The Presence of Absence

Our losses give vitality to our lives



For a day and a night, my mother was a living tomb. Seven months into her pregnancy with my second sister, the small heart in her womb stopped beating. My mother sat for hours, holding her dead child inside her. On the morning of the next day, her labor was induced and she delivered a small, gray form into the waiting arms of my father.

I do not remember being told that the baby was lost. Six years old, I didn’t understand much, except that there would be no new sister. I got over it quickly.

My parents named their daughter Lydia Joy and buried her wrapped in the downy white blanket in which they had brought their other four children home from the hospital. I painted a small rock with bright colors to place in her coffin, but when the time came, I liked the rock too much to give it up.

Lydia’s funeral was held in the aftermath of Hurricane Bob, which sacked the New England coast in 1991. The many family members here for the funeral had cowered with us in the basement, listening to the gale. My grandmother remained upstairs, straightening the house and putting away silverware, as she had recently done with my sister’s tiny, unneeded clothes. “At least if the house blows away, everything will be in order,” she said.

My siblings Robert and Anna and I had rescued a small robin fallen from a tree a few weeks earlier. When we found her fluttering on our driveway, near where we pulled the cars in, our father helped us scoop her up and nest her in a small cardboard box, praying over her the whole time. “I speak life to you, little one,” he said, his soft, steady voice soothing her and us. But in the tumult of the hurricane, the funeral, and the relatives, we forgot to feed her and she died. We had called her Margalo, after a bird in one of our favorite children’s stories. In Stuart Little, Margalo also had to go away, called by some invisible force.

It wasn’t until years later that I, as an adult, was struck by the true poignancy of that time. Not because of the hurricane, or Margalo, or the relatives hunched in the basement eating melting Popsicles, but because my mother had sat alone with her dead child inside her. A human sarcophagus encasing her daughter, waiting to crack open and bring her to light.

Sometimes Anna and I ask her about that time. My mother says she knew the moment Lydia was gone. She had lain down for an afternoon nap while my father took us to the county fair. We licked snow cones and patted cows while she awoke, sensing the absence. When we returned, she asked my father to take her to the doctor. A nurse probed her stomach with the ultrasound nozzle. “Maybe the doctor can find something,” she said. When the doctor came in and saw the screens, he looked at my parents and they knew their baby was gone. They drove home in silence.

I cannot fathom the courage that must have carried my mother through that night, her body still swollen to the form of something now absent but still defining space. Maybe the closest you can come to death without dying yourself is to have a child die inside you, to hold death in a space that is made to nurture life. And the sensing, the deep inner knowledge that my sister had left her, puzzles me the most.

What part of biology dictates the sense of missing? We intuitively know when something or someone is gone. We see things in the landscape that used to be there, the field now covered with pavement or the corner store long since demolished. We crave contact with a person who is not there. Missing something or someone is an acute emotion. Whether the person missed will be gone briefly or forever, the gap their departure creates can be excruciating. We may feel the absence of departed loved ones keenly, seeing their invisible presence around the house, at the dinner table. Maybe nothing turns our head more often than we think.

Jean-Paul Sartre tells a story in his 1943 book Being and Nothingness about going to a café for an appointment with his friend Pierre. Sartre is running late, and when he steps into the café, he is struck by its “fullness of being.” Veils of cigarette smoke waft through the thick air, patrons lean forward, hunching into their booths. A low roll of voices and the clinking of plates and saucers bring the place to life, and the scene is reflected in a mirror on one wall. Sartre scans the faces and objects in the room, looking for Pierre. Each thing he looks at is centered in his awareness for a moment before he passes over it and moves on; it is not Pierre. Each face and object retreats into the “ground” of the setting, no longer asserting itself on Sartre’s awareness. “I look at the room, the patrons,” he writes, “and I say, ‘He is not here.’ ”

Pierre’s absence—his nothingness, as Sartre calls it—becomes the focus of attention. The absence takes on a kind of being, since there is nothing in the place where Sartre expected to find something. Sartre demonstrates how absence has its own presence in the world, as real and substantial as its opposite.

How does absence, a word that means the state of being not present, come to embody the very concept of presence? “We say,” Sartre writes, “ ‘I suddenly saw that he was not there.’ ” We are struck by a nonentity. Its negative nature, its nothingness, is precisely what we notice. It is not the absence of presence that we are seeing. An absence is present. We see the presence of absence.

