The Absence Of Presence

Sometimes, it’s your presence and not your company that matters more to someone! That does not mean they don’t appreciate or need your company, it’s just that your presence means a lot more. I realized this very late in life.

Normally, one thought that if you asked someone to stay: be around, it meant you wanted their company. You wanted to chat or perhaps wanted them to help out with something, unless you had given a specific reason. And if you didn’t engage in chitchat or gossip, didn’t give them a big chunk of your undivided attention, they’d feel redundant, dejected, disappointed and would want to leave. You’d be labeled boring, thoughtless, crazy or any such epithet that really didn’t apply. They couldn’t understand why someone would want them to hang around for nothing.

Through all my childhood years and youth, I never did want anyone’s “presence” to that extent. I was happy if I had a sibling or parent around, not to keep me “company,” but because I was scared to be alone. If I wasn’t afraid, it wouldn’t matter whether they were home or not as long as their absence was brief.

But just wanting to see them or know they were around because their absence created a vacuum; that was never a reason.

After I married, my husband would be out on tours twice or thrice a month, and each trip would be between 3-4 days. So I was by myself a lot. I welcomed the alone time. That might sound strange to some. The thing is I was a bookworm. I loved to bury myself in a book whenever I found the time. TV and the gadgets we engage with these days didn’t exist until the early 1980s in our part of the world. So, with the hubs away, I’d have uninterrupted reading sessions. No guests dropping in. No visits to anyone’s place (he was the more social one)! No need to cook three times a day either!

Then, along came the kids. Schedules changed and I took up a job when the younger started preschool. My day’s agenda was jampacked and I had little or no time to indulge in reading. As the boys grew and would be out for games at school or with their friends, and their father on his tours, I relished their absence!! I felt light and reveled in the sense of ‘freedom’ I had to put my legs up and just be – quiet and still. Listen to the sound of silence and allow it to seep into the pores of my skin. I’d relax as I couldn’t with the presence of the three men. I didn’t feel the weight of their expectations on my shoulders.

Not that they were demanding. Far from that. It was my own expectations from myself for them – does that make sense? I had set the bar way too high for myself as a wife and a mom. I’d be constantly on my toes, except for my scheduled short breaks, doing something or the other so they wouldn’t be bothered by little things.

Even though I had a maid to see to the cleaning, laundry, dishes; the dhobi to see to the washing of linen and thick or heavy garments as well as ironing, and a gardener who came in weekly or bi-weekly, as required, I still had a lot on my hands. I had to do a little of all the hired helps’ work too! That was me. And I kept the cooking – three meals a day – entirely as my domain.

As a teacher, in those days, we had anything from 38-45 kids in a class and there were times when I’ve had a bit more students than that. So, I had a lot of checking work coming home with me: notebooks with homework! Classwork notebooks I’d check during free periods in school. Our system back then was demanding. We had to give HW on a regular basis and check the work in time with corrections and remarks/notes where necessary. There was classwork too. All written work in class had to be checked in time. Both classwork and homework notebooks had to be kept up-to-date with corrections.

Add to that the class tests, quarterly exams, half-yearly exams, and then, the big one – Finals. If you were a language teacher, you’d have a bigger load to check. Two exams so two big bundles of papers to go through: Language and Literature. Each was a separate exam. Now add to that, that I was teaching language & literature to three classes. All at different levels – 8-10. Saying that I had my hands full is an understatement. Add to that the extra work if you were a Class Teacher as well! And I was both. There were the marksheets to be made. Shown to the Principal to decide if any child deserved some ‘grace’ marks to pass. Then the report cards to be filled in. Remarks for each child.

Did I mention that these were all handwritten? We weren’t digital then.

All this to say, I had a lot on my plate jobwise, and I raised the bar of my own performance level at home too because – well, because that’s who I was then. None of my wonderful men at home thrust that on me. So, I never missed anyone’s presence. I enjoyed their absence. But with time, I realized, while I relished the alone, quiet time I got with them gone, the boys found it difficult if I were to go for a meeting or something during a holiday. They missed my presence!

