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The Sound of Absence

I spent a week at my aunt's house earlier this month. Her home has been a frequently visited peaceful retreat for me for well over a decade. It's profoundly quiet there, tucked away in a gentle corner of the Washington peninsula. At the end of her street, you can pick your way down a path to a bluff, walk down to the shore, make your way over sand, and then rocks, and then scramble over boulders until you see not just the Puget Sound anymore, but the Pacific Ocean itself.

Distance extends itself much farther at that northern shore. You can't tell how much farther, but you can feel the world open as you make your way around that bend. The waves are wilder and louder there. You can feel the boulders shrinking slowly beneath the waves' insistent watery force, and you can feel the distance the water has traveled sprinkle all over you in the ensuing spray.

When you've had enough of the wild rhythm of the shore, you can make your way back up the hill to my aunt's house, and rest in the tender quiet of that place. This visit, however, her house was quieter than ever.

It wasn't because of the blackout on that windy night that took out the power lines. The ensuing darkness sent me wandering through the streets, listening for frog ponds and drips and trees whipping around, creaking and sometimes snapping in the powerful gusts.

And it wasn't because it was the off season of late winter.

It was because my aunt wasn't there, and because she will never be there again.

My aunt passed away last month. And what I heard loudest that week - louder than the windstorm taking down trees in the neighborhood, louder than the waves crashing on the boulders, louder than my heart pushing and pulling blood around in my veins and arteries as I lay alone in my aunt's bed at night, louder than the loudest frog pond I'd ever heard before, louder than a chorus of ropes and pulleys clanging against masts in the marina, louder than the strangely melodic drips in a surprising drain I found in a ditch on that walk in the darkness of a new moon night void of electric lights, louder than the plane and the ferry and the light rail and all the many buses I took to get to that house - was the sound of my aunt's absence.

All week long, I asked myself, "How do you account for absence? How can you hear it? What is the feeling, the look, the taste, the smell of what's not there?" I immersed myself in what my aunt left behind, but no where in it did I find her. Her artwork, though prolific and passionate and inspired and beautiful, did not shuffle about the house, making witty puns and cracking dirty jokes. It also didn't ask me to open peanut butter jars for it, or cry out in pain as it dressed itself, or as it tried to raise itself from bed.

I listened for the lack of her all week. It was a disorienting practice. I've always felt that listening is a means of entering into the flow of impermanence, but this was like trying to examine the riverbed of that flow with a magnifying glass while swiftly moving past the very surfaces I was attempting to comprehend.

I know what I heard that week, and I know what I didn't hear that week. What I don't know is if I actually heard the sound of what wasn't there. But I'm glad I listened for it, and I'm glad I heard it when it was still around.

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