“While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.” — 2 Corinthians 4:18
“My hunch is that the affective outline of what we’ve lost might bring us closer to the bodies we want still to touch than the restored illustration can. Or at least the hollow of the outline might allow us to understand more deeply why we long to hold bodies that are gone.” -Peggy Phelan (1997)
I have been thinking about presence and absence. More specifically, my attention has been drawn to the more phenomenological-oriented concepts of presence and absence, the experiencing of the absence, experiencing the more potent presence within the absence.
The death of a loved one can create an emptiness around which their daily routines and possessions continue to orbit. The hairbrush, the favorite chair, preferred groceries unopened, their own private rituals (of which only the ephemeral remain but not long), knitted blankets, books, photograph albums, medical supplies, etc. Everything that populates a world, even if that world is mostly contained in only a few rooms, remains and points to the emptiness that has taken the place of the body.
My family has experienced two deaths within as many months. We were left reeling, shocked by the loss. Still unable to fully process the loss of Anna’s mother, Linda, we were given the news of Eleanor’s dad, Austin. Everything seems to point toward the emptiness in the universe left by their departure.
In 2013, there was a sinkhole that opened up in Seffner, a small town east of Tampa, that swallowed a man, pulling him into the unending fissure. He was never found. The earth took him. One moment, he was sleeping in his bed. The next, he was lost completely. The man’s brother claimed that he heard his voice calling out to him from the chasm. Then, it went silent.
At around 8 p.m. on Good Friday, Eleanor spoke with her father on the phone. They talked about Easter plans and family. Conversations with three-year olds can be difficult when video is not involved. Disembodied voices. At approximately 11:30 p.m., her father was gone. His disembodied voice was the last communication with her. Then, silence.
How do you create the foundational supports needed for a toddler to grieve? You share stories. You read to her, provide analogous situations with characters she trusts. You listen to her. She is going to move quickly from one idea to the next, and within that motion, she will say something that stops you. She’ll ask for you to draw Christmas trees that represent both her great grandmother and her father. She’ll want to see both of their names, their full names, written next to her full name. Then, she will just play.
The next day, she’ll tell you that she thinks you need to grow hair “just like daddy’s.” She’ll forget that her daddy is not picking her up from school, and you’ll have to open the wound again. You’ll reread age-appropriate books about loss and grief that have characters that are elephants, pigs, and fish. She’ll depend on these stories sometimes. Other times, she will not want to hear these at all. Most likely, this will be because she doesn’t want to stare directly at the absence. The absence is too painful. It is too painful even when it involves elephants, pigs, and fish.
How do you support your wife through her grieving? You listen to her. You share stories. You read to her. You give her space to think. You watch her heart break into pieces, knowing there is nothing you can do about it. You listen.
Even when she is silent, you try to listen.
I keep thinking of the visual, of language and story, because it is what I have that I can understand. We all need some balance for our equilibrium during times of stress, and these are my balances. However, these things are insignificant concerns when experiencing the loss of a loved one. They only serve to help put my mind on something other than the loss.
I keep thinking of works of art that famously confront the absence, like Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing (wherein the artist actually erased a drawing by Willem de Kooning in 1953). The erased work was mounted in a gold-leaf frame, its absence made iconic, an almost religious object.
I am remembering Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Wrapped Reichstag, Berlin(realized in 1995). The Reichstag, wrapped in a womb-like white sheet, was rendered absent but not invisible. The fact that the prominent and historically significant building was “hidden” made it more present.
I am remembering the power of the fourth photograph snuck out of Auschwitz by members of the Sonderkommando (described and analyzed by Georges Didi-Huberman), blurry with foliage and empty of the human figures of the other three photos. Yet, their absence (and the absence of the brave photographer) seems more like presence, with the knowledge of history.
Easter marked just over a month since Linda’s death. It was the first major holiday since she left us. I try to see her mother through Anna’s memories of childhood and her father’s memories shared while she was in the hospital. I want to see a true picture of her. There is a photograph of Linda and Anna walking together on Easter Sunday. Anna looks to be about Eleanor’s age and smiling, and her mother looks elated and confident. John described her as a tough lady, someone that would fight for what she loved. Linda loved her family. She loved her family more than herself.
We received the call from Anna’s brother that she had died . We had just visited her two days prior. Her brother and his wife were visiting that evening just before she died. We did not see it coming. She was making a much quicker recovery than had been anticipated.
Linda was excited to see everyone, wanted to not waste time. She kept saying that she had a second chance. When we were not able to be there with her at the rehabilitation center, she was using Facetime throughout the day with John to keep connected while recovering.
