Absent presence: The discernible influence of a particular individual on some social or textual practice even when they are not present (especially when they are no longer alive), e.g. in film, when one discerns the absent presence of Hitchcock in the style of a contemporary thriller – Oxford Reference
“I fucking love Asia,” Anth said, drawing back deeply on a cigarette. We had just arrived in Bali and Anth had already lit up. He had the lighter and packet in hand as the airport doors slid open, ready to satisfy his addiction the minute we stepped into the tropical heat. He surveyed the chaos of taxi pick ups with drivers jostling for a spot as they waved passenger name cards, the frangipani girls handing out flower necklaces, the racket of motorbikes on the airport road. He sighed with relief, put the ciggie in his mouth, lit it, put his head back and said again to the heavens “I fucking love Asia.”
Anth had lived and worked in Malaysia and loved the ex pat life. He loved the din of market places, the exotic food, the anything goes attitude of drivers on the road, the lack of rules and regulations. He loved the monkeys stealing food from his balcony. He loved being able to afford everything; expensive drinks, as many cigarettes as he could smoke, having servants to clean up and make life easy. At work, his staff treated him with deference, and as an executive he was given special treatment. He loved feeling like a king. He told me all of this when he reminisced. It was the highlight of his career, perhaps of his life.
Now, five years on from that Bali trip, I was back in Asia but he was gone. Before I left home, I had gone to the spot at home where we had scattered his ashes. I took my mother’s antique locket, a bulky silver Victorian artefact too heavy to wear, and scraped some of his fragments into it and put it in an inner pocket of my backpack. I was going to deliver them to Angkor Wat, and give some of him back to the Asia he loved, and the Buddhism he admired.
The Cambodia trip was a bike trek charity fundraiser for brain cancer research. Anth had died from a brain tumour and I was on a mission to preserve his legacy. Somehow, doing this, I thought, would make sense of everything. Of loving him, and losing him. And I needed to put the terrible memories behind me. The flashbacks of his decline, of ambulance trips, of nights in the hospital, the surgery, at his bedside, and the most terrible, at the hospice as he lay dying. The terrible memories I couldn’t wait to drench out with new, overwhelming ones from this adventure in Cambodia that I was about to take.
I had harassed everyone I knew, and some I didn’t, for money towards the cause. It seemed the more I raised, the less pointless his death might become. But even $10,000 later, it seemed just as pointless. And if his death was pointless, so viciously random, what then of this existence of all of ours? It seemed equally pointless and I cursed the universe for giving me this insight. I looked at others going about their day-to-day business and an voice inside me would lament “Poor bastards, they don’t know. It is all temporal. An illusion. It will all be taken away. Maybe tomorrow. Life is short. And then you die.” So, in an effort to drown out this voice, I joined Team Flinders (Flinders Medical Centre in Adelaide was where Anth received treatment). I trained and fundraised, trying like mad to make my realisation of the futility of existence subside.
Arriving in Siem Reap, I stepped into another world. Here people didn’t seem to care if they lived or died. There were no road rules. Tuk Tuks and motorbikes swerved between cars and buses. If one side of the road was blocked, they simply drove on the other, into oncoming traffic. Masses of phone and electrical cables hung like spaghetti drying between leaning electrical poles in a crazy mess. Foul smells rose from open sewers. In the countryside, as we rode our bikes, we passed poverty bound villages with no running water; water was stored in large earthen jars under houses, and no toilets I could see. There were cows and dogs roaming at large, occasionally getting in the way of passing motorbikes which shifted them with the beep beep of their horns. I saw truck loads of workers packed like cattle in trucks going to and from work in the fields or in factories. Fishermen, knee deep in muddy ponds, systematically pounded the mud with fish cages, looking for catch. When the sun shone clouds of dust rose from the roads and when it rained, mud was everywhere. Everything was dirty.