I’d have done all that I had to do so they wouldn’t have to do anything. Everything would be the same as usual, except, my presence. And that’s what they missed. They wanted to know that I was around in the house. They wanted to see me there even if I was busy with domestic chores or sitting and and drinking my tea in the garden, or just sitting around. And if they had to go out for whatever reason, even to meet a friend in the neighborhood, they wanted to be assured that I’d be at home when they returned. They wanted that reassurance whether they hung around at home or not. They missed my ‘presence’.

I couldn’t understand this, and sometimes, when the hubs would grumble about a teachers’ meeting on a Saturday or, if necessary, on a school holiday, I’d counter with the argument that his tours also kept him away most times during my holidays or offs.

“It’s different,” he’d respond.

“How is it different?”

“You don’t miss us the way we miss you,” he shot back.

“Nice argument! Haha! I’m flattered but not convinced. It stinks of bias and disguised male chauvinism.”

“Whatever. The home is not the same when you’re not in. You are the Queen of this Queendom.”

This word he’d coined, queendom, always made me smile. I’d smile, flattered mightily. But not fully comprehending what they missed.

And then, his time ran out. Was 39 yrs any age to go? The angels came and he travelled on a one-way ticket into the blue.

In the years that followed, I finally learned what it was to ‘miss someone’s presence.’ Not what they did for you. Not how they helped you personally. Not the tangibles and physical help – what I missed was his presence. There was a huge vacuum in my life.

His presence, even when he was on tour, had always remained with me in spirit. It was this physical and spiritual connection that created the presence for me. The connection of two souls. With his physical presence gone, there was an empty space. It was saudade – a permanent absence of physical presence.

I realized that earlier, the temporary absence of one person, for a few days in the month, did not manifest in any kind of longing or the feeling of absence because I knew, at the back of my mind, he was very present in my life: in flesh and blood. But, I needed more space to just be. Quiet. Silent. Be with me. Me needs my exclusive presence too. In fact, the wait, on the day he’d be back, was a delicious anticipation that would reach the heights of joy when I’d see him enter the gate.

It only hit me much later that, for me, his physical presence was huge, but it was also one I took for granted. The support I got from him through his love, actions, strength, and consideration, filled in the vacuum of his physical absence. It remained a spiritual presence… emotional presence… one so strong in thoughts that it didn’t leave an empty space. Besides, the few days would pass off so soon and he would be back well before that sort of longing and missing happened.

The finality of death is awful. Heavy. Painful. Debilitating. Crippling. And for the first time I understood what saudade meant in the true sense.

What missing the “presence” physical, and of the spirit and soul meant: an eternity of absence. Knowing there was no returning ever. I could stare at the gate, waiting for his tour taxi, and the clang of the gate all in vain. That’s when I felt the tremendous weight of loss – in body and spirit.

That’s when I realized that actually, the relief I looked forward to, when I was alone, was my own need to fulfil some of my own desires (of quietude and solitude) and time to pursue my personal hobbies. It overshadowed the absence that I might have felt and helped me keep my equilibrium in an overcrowded daily agenda. And also, in an unobtrusive way, helped me to do things independently without expecting help in domestic chores, and kept me organized, disciplined, and emotionally strong.

Now, I’m living with SAUDADE – the constant feeling of the ABSENCE of PRESENCE. A particular presence in my life. An empty space that nothing and no one can ever fill.

I can be surrounded by family: my dear sons and grandkids or even extended family. I could enjoy their company to the hilt, but it only heightens the longing for that one presence that can never be replaced. I’d wish he were there. Of how much he’d enjoy it.

It is immense love and great grief. Love that cannot be shown or expressed. And grief that has no shoulder to lay its head on. No place to go. No person. No presence.

Grief, I’ve learned is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give but cannot. All of that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.

– Jamie Anderson

It is SAUDADE!