Friday, July 6, 2012

Reflections on absence and presence

I experience my mother's absence every day though it's difficult to explain what an absence means.  I haven't had the kind of experiences my father's had: hearing the front door open and believing for an instant that it was her, the thought "what time is she coming home today?"  On one level the absence is tangible: the lack of any phone calls, visits, hugs and kisses.  On a deeper level, it's something missing inside me, a wound that can't be healed, a part of me no longer there.

Sometimes I feel a presence, though this too is difficult to explain.   Sometimes when I'm doing something I know she'd like, I talk to her internally and get a sense of her satisfaction.  Sometimes when I don't know what I'm doing, and it's something she would have advised me on (which is just about everything), I tell her I'm doing the best I can and get a sense of her support.  Other times, during prayer, in dreams or in nature, I get a sense of her spirit, though this too is impossible for me to put into words.

A few weeks ago, the rabbi gave a talk at a shiva home that put the ideas of absence and presence in a different light.  He spoke about Pirkei Avot, Chapter 3, Mishna 14.  Pirkei Avot is a unit in the Mishna that deals with Rabbinic statements about ethics and the proper way to live.  The Mishna in question reads: "Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas said, 'sleeping late, drinking wine in the afternoon, the idle chatter of children and the gatherings of the ignorant remove a person from the world.'"  The point of this Mishna, the Rabbi's explained,  was that absence and presence is not just a physical matter.  A person may be physically present, but if he or she disengages from the world, deals in the world of trivialities rather than the real and pressing issues that people and communities face, he or she is accounted as being absent.  The inverse, the Rabbi concluded, is also true.  A person may be physically absent, but if he or she engaged in the world and made a difference in people's lives, he or she is still present.

This talk touched me deeply.   As a psychotherapist, my mother helped hundreds of people live happier and more productive lives.  As an active member in the Berkeley Jewish community, she helped bring people together feel a sense of belonging.  As an activist on behalf of victims of terrorism, she helped give hope and resources to the most vulnerable members of Israeli society.  (An obituary in the local Jewish newspaper can be found at

In these ways, her presence is still and will always be felt by those who knew her.  These thoughts don't take away the pain of her death, but do provide some measure (some, but I'm not sure exactly how much) of comfort.

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