Then, Linda was gone.
Our daughter, Kendyl, and I went to the room to collect her things, photographs, Eleanor’s drawings, her clothes.
The staff had a difficult time producing her phone, which seemed inexplicable to me. She was tethered to the device. It was her connection to the world outside of her room. It carried her voice to those she loved.
The staff found the phone. Linda was still gone.
Maybe presence is more potent after the loved one has left their recognized form? In their absence, we truly see them, recognize them, miss them. The total awareness of the fact that they will not be returning stops thought.
Anna shared that she felt her mother’s absence this last weekend while at a family gathering. The feeling was intense and stayed with her the entire evening. There were no real words to convey the intensity or to define the feeling any better. There was a break in language that morning, no one knew what to say when her mother’s ashes were spread. Wittgenstein wrote, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” The limit of our known world is the end of life. When confronted with death, we can lose our ability to communicate.
“What does it mean to write what is not there. To write absence.” -Kate Zambreno, Book of Mutter (2017)
When confronted with the unknown, I grow more obsessive. It is a defense mechanism, a protection from the fear of the unknown, the chaos. It is a way to escape acknowledging the absence directly. So, my mind tries to reach for references, ones that seem to circle the trauma:
Derrida’s concept of “trace,”
Blanchot’s “always-already past,”
Or Barthes’s search for feeling/connection in a photograph of his deceased mother.
We are language. Our language, whether in image or text, creates a picture of our world. When we are very young, we begin to learn how to use language to control our environment. We ask for things, and if we use our manners, we sometimes get those things. We learn to name things. We learn our own names. We can identify things and potential things. We develop the ability to effectively predict things. Progressively, we begin to formulate our identity with language.
Sometimes, the very same language that connects us, that creates our world, fails.
I can’t truly write about Linda’s absence, just as I can’t truly write about Austin’s absence.
I can’t write about these things, because I don’t know if I can handle looking directly at them, giving words to them. So, I write their presence instead. I write their presence, and I write around the absence.
“Out of this same light, out of the central mind,
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.”
–Wallace Stevens, Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramou
From the moment Anna introduced me to her mother, she accepted me, loved me. Linda immediately recognized something about our relationship, something she understood.
“Signs are arbitrary because language starts with a negation of loss, along with the depression occasioned by the mourning. ‘I have lost an essential object that happens to be, in the final analysis, my mother,’ is what the speaking being seems to be saying. ‘But no, I have found her again in signs, or rather since I consent to lose her I have not lost her (that is the negation), I can recover her in language.’” — Julia Kristeva, Black Sun (1992)
I remember Linda’s voice, the rhythm and dynamics of her speech. I remember her mannerisms, her countenance when she was completely engaged and when she was obviously not. Anna and her siblings have so much of her captured in their memories, a complex tapestry of their perception of their mother. I remember her joy at our wedding, during the final moments of daylight, the blue hour. In my handful of perfect moments that define and capture Linda for me, I see her and John watching me marry their daughter, listening to our vows, witnessing our commitment to one another.
I see her sitting in her chair, sharing her recipes with Anna one Christmas, written on aging paper, crumbling from touch. I can picture Linda directing the baking, John performing the action under her guidance. I didn’t actually witness this. I have only ever heard of the stories from Linda and John. But, it sits as part of my memory just as if I were there.
I remember their personal stories, their shared life. When they arrived home after their wedding, their refrigerator was full, John’s parents providing this appreciated gift. They have told me this story more than once. They both acknowledge it as one of the sweetest gestures they received.
I remember how gentle John and Linda were in the hospital when she was finally able to speak again. I remember how their hands touched and how they held one another closely. I will always remember how he whispered to her after she had left her body.
I remember the day Eleanor was born, the smile on Austin’s face. I picture his singing to Kaylla as she was in labor. I didn’t witness this either. I was in the waiting room. Anna recounted this to me more than once. She held onto this memory, maybe because it showed his true nature. Young men are difficult to understand, their actions are usually at least part mystery, even to themselves. Austin had a young man’s temper, a young man’s frustration with the world. He also had a young man’s dreams and a drive to create his world in the appearance of these dreams. He was a rich tapestry of memory, and on the night of Eleanor’s birth, he was profoundly gentle. This memory and the memory of him with Eleanor, patient and hopeful, are how I think of him.
I have no idea what I set to write here, and I don’t think it’s finished or complete.
I know I need to start thinking about presence more than absence.
I need to hold time for a little longer, be completely present.