I had met Anth on an internet dating site. On his profile, under “religion” he had put “Buddhist”. Early on in our relationship I challenged him about this. “You’re not Buddhist!” I said, “You’re Catholic. You’re Italian!” “Yeah, well, I’m a Buddhist Catholic!” he retorted. Anth had the biggest collection of self-help and metaphysical books I had ever seen. He loved reading about all things spiritual, including reincarnation. He had tarot cards printed with the Arch-Angel Michael (his favourite – he named his car after him), affirmation wall hangings and Buddha statuettes. He burned incense. Both times we went to Bali Anth insisted on receiving blessings at the Hindu temple at Uluwatu. I thought it was all a bit of a fad and whenever he talked about it I inwardly rolled my eyes. He called it his “hoobly-goobly”.
However, when he was sick I came to understand the depth of this hoobly goobly. Early on in his illness he devoured books with titles such as “The Book of Awakening”, “The Power of Intention”, “Anatomy of the Spirit”, “Quantum Healing” and “Faith”. He listened to the Dalai Lama, Gregorian chants and recitations of poetry of literary masters. This learning gave him strength to accept the finality of his illness and to prepare for his journey elsewhere with great dignity.
As his illness progressed I realised that his connection to Buddhism was far deeper than I had first assumed. In the hospital, when asked if he would like some religious guidance, he said “I don’t want to talk to any pedo priest. Just put on the Dalai Lama.” He would listen to the Dalai Lama chanting over and over again, and insisted he could not sleep without it. “I feel like it is healing me. I see a white light when I listen to it,” he said. The ancient sounds soothed him. It was as if they spoke to his soul.
I didn’t scatter the ashes at Angkor Wat. With the crowds of tourists, and the immensity of the place, it was too much of a public space. But riding through the forest to the Bayon, the Khmer king’s temple, I knew this was the spot. There seemed to be a Buddha face on every wall, in every direction. I knew Anth would approve. I asked Yann, our guide, to take me to a place inside where I could scatter his ashes.
He showed me the way up the steep staircase to the central tower. We took our shoes off at the entrance and the huge ancient flagstones were cool underfoot. An old woman in white robes sat at the doorway. In the centre of the dark space was an alter with incense and offerings of flowers and money and two opened cans of Angkor beer complete with straws. Behind was a large seated stone Buddha, wrapped in orange cloth. We sat cross-legged on the mat on the floor before the alter and I put some riel into the money box. I took the silver locket out of my backpack. To my horror I realised it had opened slightly in transit and at least half of the ashes had tipped out into the backpack’s front pocket. I took what remained in the locket and emptied it into the incense burner at the foot of the Buddha. Yann said to me, “You should repeat this prayer. Then the soul will go up.” He pointed up above our heads to the small opening at the very top of the conical roof through which you could just see the sky.
I repeated the words after Yann, and then sat with my eyes closed, my hands in the prayer position. I could hear tourists behind me, coming and going, the odd shutter clicking. I thought of how many other people had sat here, before me, for almost a thousand years, making this prayer for their dead. I thought of the Khmer kings, and the great ceremonies and pageants this temple had seen. And now there was a little bit of Anth, the Buddhist catholic, resting in this inner sanctum as well.
But then I thought of the fragments of Anth in my backpack’s front pocket, along with my lip balm and some spare cash. I could hear Anth saying “Oh for fuck’s sake Jill! Fesse di mamada!” He would always resort to dialect when he really wanted to swear. “I’m coming with you. Don’t think you can get rid of me that easily,” I heard him say. “Yes I know. You fucking love Asia,” I whispered back to him.
I left the inner sanctum smiling, hugging my backpack.
So Anth came with me on the six day bike ride over 336 kilometres of Cambodia’s back roads. Together, we rode in the heat, the humidity and then the rain. We visited tumble down temples with great figs growing through the ruins. I realised I was on a pilgrimage. Most days we rode 60 km. One day it was 80km. Sweat poured from me over the rocky roads, some so bumpy my hands lost feeling with gripping for many kilometres. The bitumen was worse, with the reflected heat baking us from both directions. My back ached from an old injury. But there was no way I wasn’t going to complete the challenge. I was doing this for Anth. And he was with me, in the backpack.
