From Absence to Presence
My father died in a car accident on Christmas Day, 1982, the day before my twenty-ninth birthday. The festivities I’d been eagerly awaiting were silenced by the flame of a yahrzeit memorial candle. How would life go on without him? On December 28th, almost thirty years later, I sat by my mother’s bedside singing Yiddish lullabies as her breath came in jagged waves.
When she took her last breath my grief doubled, the day of my birth suddenly sandwiched between two anniversaries of loss. Birthday ruined. Party over. I began to dread those three dates. The 25th , 26th , and 28th now added up to heartbreak. Since then, two memorial candles—one for my mother, one for my father—have burned bright at the end of December, snuffing out the light of celebration.
This year, as I approach a total of forty-two years of loss, I feel a shift, an uplift of spirit. Because I’m older? Because time has passed? Because I am breaking the spell of death by getting a new puppy? This year, as I approach my sixty-fifth birthday, rather than being sandwiched by grief, I am awakening to the feel of being swept into a parental embrace, my mother on one side, my father on the other. I am reminded that at my mother’s shiva my step daughter offered great comfort when she told me that according to the laws of physics my mother’s energy would never die, therefore she would always be with me.
In our yearning to feel the presence of those who have departed, we are hungry to believe that a whisper in the night, a brush against the hand, or a chill down the spine inhabit energy from the beyond. We hear about people who say that after they die they’ll appear in the form of a bird as morning light fills the sky, or a cloud as the sun drops down. We see signs. Dream dreams. Have visions. Real or imaginary? Can we ever really know?
My father, when he was alive, would place his warm palm against the back of my head in a comforting paternal gesture. Since his death, at life-turning moments, I experience his presence in the form of a sudden vibration pulsing against the back of my head. The first time he visited, I was in the delivery room attending a birth as part of my training to become a childbirth educator. I stood by the young mother’s head, encouraging her to push. The baby shot out like a rocket. Lusty wails filled the room. Flames of energy engulfed me. I knew it was my father.
After my mother died, inanimate objects began to interconnect in curious and seemingly deliberate ways, mysterious occurrences I recount in one of my earliest published essays, Where We Find Her. It happened the first week after her death. I tossed my keys onto the kitchen counter and—as if they were independent beings—they hooked themselves around an eggbeater in a way that I would never be able to replicate. My friend Quinn was a witness. This is how they talk to us, she said. Through exchange of energy. Odd entanglements happened every day—clothing, jewelry, and kitchen gadgets, among other objects. My response to these continued episodes? A smile, followed by a quiet, Hi Mom.
As time passed my siblings and I found her in heartwarming places. My brother Oran found her in the traces of pink and gray that line the sky during Florida sunsets; my sister Eve, in the nimble hummingbirds that visit her Baja garden. I saw her in Utah while soaking in hot springs. A shooting star traversed the sky like a billowing silk scarf. She showed up during silent meditation at a Friday night service, the first time I’d gone to temple since the days immediately following her death. Eyes closed, I was starting to well up, and suddenly Mom was speaking to me. She was explicit. I want you to stop crying for me. You have a wonderful life ahead of you, and new doors are about to open. I want you to embrace your life and stop mourning the loss of mine. I opened my eyes, looked around. Did anyone else hear?
The living human body, it is said, produces enough energy to power a light bulb. Depok Chopra says that after death this energy is recycled. The laws of thermodynamics, as proven by Albert Einstein, state that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, it merely changes states. When a person dies, the atoms that make up the body, which originated during the big bang, are merely redistributed, repurposed. They disperse, in the form of heat and light. This light, the essence of a person’s energy, continues to reverberate until the end of time. When people die they are no longer somewhere; they are everywhere.
After losing loved ones, we cannot gauge their presence on a map. No pin drop can distinguish their whereabouts. Neither coming nor going, they become part of the deep river of consciousness that brews within us. All-pervading, they make themselves known in new ways. Perhaps I am guilty of attributing meaning where there is none, yet I am convinced that my parents— liberated from pain and sorrow—exist. I will always be able to feel their energy. Two eternal lights that will continue to reverberate for time immemorial. From absence to presence.
NPR commentator Aaron Freeman, when offering advice on planning our funerals said: “You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died.” Freeman goes on to tell us that the warmth that flows through a human body endures beyond death, becoming part of the landscape of our lives. He claims that scientists have found this conservation of energy, “…accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time.” In closing, he preaches, “According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly. Amen.”
With the approach of December’s end, I dust off the black and white photos that, year after year, take on the likeness of a shrine.
My father in a tuxedo, an orchid boutonniere on his lapel.
My mother in her taffeta gown and veil.
My father leaning against the family car, holding me—child number four—in one arm like a treasured prize.
The entire family dressed to the nines for a wedding. My father and older brothers in white dress shirts and bow ties. The three sisters in lace, gloves, and hair bows. Mom, in a pillbox hat, her arm draped over my oldest brother’s shoulder and me, reaching toward the sky to grasp her hand.
Megan Vered, a published essayist, teacher, and editor received her MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. A former childbirth educator and yoga instructor, she has a background in healthcare, scientific writing, and research.
Megan holds private writing salons and workshops, offers manuscript reviews, and hosts a reading series in San Francisco. Her first-person writing focuses on family, friendship, faith, and the sounds of her youth.
Currently, she is putting the final touches on her memoir about growing up in Berkeley in the 60s and finding faith after the loss of her teenage best friend.