I’ve been pondering recently the nature of absence and presence, sparked mostly by my anticipation over months and weeks of my parents’ first visit to us in Canada, our eventual reunion after 2 ½ years apart, the wonderful three week period of holiday and shared life, and then their abrupt departure and consequent absence. I found this whole process very strange. They had not been here for so long, had never been here, and then they were here, fully here, and then they were gone again. And in all this I was and am powerless to control the realities of time and space that led to these absences and presences. I could not hasten their arrival, nor lengthen or hold onto their presence, nor change the fact of their leaving.
All of this made me realise how very material and bodily and physical my life is, and how very much I dwell in time and space, though my imagination can dwell elsewhere, and my mind baulks at what I see as the limitations that time and space create. Through this experience I have recognised to a greater degree that I am a body. Yes, I longed for their coming with excitement and nervous energy and impatience, but I prepared for their coming so very materially, by stocking up the freezer and the kitchen cupboards as I planned meals, by getting my house in order, by thinking of them every time I bought a new bar of soap or pack of toilet roll. “This may be the bar of soap we’re using while they’re here.” And it was the fact of their physical presence with me, in my home, with my friends and church community, in my town, that meant so much. When we are so far away from each other we can talk on the phone and write emails and letters; we can send gifts and cards and photos. But we cannot hug or walk arm in arm down the street or sit in the garden and drink a cup of fresh mint and lemon verbena tea together. We cannot share a meal or a film or a joke. We can’t swim or hike or kayak or whale-watch or picnic. And now we have done all these things, here. There is no substitute for bodily presence.
I’ve been listening to the beautiful, lilting Irish voice of the late John O’Donohue as he talks about the physicality of the soul, and the way in which someone’s physical presence with you brings the fullness of their soul – all they are and have experienced – into your life, while their physical departure takes this fullness away. It can be hard to really grasp the truth of this, since people are still sometimes so real to us despite distance. But now that my parents have been absent from my life, then present, and then once again absent, this truth is very real to me. Being WITH them brought a myriad of new dimensions to how I could relate to them and experience them, and they me. Our bodies and souls were in the same space at the same time. They had not been able to see, hear, smell, touch and taste our life here, but now, though they are gone, they are able to truly picture us here, in our home; and I know they have been here – that they know and understand. Thus their absence has a different quality to the absence before their presence; they are absent and yet some of their presence lingers. And this is comforting. For as the great John O’Donohue put it, “absence is full of tender presence and […] nothing is ever lost or forgotten”.