As I rode my bike the irony did not escape me. Here we were, riding in a third world country, raising money to battle a rich person’s disease. A disease the West can afford to treat, with expensive surgery, medicines and radiotherapy. In Cambodia, 70 per cent of people do not even have access to fresh drinking water. Their worries are far more immediate than dying from cancer. In fact, I wondered, looking at the loose electrical cabling, the crazy traffic, the 8 year olds riding motorcycles without helmets, the rancid ponds next to ramshackle wooden shacks, did Cambodians worry about anything?
Here there seemed to be less regard for the sanctity of life but more regard for the eternal. Spirituality is everywhere. Almost every house had a little shrine, like a mini pagoda, on a pole in the yard. Recorded chanting would blare out from speakers in village pagodas across the fields, so loud that when we passed on our bikes we would have to put a hand over the ear closest to the noise to preserve our eardrums. Sometimes it would mark a wedding, with marquees set up on the street with flowing pink curtains dragging in the dust of the village. Buddhist monks were a frequent sight. Yann told me boys and young men often join the monastery for a few years as a normal rite of passage. I rode past a beautiful monastery and paused for a moment to take a photo. There was a young monk who was cutting grass with a scythe. He asked me “why you put phone in your pants?” “No pockets” I said. He laughed, and so did I. “You speak good English”, I said. “Where you go?” he replied. “I don’t know” I said. And we both laughed again.
The action of riding a bike over a long distance is so automatic, so repetitive, it becomes a meditation. You do not even realise you are riding, or that you are thinking. As you pass through places, thoughts and memories float past your mind’s eye, like boats on a river.
The events of Anth’s illness, death and its aftermath went through my head as I rode. I saw myself walking away from the first hospital, where he underwent the brain biopsy and waiting for the terrible news in the Catholic cathedral, sitting in a pew alone, silently weeping, uncomforted by the vaulted ceiling or stone angels. I thought of our tears, together at home on the bed, embracing when he said “I thought we would have more time together.” I thought of the terror in his eyes as he lay convulsing on the couch, the first of the grand mal seizures we knew were a sign that time was running out. I remembered his courage making the decision to go ahead with the brain surgery, knowing it could kill him but hoping for more time, and my relief and joy when that time was granted and he came out of the operation still Anth. I thought of the laughs we had making fun of the doctors and nurses and the unsuspecting occupational therapist who was too sincere for his own good. I thought of the beautiful times we had at home with our family and friends and especially our two weddings, the first in ICU before the big op, when we didn’t know if he’d make it through the next 24 hours. And I thought of the last days at the hospice as he battled for breath, still listening to the chants of his Dalai Lama.
I thought of these things as I pushed those pedals through the Cambodian countryside, in a kind of trance.
As I passed through each village, children ran to the roadside shouting out “Hello!” or “Bye Bye!” Their happy cries would wake me from the past and make me laugh. Older kids would put up their hands for a passing high five, the younger ones jumping up and down excitedly with cheeky grins, waving madly as we went by. At school dismissals large groups of kids in school uniforms would crowd the roadside, shouting and laughing at us. Sometimes, the kids with bikes rode with us a short distance, in a mini race, grinning all the way.
And slowly, like morning mist over the Mekong, the burden of my memories lifted in the sunshine.
On the last day we rode to the Wat Banan temple outside Battambang. This temple is perched on a steep hill, with a 300 step climb to the top. At the foot of the stairs a group of children met us with fans. “Hello. My name is Rina,” one beautiful girl in a striped t-shirt said. I guessed she was about 10 years old. “I will be your guide.” She started to fan me enthusiastically. I guessed I would have to pay her something at the end of the visit. I was with two fellow riders from Team Flinders and each had a child latched on to them, fanning away. “This special place,” Rina said. “Come. I show you.”
As I made my way up the staircase, Rina climbed with me step by step, fanning me all the time. With her one word commentary she pointed out the features of the place like Champei (frangipani), her friend Compei and the fact that when I paused half way up, we had exactly 156 more steps to go.
