Last night I dreamt of my father. I sat beside his old armchair as he stroked my hair to comfort me. I don’t know why he felt the need to give me solace, but I was content to stay there for the longest time. I was both outside of the dream watching, and inside the dream feeling the touch of his hand. I lost my dad fifteen years ago and I rarely dream about him, so when I do, it’s a bittersweet treat.
On a day like today, when the sun doesn’t seem to rise, the sky, instead, simply becoming a lighter shade of grey; when rain drizzles and the landscape is just a smudge of shapes; on a day like this, which already makes me melancholy, it’s easy to feel the stab of loss. The details of illness, of death and death’s aftermath are lost in the passage of years. This is true for all of those I’ve lost. But the thing I have found most difficult about death is absence. A person who was there is now gone. There is a space where they should be: a hollow in an armchair; a silence where there was once a voice; a void where there was a routine. Death is haunted by those pinprick moments when I remember that they’ll no longer return. It’s hard to comprehend that existence has been extinguished. That I once had a father, a mother, and now I simply don’t.
After Dad died, I wrote a story. It was set in a derelict house on an isolated, snowbound moor. From the gape of windows, to the hollow of footprints, to the empty chair under a broken roof, I see now that it was all about absence. When my mother died, I wrote about the absence of words and the drought of colour in the pictures I painted.
With time, the pang of absence lessens. I no longer expect those I’ve lost to walk into a room. I no longer visit the places in which they existed. I no longer do the things we once did together. Memories replace flesh. But when I experience a new loss, inevitably the others resurface. I remember that there is a space that a person once inhabited.
When you observe the nuances of the seasons closely, the transience of life is always present. I walk through the winter landscape with my dog and wonder about his concept of absence. Every morning, at the same time, he will pause in his walk and face the direction from which the two Labradors he adores will appear. Waiting. But this week they moved away. I wonder how many mornings he will wait before no longer watching for them. It’s difficult enough for us to understand absence when we know, intellectually, what has happened, but for him people move in and out of his life without explanation. Perhaps he would ask the same questions we do, if he could – why? where? how? – but we’re no closer to explaining absence than he is.
In this season when the earth displays her bones, loss is felt more keenly. Loss of warmth, light, colour. The silence left by the absence of birdsong. The spaces that remain after the leaves are gone. The gaiety of flowers and insects. When everything is stripped back, the gaps seem bigger. A bitter seam of absence runs through this season.
And yet this is also the season of dreams, when I am filled with possibility and my creativity is at its height. Because of course the earth isn’t really dead. Darkness is the loam in which things begin. And absence is never only absence. It is space for growth and self-examination. That person-shaped void will always be there. But what will that space allow me to become? Absence has taken me back to the bones of myself and what I love. It led me back to nature and a re-connection with the earth. It led me into a deeper creativity. Loss leads to movement.
There are moments when I despair that the cost of loving is often the grief of losing. But I’ve also learned that people are like seasons too. Some are only meant to be in my life for the briefest of moments, some for the length of my years. My life is richer for all those who have peopled it, but I no longer try to hang onto them when their season is over. I’m just thankful they were there when I needed them.