Over the course of her long life, there had been far, far too many. More than any human being was ever meant to have. Yet the first of them all still remained, in many ways, the hardest. It dwelt at the very outer limit of her memory, almost lost in time, yet important enough to have burned itself into her mind forever.
Even though at the time she'd hardly understood.
Her first goodbye.
She is awakened from a sound sleep by her governess, who in her mind's eye appears no more than a bodiless apparition, a face cast in flickering shadows by the candle held aloft in her hand. Even in that light, Helen can still remember the look in the woman's eyes - the strange mixture of compassion and powerlessness which she will always associate with death.
"Miss Helen?" the other woman whispers, and the tone terrifies the child she was even though she can have no way of comprehending why. "Miss, you need to come with me. Your father has called for you."
In a hurry, driven by the desperate urgency in the other woman's voice, she throws back her heavy duvet and, aided by her governess, pulls on her housecoat and slippers. She cannot remember their passage through the house, merely the sense of need and fear which carry her to the doorway of her parents' bedchamber.
The door, which she remembers nearly always closed, now stands open before her, and in the warm glow of the gas lights beyond she sees her father sitting bent over the bed. At first, she is unable to make out the form lying so very still in the bed. Or perhaps, some instinctive self-protection will not allow her to understand. To comprehend the evidence her eyes present. Her mother on her death bed before her.
And so she pauses on the threshold, suddenly unable to move forward - to become part of the tableau and thus acknowledge it as more than the nightmare from which she is now desperate to wake. Some sound or motion must have caught her father's attention, though, for he looks up suddenly in her direction, and motions for her to come to him. She does not want to comply; her instinct is to turn and flee, to run back to the safety of her own chamber and pull the covers over her head and wait to wake.
But she does not. She steps forward, into her father's outstretched arms, and he pulls her gently to her mother's side.
"Patricia," he says, his voice barely above a murmur. "She is here."
After a long moment, her mother opens her eyes. Those bright blue eyes, which have contained the whole of Helen's world, now barely focus on her as they look up from a face grown far too wan and pale. And Helen knows what she is seeing even though she can not possibly understand.
One hand reaches up from the bed clothes, her fingers' brush upon Helen's cheek nearly impossible to feel. "Oh.. My darling," she breathes.
And she has tried to be strong, but she can be no longer. The tears overflow her eyes, running unstopped down her cheeks, and she collapses into her mother's waiting arms.
She can still feel her mother's last touch, gentle on her hair, her ear, her shoulder. Memorizing the feel of her. And her last words, barely above a whisper, never fully understood until much, much later: "Remember, Gregory. Your promise. For her. For you. Nos Must Amitto Vivo En." *
And he did. They did. She did. For far longer than anyone was ever meant to. Even when, at times, she wondered what it was she went on for.
There were far too many goodbyes.
*for anyone who doesn't know: "One must let go to move on."