My life changed forever twenty years ago,
We had driven to a look-out on Route 1 in northern California where, once everyone had parked their cars, the group gathered in a circle and did a few chants. Then they headed off single file for about a mile, with me following at a distance, until they reached a large clearing. There they stopped and walked to the very edge of the cliff. I was standing well back but could hear the waves crashing below. A full moon had risen behind us and my beanstalk shadow ran across the rocky ground and off the edge of the cliff into empty space. The others—seemingly not at all afraid of heights—stood as if they were about to step forward into that emptiness.
After a few minutes, my mother stepped away from the edge, walked back to where I was standing on terra firma and, leaning toward me as if she was about to kiss me on the cheek, whispered, “Be a dear and fetch my sweater from the car. It’s chillier than I expected.” And, indeed, she was trembling.
She handed me the car keys and, feeling a bit relieved to be away from this group, which sometimes seemed to me and my friends to be some kind of cult, I walked back to the car. There I grabbed a blanket because it turned out that my mother had not left a sweater in the car after all. Then, taking my time, I returned to the clearing.
No one was there.
I’m sure that we’ve all felt surprise when something unexpected happens, but do we ever feel surprise because something doesn’t happen? When a geyser at Yellowstone suddenly goes off a few feet away, or a bottle rocket whistles just above our heads, we cringe and our hearts frantically pump blood to our muscles in preparation for flight. But do we feel surprised when a set of keys or our glasses are not where we are certain we left them moments before? When there is no visible transformation to trigger a response, I’m not sure that surprise even has a platform from which to launch. I certainly felt that something strange was going on: no sweater in the car, the way my mother had leaned toward me in a tender way that reminded me of the day she drove me to the train station and hugged me when the conductor called out, “All Aboard”.
But when something is missing on which we had pinned our future happiness—as in the ending of a relationship, the dashing of a dream, or the fading of hope itself—when absence replaces something on which we had counted– not only for our happiness but for our trust in the world– then we may only feel the gathering of a deep chill as it takes up residence in our innermost being.
In the fields of romantic love and familial bonds, the role of absence is well known to many of us. But what about when our understanding of the world, on which we have unquestioningly based our belief in a trustworthy reality, is the one missing in action? What are we to do when something happens, or in my case doesn’t happen, that shakes all that to its foundations? Do we tell ourselves that it was just a dream? Or that we have misinterpreted a traumatic event?
I must have been fearing a mass suicide, as I crawled on my hands and knees to the edge of the cliff and forced myself to look down at the waves breaking far below. In the moonlight, I could see that there were no twisted bodies on the rocks, nothing floating in the swell or tumbling in the waves.
Relieved, I looked back at the spit of land and called out my parents’ names. When I heard nothing, not even the echo of my own voice, I decided that I would just wait for them to return. How could they not return? I sat down a yard or so from the edge, picked up a loose stone, and flung it as hard as I could, intending to watch it fall in the moonlight for as long as I could, and perhaps see it splash into the swell out beyond the breaking waves.
But the rock didn’t arc downwards through the space above the rolling ocean. It just kept going straight forward, like a curling stone sliding across the ice, until it disappeared in the distance.
You will believe me when I say that I didn’t feel the slightest desire to step out onto that invisible carpet of air. I was not as brave as the disciple who stepped out onto the Sea of Galilea. But, unlike him, I was all alone in the world, with no-one to guide me or encourage me. Not then, not now.
I backed away from the cliff face, as if a cobra had risen before me and was weaving its head back and forth while looking deeply into my eyes.
It was years before I cried. And when I did, it was completely unexpected. I was walking late at night in the downtown area where I now live. A car was accelerating down Central Avenue, running through all the traffic lights, when a dog came out of an alleyway and loped across the street in my direction. The car hit the dog, flinging him through the air onto the sidewalk a few feet from where I was standing, and kept speeding away as if nothing had happened. The wiry animal, clearly a survivor in a lonely world, whimpered for a few minutes and then died in my arms.
Years of emotion rose up inside me, like a geyser going off deep in my gut, and flowed into my heart and eyes. As I looked around me, it was as if someone had begun to play the organ in an empty cathedral; as if a world had suddenly appeared out of nowhere after a long trip abroad.