some digging. Joe’s 9th Birthday were the words printed on this little reel’s packaging.

I eventually situated myself in the basement with that box of reels and a projector. The first one I watched was that 9th birthday. I opened the tiny cardboard package, removed the reel, carefully threaded the fragile film through the projector, and flipped the power on. The flickering projector light brought that birthday celebration back to life, dancing on our cement basement wall.

Sitting alone in the dark, in my self-crafted basement movie theater, I watched my young self wave to the camera. That little hand wave, at the time, was just a wave to the camera from a little kid to the world. Little did I know, that wave would take on special significance years later. 

In the following days I spent hours splicing hundreds of feet of film into nearly an hour-long film log of our family’s first years. That compilation would lay forgotten as our lives moved on.

16 years later… It was 2011. This was the beginning of the end for me, in a way. But as I’ll explain later, it was also a new beginning.

I had moved to Florida for a lucrative position with a company. My career to date had included many years of teaching, coaching, corporate training and business ownership. I had married, raised kids, and divorced. This new position would give me a great opportunity to start another chapter. Better yet, it would be enjoyed in endless sunny days in the Sunshine State. But it also brought a unique set of challenges.

Having never lived anywhere but Indiana, and having no family, friends or connections in Florida, I eventually began to wander. I drifted away first from attending church on a regular basis. More importantly, I was forgetting my lifelong Christian roots and faith. Over the next four years, I made some poor choices, compromised my more important values, and just ended up pretty lost. Although I was teaching again, and enjoying decent income, I was adrift. On a deeper level, my faith was fading. Looking confident outwardly, I was experiencing an inner insecurity.

Then, 4 years later, in July 2015, after coming to visit and stay with my parents back in Indiana for about six months, there was a knock on the front door of the childhood home we enjoyed as a family for decades, and where I enjoyed all those birthdays.

That knock at the door happened to be a police officer, along with at least two other officers. In moments, I was identified and hand-cuffed while my parents sat stunned in the living room. I was to be sent back to Florida to face the consequences for a poor choice I had made.

It was absolutely terrifying and dark over the next several days and weeks ahead. This was a world that I had never experienced. Never had I been arrested for anything in my life. Never could I have imagined how I would spend the next 40 months. This was, as I feared at the time, the end of everything for me.

But God had a plan.

Over the months ahead, I would eventually get settled into medium security housing in a large dormitory of a correctional institution in the Florida panhandle. Then came a day in 2017 that would bring me nearly full circle, and gradually into the hands of the God who had brought me this far.

I was at the chapel for a class at about 11:00 in the morning. The chaplain came and got me. He said he had some news from my family. My oldest sister was on the other end of a phone call. The news: my dad had just passed away, about a year and a half after losing his wife of 68 years – my mom. Sadly, I missed the funerals of both my parents while I lived some 1200 miles away from my Indiana childhood home.

A few days later, against all odds and contrary to prison camp mail policy – but only something God could do – I received a video from my sister. I had asked her about it in that chapel phone call, but never really expected I’d be able to receive it. That old film compilation that I had made over twenty years earlier – now in DVD format – had reached my hands. Also against strict prison policy, the chaplain opened up a small room so I could sit alone in front of a DVD player and TV screen, and go back in time. Getting settled in, I anxiously pressed play, and in moments was taken back to the sixties. Little did I know, the Lord would allow deep wounds in my soul to open up again.

I watched my young self wave to the camera from the backyard birthday party. That little hand wave, at the time, was just a wave to the camera from a little kid to the world….

But I wrestled with the truth as I watched, transfixed to that glowing screen. His young heart – my heart – in the moments of that special day, struggled with the internal badgering of self-pity, especially around my peers. I could distinctly feel again the familiar smothering discouragement and loneliness just as I had felt all those years when I should’ve felt proud, or liked, or highly valued like other boys. I had often dreamed of being admired for something – for anything.  I did not know who I was or that I really mattered to anyone.

Sitting alone there in that chapel room, my heart broke as the tears fell because I now knew what lay buried deep inside of me. Although my parents did their best, and I was blessed to be part of a Christian family and home life, the lack of my own identity became – from those early, formative days – a destructive stronghold that would grip me for decades. My current situation certainly reinforced my perceived lack of value, purpose and identity. Over the next year, images of a little boy in the prime of his young life, waving to the camera, lingered in my mind. Sorrow weighed heavily.

It was clear in my spirit that through the long tunnel of time he was waving goodbye to me. In that moment I knew it was God’s severe mercy at work in my life.

Although I resisted – I didn’t want to let him go – it was to be. My little boy self was releasing me with that simple wave. Goodbye to the deeply rooted bondage of feeling worthless. Goodbye to lies about myself. Goodbye to the chains that kept me bound to destructive and self-defeating thoughts about who I was. And finally, goodbye to continuing to live with the broken heart of a little boy in the shadows of loneliness and self-doubt.

I suddenly knew I no longer needed to try and become a “better man” in some external, religious or moral way, to gloss over the past. Instead I would begin to say hello to what would lie ahead for me. Hello to knowing I was made new in Christ. Hello to an identity in Him. Hello to value, purpose, meaning. Hello to mattering. Hello to new hope.

Today, the “saying goodbye” still lingers at times. I miss that little boy. I think this is a reality of aging. But now I don’t say goodbye without saying hello at the same time. And although there is a stubborn grief in dying to the past, in letting it go, there can only be a resurrection if there is first a grave. As my faith has expanded and deepened in these years since my brief confinement in Tallahassee, I’m beginning to realize the power of truth in the Apostle Paul’s words to the first century believers in Philippi:

“…To truly know him meant letting go of everything from my past… so that I may be enriched in the reality of knowing Jesus Christ…. And I continually long to know the wonders of Jesus and to experience the overflowing power of his resurrection working in me. I will be one with him in his sufferings and become like him in his death. Only then will I be able to experience complete oneness with him in his resurrection from the realm of death…. I run with passion into his abundance so that I may reach the purpose for which Christ Jesus laid hold of me to make me his own. I don’t depend on my own strength to accomplish this; however I do have one compelling focus: I forget all of the past as I fasten my heart to the future instead.  I run straight for the divine invitation of reaching the heavenly goal and gaining the victory-prize through the anointing of Jesus. So let all who are fully mature have this same passion, and if anyone is not yet gripped by these desires, God will reveal it to them.” – Scripture excerpts above taken from Philippians, chapter 3, The Passion Translation (TPT) –

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