At the top, through a narrow portal surrounded by the top branches of the hillside’s trees, was the temple compound. A beautiful stillness filled the air. There was something rich and peaceful in the quietness of the place. On this hilltop, with Rina and her friends, we seemed very close to heaven. I knew this was the place to scatter what remained of Anth’s ashes in the backpack. First I again went to the inner sanctum, which this time was much smaller and less imposing. A friendly lady kept guard over the small white Buddha here. She took my riel and blessed me by tying a strand of red wool around my wrist. She got me to repeat a prayer in Khmer, which was more complicated than the one Yann taught me, and which she gave up trying to get me to replicate. “What did that mean?” I asked Rina. “It was for good luck,” she said.
My riding companions had already started their descent down the stairs. “Come,” Rina said. “I will show you the mountain.” Other than the friendly holy woman, it was just me, Rina and her little friends in the temple now. The building was partly in ruins, with great blocks of stone strewn across the hilltop. I followed Rina, hopping from block to block across the back of the temple to a spot where the trees parted and a beautiful view of rice paddies and palm trees opened out before us. I opened the front pocket of my backpack and brushed out the remaining ashes. The breeze caught them and they were carried away out over the Cambodian countryside.
The children looked at me, uncomprehending. “Here, time for a photo,” I said. They understood that and crowded around my camera with its impressive looking lens as I pulled it out of my bag. “Me, me,” one of the boys said. So I gave him the camera and he took photos of me and the other kids standing, smiling at the spot where I laid my dear Anth, the Buddhist catholic, to rest, on the wind.
When I got back on my bike at the bottom of the stairs for the final leg of our journey, something had settled in my heart. I feel it still. It is hard to explain. It is as if the heat had gone from my pain. There is a smoothness there now. Anth’s loss is still part of me but instead of jagged and sharp now it is like one of the ancient carvings on temple rocks, deep, meaningful and somehow beautiful.
Koh Rong is a island covered in jungle with white sands and green seas off the coast of Cambodia. I was on a boat headed there, part of 4 days R and R after the ride. I was sitting right at the front of the rickety wooden “Sunny Boat”, talking to two Buddhist monks who were on holidays from Phnom Penh. The breeze was cool and the air was sweet. We had all been swimming off the boat while it moored in the lee of an islet and the monks’ robes were wet. They had changed into dry robes and tied the wet ones to the railings of the deck and the orange cloth fluttered in the wind. I went to find my smartphone in the front pocket of my backpack to take a photo. It came out covered in gritty grey dust. I realised that there were still more of Anth’s ashes hiding in a recess of the bag. I smiled. Of course. The pilgrimage had not finished at Wat Banan. The universe was telling me that this spot in the Gulf of Thailand, in the company of Buddhist monks, was the final resting place. I took everything out of my backpack and piled it on the chair next to me. I opened every zip on the damned thing and leaned overboard holding it upside down and jiggled it upside down. The last fragments of ash fluttered out of the bag into the smooth green sea.
I get asked this all the time. Every day. At work. Down the street, at the shops. On the phone when well-meaning friends ring to check in on me.
“I’m ok. One step after the other”. “I have my good days and my bad days.”
They are my standard responses.
I get tired of it. I never know how to answer. What answer do they expect? Most look at me with a frown, and a look of incomprehension. Their eyes are asking me not how I am, but “What is it like to lose a person you love?”
I don’t know how I’m doing, 7 months now since he died. I mean it’s not as if you can be marked on grieving. “Oh yes on sincerity and heart-felt emotion I’ll give her a 10 but she hasn’t shed that many tears so we’ll drop the overall score to an 8.” It doesn’t work like that.
The thing is, it catches you when you least expect it, this grief. Sometimes, a thought will flit across my mind and I’ll be taken back to another time. A song or a smell will do it. A positive mood will disappear like mist in the wind and then I’ll break down and suddenly cry and my kids will worryingly ask me “Mum, what is it? Are you alright?”