To see nothingness, Sartre shows, we must be conscious. We must grasp its opposite—that “fullness of being ” and presence that create the living world around us. The clinking saucers, the veils of smoke, the fellow creatures we may love or hate or be indifferent to. In turn, the gaps are constructed: where something used to be, where something should be, where something isn’t anymore. Our window into perceiving the world, consciousness, is what creates nothingness. If Sartre were not looking for Pierre, the pool of nothingness would not be created. Sartre’s knowledge of Pierre’s presence turns his absence into a thing of its own.

Nothingness strikes me as a harsher word than absence. If you say nothingness, it conjures up a vision of death, of irrevocable absence. For Sartre, this is the central theme written into all of our stories. He is in good company. The Scottish writer George Mackay Brown spent his days treading the single main street of Stromness, his Orkney Island hometown, its large gray flagstones worn smooth by myriad feet come and gone. “It is indeed a sure mark of the increasing years,” he wrote, “that the dead seem to outnumber the living in an old man’s mind.”

But the old are not alone in feeling that their lives are populated with those no longer present. From the earliest days, children can sense absence, particularly of a missing caregiver. What parent hasn’t noticed how even an infant detects when its mother is away? It seems we only build on that ability for the rest of our lives, our absence detectors having many opportunities to practice.

When I was in college, my mother’s best friend died from cancer. Her youngest daughter, Marie, was four, and my special friend.

Marie knew her mother had gone but did not know where. I pushed her on the swings one morning, curling my body against the hard bite of cold that was more inside me than in the air. “That bird,” she said, pointing to a lone figure flitting into the trees above us, “that bird is looking for its mommy.” Like the bird, we stared at that mommy-absence each day, feeling the missing presence in Marie’s house. I cooked macaroni and cheese for lunch in their kitchen, trying to joke with her and her siblings, physically feeling myself move to the contours of what was no longer there. Every movement I made echoed the movements she had made. At lunch, we all tried to laugh, to cover the silence.

When we were drawing with markers on white paper, Marie scribbled in four- year-old hieroglyphs. “It’s a letter,” she told me. “To my mom.”

“What does it say?” I had to ask.

“Dear Mommy, you are the specialest. I love you and love you and love you. That’s how much I love you.”

I printed each word on the page underneath her scrawl, in automated disbelief. I hated that her love was so innocent.

These invisible realities, the dead mothers and fathers, the missing children, the departed friends, all stand like sentries at the borders of our life, present in their absence. Marie gave her love to something no longer there, but this void became its own real presence as she learned to mark what was missing. We interact with this negative space, moving around it, remembering it, honoring it. Even in ignoring it, we acknowledge it.

I thought of that void in Marie’s house—a presence that seemed so palpable, it brought goose bumps—as I walked through rows of death masks behind glass at the National Gallery in Dublin. The ghostly markers of flesh long since decayed and gone stared back at me, preserving the shape of the presence they honored, which had been eaten by worms and time long ago.

Although they gave me a vaguely nauseated feeling, death masks had enjoyed a period of vogue in the 19th century. Mark Twain’s editor at Harper & Brothers, Laurence Hutton, amassed one of the largest collections of death and life masks, which he bequeathed to Princeton University. Oliver Cromwell, Goethe, Sir Isaac Newton, Abraham Lincoln, and Walt Whitman, among others, all share a posthumous kind of presence in the form of their plaster masks.

These masks and the macabre desire to preserve the faces of the dead repulsed me. But I wondered whether my disgust was directed less at the masks themselves and more at the threat of my own final absence, the time when my flesh would be just as decayed as Cromwell’s, with not so much as a plaster cast to remind the world what had been there.

Sartre knew that we hold this potential for nothingness inside of us, that we are all attached to the specter of death moving like fingers over beads, a string of days each gone in a fleeting second. The moment of the present, in which nothing is defined and all is possible, is endlessly passed over, pushed back into the dangling string of beads already grasped and released. When I was discussing this thought with my students in an introductory philosophy class, one solemnly said, “Each day added is another day subtracted.”

Albert Camus writes of the “cruel mathematics that command our condition,” the unknown calculus that hides behind and within each day lived in the fullness of being, computing when our presence will end and our absence will begin. The nothingness we fear in death stalks us our whole lives.

And so we scrabble for placeholders, for the pyramids that will speak for us after we are gone. Perhaps this is why great men of the past recorded their features in plaster and glue, leaving to the world what they could not preserve in themselves. This impulse seems brave at first, but also wasted.

