Wallace Stegner’s novel Crossing to Safety begins with a feeling of somber emptiness as two of the protagonists, Larry and Sally Morgan, roll down an old, familiar pipestem in the middle of the night. They’ve finally arrived, after what appears to have been a long and arduous drive, at a home for which they have some affection. As Larry and Sally reflect on their journey, on this place at which they’ve arrived, and on how much things have changed, Larry says to Sally, “I’ll tell you one place I felt absences. Last night. I knew Charity wouldn’t be out with a flashlight cheering our arrival, but I expected Sid. I suppose he’s needed up there…my heart went down, when only Hallie and Moe appeared as a proxy welcoming committee.”
We find out more later on, of course. The skeleton of this scene is given muscles, tissue, and flesh as the arc of the story bends forward. But right here, at this narrative moment, two of our protagonists feel the weight of their absent friends. The reason this scene is so striking is, I think, because most of us can resonate with the experience of being somewhere and feeling the weight of someone’s absence.
My grandfather died just about a year ago this summer, and I can remember the first time I felt this kind of heavy absence. It wasn’t when I got the call, on the other side of which were the words, “He’s gone home, Tuck.” It wasn’t when I checked my bag at Sacramento International Airport late on a Wednesday night, and it wasn’t even when my dad was standing in the concourse in Memphis waiting for me without Mike Fleming at his side. I was standing at the podium of the Maley-Yarbrough Funeral Home, having made it through 1,064 words of a 1,105 word eulogy, when I looked out into the crowd a final time and for some reason realized then that the man about whom I was speaking was missing from the room. I felt the weight of his absence right then, a weight that seemed to push out all the tears and emotions which had to that point been left un-cried and un-felt.
These are situations most all of us can relate to. It’s a bizarre phenomenon; for an absence is just that, the lack of something or someone. On the surface, it seems like we shouldn’t feel anything. But why is it, then, that the absences of those we love feel so heavy? Beyond the surface, I think it’s obvious that something tells us that this weight of absence doesn’t belong. It’s not supposed to be here. Like serpents in Eden, sickness and death are unwanted intrusions.
The heart’s faced with this longing for love and for life not cut short, a longing which goes unfulfilled in the face of sickness and death. Is there no balm in Gilead? Must we simply reckon with death as a natural part of the vicious cycle of life without hope for the future? Is the vertical movement of our hearts only downward, like the movement of Larry Morgan’s, never to be raised again?
The answer to all of these questions is, of course, a triumphant and resounding “No!” The movement of the human heart is finally not downward, but upward, out of the grave and toward the New Heavens and the New Earth. Indeed, the feeling of this absence is, more than anything, a reminder that this life is not all there is. It foreshadows a future without sickness, tears, and pain. This absence points to a time at which the serpent is removed from Eden and bite marks removed from that infamous apple. One day soon, we’ll hear a loud, thunderous voice say, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be His people.” This all-holy reconciling God through Christ will bring His people back to Himself, for our relationships will be restored, sin will be cleansed, and the breach repaired.
This heavy absence is a temporary one. I don't know that its temporary nature makes it any lighter, nor do I know that it's supposed to. The effect of that first sin, and of all our sin since, is without a doubt something which still has to be grappled with today. What I do know, though, is that we should not approach the weight of absence with a hopeless despair. Rather, we should approach it with a kind of hopeful joy, for Christ whose Word is trustworthy and true has told us that "He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away" (Rev. 21:4). Christian, your dwelling in this broken and sinful world is temporary. Your permanent citizenship is in the New Heavens and the New Earth, for the power of the Gospel is external as well as internal.