It happened when I caught up with an old boyfriend, a first love, who took me out to dinner and when hugging me goodbye, was surprised when I broke down and sobbed. The feeling of his arms reminded me of the safety and comfort I used to feel when Anth’s arms were around me. It happened at the dentist, when I was surrounded by white coats peering at an x-ray of my mouth. A door was opened to the past and I was back in his hospital room. It happened again, the day after I chatted on the phone to a new friend, a lovely bloke who has also lost his love recently. The next day I was shattered. He had reminded me what I had lost in Anth.
Missing Anth is with me every day, a dull ache in my heart from the moment I get up until I close my eyes at night. Sleep is usually a relief, but the pain of missing him intrudes into my dreams aswell. I dream he is still alive but has left me for another woman. I dream that he is in hospital, in the mental health ward and demented. I don’t know what is worse; the dreams or my memories of his actual suffering.
I will tell you the story of hurting my back so you will know what acute grief is like. Awful pain woke me from my sleep one night when I was home alone (my kids with their father). I had felt something go in my back when I was chopping wood a few days before and it had been growing worse. This was about 3 months after Anth died. I had had the same terrible back pain before. But last time Anth was there. He caught me when I fainted. He called the ambulance. He travelled with me to the hospital holding my hand, telling me it would all be ok. This time I was on my own.
I had never missed Anth more. Not only did I miss his help and his comfort, but I missed his spiritual presence, his calmness, his strong energy which always made me feel safe, even when he himself was weak and ill.
As I lay in bed, the pain escalating, I started thinking about the terrible times I called an ambulance for Anth, from this very room. I thought about my worry turning to despair as his cancer progressed. I thought about how brave he had been. But this only made my pain worse.
When the ambos shifted me into the ambulance, red hot lightening shot down my spine. When the pain settled enough for me to notice my surroundings a black anguish set in. For the first time, I knew I was truly on my own and Anth was gone. Great sobs wracked my body and it was all I could do to explain to the paramedics “I miss my husband.” The kind paramedic stroked my hair, her hand cool against my forehead. But each time I sobbed, my back spasmed some more until the pain was so bad I could not cry.
They gave me morphine but it didn’t touch the pain. I was screaming at the faintest movement. When they shifted me from stretcher to hospital bed the pain burned white hot. I could not bear it. “How bad is the pain?” they asked. “It’s a 10,” I cried. They gave me something stronger; Fentanyl. Even in my state I knew this was heavy duty stuff. It was what they gave Anth at the end. I started to feel very unwell. I pressed the buzzer but no-one came. “Help me,” I cried to the patient in the next bed, behind the emergency room curtain. “Please help me, there is something wrong. I think I’m going to pass out.” A nurse came and took my pulse, then disappeared quickly. Suddenly I was surrounded by people. Two doctors, a nurse taking my blood pressure, another sticking wires onto my chest. “We are giving you the antidote,” the doctor said, as he injected me with something. He waited a minute and consulted the machine I was now hooked up to. “Yes, that’s better,” he said. He looked relieved.
“I’m going to throw up,” I said. The nurse thrust a plastic bag under my chin and I vomited and vomited until it was full. “Can I call your husband dear?” she said, looking at my wedding ring. I shook my head on the pillow. “He’s dead.” I was crying again. She held my hand and I fell asleep, the drugs working at last, against the pain and the emptiness.
I spent four nights in hospital until the pain subsided and I could walk again. I’m not sure if the Fentanyl had almost killed me, but I’m certain the grief almost did. I now understand how you can die from a broken heart.
Someone told me to embrace the sadness, as it’s love, in another form. I see the truth of this. But I also know that grief is more than sadness when it’s at its most acute. Grief is pain. It is stabbing, heart wrenching pain. It wells up from your inner depths and is irreconcilable, untreatable, and basic. It is historic, prehistoric even, a thing that both reaches back into our collective human past and beyond into future generations. It is deeply personal, but at the same time shared with every person who has ever loved and ever will love. It is separation. This pain is a recognition of nothingness, of looking into the void and seeing nothing. It is the pain of being human, of glimpsing the possibility of eternal love but knowing that our mortality prevents us from ever obtaining it. That is what grief is.