Absence and The Trail of Little Deaths

Updated: 4 days ago

I had so little time with my mother. And in that time she could not nurture or love or protect, but she managed to teach me about the cruelty of the world. It was the only knowledge she could pass on. It was all she had come to know.

And isn't that what we do for one another? We pass on what we have learned.

Well, this is what I have come to know. That death and rebirth are an endless cycle ingrained in our every day lives. That to be truly alive, we must mourn joyfully all things that reach an inevitable end: seconds, minutes, hours, heartbeats, embraces, kisses, journeys, opportunities and even hope when it leads us nowhere.

And after every one of those little deaths we can welcome the birth of a new second, minute, hour, embrace, kiss, journey, opportunity and hope.

In what is now considered my 'mid-life' this is how I see death. But in my earliest years, as a girl, and then later as a younger woman, death meant only one thing, absence.

I learned from my mother's repeated absences in my life. I learned to remember her in the best possible way. By holding someone in your memory you can, whenever you wish, breathe new life into them, if only for a few fleeting moments.

And because I had no happy memory of her, I remembered only the fantasy that one day she would arrive as a whole and 'normal' person. That one day she could become someone who could love me, and someone who could stay.

Absence served as practice for losing her for good, and eventually for losing other people I would come to form fragile connections with.

Absence allowed me to decide at any given moment my mother was alive and unwell or dead and at peace. We all have the power to resurrect whomever we wish simply by remembering them in their absence. And we can also allow absence to mean death.

In my late twenties, when my mother resurfaced after nearly a decade of absence I let go of long-held fantasies once and for all. Faced with the truth that she was no better many years later than she had been when I was a girl led me to seek absence as a cure for her continued existence. An existence riddled with adversity of her own making. With what I wanted no part of.

The reunion with her served to teach me something too. And for this lesson I am most grateful. Because whether we acknowledge it or not, we all have two paths to choose from.

The Path to Self Destruction

On the path to self destruction, you embrace adversity and let it lead the way.

The Path to Self Preservation

On the path to self preservation you pummel adversity to the ground and bury it so that the path ahead remains clear.

And as I have chosen the second of those two paths, I have yet to face an adversity I cannot overcome.

Seeing my mother again, became the final trauma between us. After, all I wanted was her absence. All I wanted was to imagine she had finally died once and for all.

Absence has killed off many people in my life. Foster parents who could never fulfill the role they signed up for. Friends who chose a path I was not suited for, and lovers whom I could never fully love.

These days I find I don't have to let go as much. There are fewer absences needed. Perhaps it is a sign I am beginning to understand love and human bonds better than I ever could as a younger woman.

All those trails of little deaths I have accumulated with absence over the course of my life have given me peace, but they will not prepare me for the permanence that comes with the ultimate death.

The kind of death that leaves no room for the illusion that another person will continue to walk under the light of the same sun.

I have gone to funeral homes, mostly out of respect for someone I've known and cared for, and each time, after, for a long while I contemplated the final journey we must all eventually go on. I have shed tears for the dead lying in caskets, not because I loved them, but because I realized they were now gone from this world and onto the great unknown.

The living share a planet, but the dead become part of a galaxy that remains a mystery.

And although some of us have faith, and some of us have religion, I've only been raised with the questions left along with the absence. And it is the absence and not the passing on from this life that kills us.

I cared for my mother when I was a child. I wiped away her tears. I sensed the eternal void within her and attempted to fill it with my love. But I could never reach her. And yet, in caring for my mother, I learned to care for others. To feel deeply, to empathize and to step for a single moment into the sadness and struggle of another person's life.

Luz Marina Aristizabal with Joanna Aristizabal
Me with my mother days after my birth (1973)

Loving my mother taught me to love those who could never love me in return. And perhaps, within that painful lesson the seed of compassion waited for me to grab hold of it. So when I shed tears for bodies lying in caskets, for children who are lonely, for adults who are broken, it is the love for my mother that taught me how. How to give all I can of myself even when I may never receive anything in return.

With each little death, I have attempted to come to terms with my own life. To understand so that I may accept and so that I may forgive.

But the only thing I have come to understand is that death is not something to wait for, it is something to live with.

When I finally lose someone I know and love deeply it will likely shatter a piece of me. Perhaps the ultimate loss, the ultimate death is the adversity I won't know how to overcome.

I am no longer a girl without love in her life. I am now a woman who loves, is loved and knows how to love. And when I think of the true loves of my life, I begin to dream of my own final goodbye. How I hope to pass on from this life before I am forced to come to terms with the kind of absence that is not of my own making.