I finally went to see the movie Life of Pi this past weekend. I read the book years ago and had forgotten some of the finer details of the story, such as Pi’s introduction to various religions as a child, and the alternate ending with his mother, the cook and the sailor. I had also forgotten how I cried when Richard Parker walks into the Mexican jungle with nary a backward glance at Pi. It was so heartbreaking.
For those who haven’t read the riveting book or seen the visually-stunning movie the story goes like this: an Indian teenager finds himself on a life boat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker and he must find a way to share the boat with the animal to ensure they both survive. A sort of high seas training ensues with the boy, Pi Patel, becoming the tiger’s master and also his unlikely mother, for lack of a better word. Pi feeds Richard Parker, provides him with fresh water and comforts him when the tiger is near to starvation.
Their boat finally reaches a beach in Mexico and Pi collapses on the sand. Richard Parker leaps off the boat and walks toward the jungle before disappearing in the undergrowth, without saying goodbye or even so much as glancing back at the boy who saved his life. Pi watches this unceremonious farewell and then dissolves into tears, still blubbering about his tiger when some locals show up and take him to a hospital to recover from his castaway ordeal. (On one level you realize it’s a wild tiger so you can’t really expect the same devotion you’d get from a dog. But still. Bring tissues.)
Years later, in retelling the story and its goodbye (or lack thereof), an adult Pi Patel says:
“I suppose in the end, the whole of life becomes an act of letting go, but what always hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye.”
It struck me that this is true and especially so for parents. We spend a huge part of our life raising our children and every stage involves letting go: of a chubby hand, a wobbly bicycle, a set of car keys. Our job as parents is to teach them the skills they need in order to let them go, but the difference between us and Pi is that usually we get to say goodbye: on the first day of school, before the first date, when dropping them off at university.
We can’t fathom that there won’t be a final goodbye, that they might have an accident and die, or run off travelling and never come back, and that our last memory would be them walking away and not looking back; that we won’t get to say, “Good luck. I love you. Goodbye.”
There’s something about goodbye that brings closure. It’s why friends and family members rush to the side of an ailing loved one, or failing that attend the funeral. To not say goodbye leaves you living with hurt from a void that can never be filled.
On that boat Pi developed such an attachment to his tiger companion that Richard Parker’s abrupt departure is devastating. It’s hard to bear either way you interpret the story — with Pi as a boy losing his tiger; or the alternate ending, with Pi as a young man losing his innocence.