Shelley addressed this subject when he wrote of the cracked sculpted face of Ozymandias, king of kings, littering the wasted sands in defiance of his hubristic taunt that his image would last forever. “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” he crowed from his moment in time. Yet all such plans are futile and come to nothing, as the Ecclesiastes poet lamented (“all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again”). Shelley, too:

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Still we persist. Remembering what has gone has always been a human preoccupation. What tribe does not mark its burial grounds and hallow the remains of its departed? These rituals serve a very real need for those still here.

One of my earliest memories of my mother is of her sitting at our kitchen table with a mug of tea. When she finished, she would clasp her hands around it and hold it against her cheek, the lingering warmth a testimony to what was so recently there.

Years after the death of her third daughter, my mother was watching one of her sons fight for his life as he lay silently on a hospital bed under a web of machines. She stayed in a hotel adjacent to the hospital, wearily trudging down the back stairs early each morning to hold a hand that offered no grip in return. When Anna and I visited, my sister brought us all coffee in the morning from the hotel lobby. She carried three cups up the stairs, spilling some as she went. My mother looked at those dark splotches, dried on the gray paint, for days after we’d gone. She’d look at them and think of us, she says. They became a talisman of connection.

The funeral of my sister Lydia Joy was held in the wake of the hurricane, our cars taking detours around fallen trees and downed power lines. My parents sat in large ornate chairs next to a tiny white coffin, listening to my Uncle Paul’s measured voice as he eulogized someone who had never lived. He held up a black leather glove, the side stitching worn with use, and put his hand into it. “As we live, our body houses our soul. When we die, the soul leaves, goes to be with the Lord, goes home.” My uncle slipped his hand out of the glove and lifted it up as if in prayer. “Our body, our outer shell remains, but we are not there anymore. We have gone, we are with our Father. Do not look for me in this shell.” He laid the glove on the lectern in front of him, still holding the liberated hand skyward. “For I am no longer there.”

After viewing the death masks in Dublin, I stood on a podium in the dark, in an art studio littered with busts and dust. I watched the students block out huge swaths of their paper in dark charcoal. “Now carve into the negative space with your eraser,” the teacher said. “Draw the substance into it.” Into the emptiness of powdery darkness, each dutifully added the curve of my calf, the lines of my shoulders, dictated by the soft presence of light. Solid form erased the nothingness of space, established the boundaries of matter. The substance, in turn, marked the darkness of absence more strongly.

What do we lose if we lose sight of absence? If we cover up the empty spaces and refuse to acknowledge the lack? Today, we usually have overbearing presence all around us—an assault of stimulation to fill up the gaps. But the wise have always known that we need those gaps. We need those mirrors that reveal absence.

“I love a broad margin to my life,” Thoreau writes in Walden. “Sometimes in a summer morning … I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon … amidst the pines and hickories and sumacs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness. … I grew in those seasons like corn in the night.” He sat in a state of absence, willingly giving himself to a void. That lack eventually bore fruit, brought life again.

This is the riddle in every polarity—that the existence of one necessitates the existence of the other. Absence and presence are not opposites but complements. The words of Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching reach across centuries to reveal this ancient secret:

We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.

We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.

We work with being,
but non-being is what we use.

This is the strange alchemy that underwrites our world—that absence is but another form of presence, one we perhaps become more painfully and unwillingly attuned to. My mother’s arms ached for a while after Lydia’s death. Arms that expected to hold a baby marked the absence in their own way, longing for what wouldn’t come. She iced her swollen breasts and read Compassionate Friends newsletters. When she saw the snow that winter, covering the grave of her child, my mother was glad she had insisted on swaddling her in that soft blanket.

Six years to the day of Lydia’s death, my mother lay on her back again, pushing. The child that came out this time was living, abundantly. My youngest brother, Nathaniel, given to my parents later in life like the gift of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah, came to the world bearing overwhelming presence and vitality, carved from the absence of my sister.

Sartre knew that we need nothingness in order to have a world. We ourselves produce the presence of absence, we who look to and find the pools of nothingness. In looking for presence, we create absence. But it goes the other way, too. In looking for absence, we find presence. If we don’t know the negative space, we don’t know the substance of life either.

Missing will always be tragic. That things leave, that they go away, end, finish, and die, will never be palatable. I have never found anything sweet in the sorrow of parting. But I can see that absence has a role to play in vitality all the same. To contemplate and ritualize it is not macabre, but an act of true consciousness.

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Bethany Vaccaro teaches philosophy at the University of Rhode Island.


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