When someone leaves your life, when death takes him away suddenly and irrevocably, he leaves behind a lot of nice things: those memories of your time together and of his particular way of being, maybe a photo or a favorite tchotchke.
But what he leaves behind first — most painfully and, with time, most poignantly — is his absence.
It’s a realization built of the unremarkable bits and pieces of the everyday. And it comes quietly, surprising you each time it arrives. When you think to complain to your mother about something you know would annoy her even more than it does you. When you carefully put aside some of your sandwich makings so that the dog you’ve loved and spoiled all his life will have something to lick off the plate after you’ve finished your meal.
Those are the moments when you feel most deeply your connection to the one who’s gone. It’s when you understand most plainly that you’ll never experience again those moments of communion apart from the ones you’ve committed to memory. It’s when his absence feels the most disturbingly real.
Each of us experiences loss in his own way, and probably a little differently each time it comes. This morning (after a weekend of tears) I lay in bed and started to sob all over again. And I thought of one of the most beautiful, most heartbreaking depictions I’ve ever witnessed of that experience of another’s absence.
In Fritz Lang’s wonderful M (1931) — a movie remarkable for the complexity of its sentiments and the subtlety in its mix of sympathy and social commentary — there is a moment in which the director needs to convey the effect of a girl’s disappearance on her mother.
There’s no unnecessary wringing of the hands or wailing at heaven. There’s no literal exposition of the facts or of what the woman’s thoughts must be. Instead, we can read in the expression on Frau Beckmann’s face both that slow process of realization and the heavy counterweight of her inability to accept what’s happened.
To explain the fact of the little girl’s murder and how it feels when someone steps quickly and finally out of your life, Lang shows us a world without Elsie Beckmann.
It’s so simple, so lyrical. And it’s so heartbreaking to see this elegant montage of all the places where Elsie isn’t.
Time doesn’t really heal all wounds: that would mean forgetting when memories are all we have left. Instead, there are some wounds we just learn to live with, even to cherish for the way they put us back in touch with those who aren’t there anymore.