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  • Kelsey Hency

With or Without You

On the third and final afternoon my wife and son spend in west Tennessee, I experience a mortal shiver.


Not the vibrations of impending death felt by old women in folktales, their bones divining rods; rather this was sudden, halting revelation, knowing as if for the first time that death is real and the end, my end, nearer than I believed a moment before.


Thoughts form and follow, one behind the other as if on a line, the same way my singing teacher showed me how to order notes in unspooling melody.


 
The anxious brain always works overtime; how much more, the brain gripped by its aloneness.
 

Another forty years more or less, then the last sound of strings. Then what? Maybe an entrance, I try to believe. Maybe an end to memory, to all feeling; a hairpin turn into nothing.


The anxious brain always works overtime; how much more, the brain gripped by its aloneness.


This is not to say I live like a wretch without my family. I do just fine, writing paragraphs like these; chasing the art and science of a good Moscow mule; watching West Coast baseball and stand-up specials too long neglected; shuttering heavy eyelids in the presence of chords forming inevitable constellations around my head, some short stories at my bedside.


This is to say, the beauty of solitude eventually curves into something sadder. This is to say, absence and presence stretch themselves, filling the space we give, the space they’re owed. And when life is stripped to sweet rudiments, as on that afternoon—3 p.m. light through the window, the cool of an oscillating fan, a bookmark burrowing into a book of poems—that space practically vibrates.


We rehearse two common misconceptions about loneliness. When someone else speaks of feeling alone, we imagine their words have everything to do with us. And their sentiments do, in the way that every single one of us is bound by our loneliness, shaped by it, always creating and recreating our worlds from a sense of this loneliness.


 
When I speak of my loneliness, this is all I hope to do, to unburden myself, to empty the soul in hopes of being refilled.
 

But if I grieve aloud three days without my family, please trust me: I am not saying everyone without a partner or a child is, by nature, lonely. And I would never stop whatever fresh air blows through your life for a day, a week, a month or more alone. When I speak of my loneliness, this is all I hope to do, to unburden myself, to empty the soul in hopes of being refilled. I do not count myself more or less lonely than you, only uniquely so.


The other misconception says loneliness arrives on solitary Monday afternoons or after some great divorce, present only in absence. If we buy this, we will forever misunderstand ourselves. Or worse, we will damn ourselves every time a crowded room becomes a lacuna, damn others for not satisfying each inside-out vacancy.

God and the rhythms of this world grant us permission to ache, to name our ache, and to speak this name into whatever void hollows us.


In early summer, I sit in the middle seat during a flight from Phoenix to St. Louis, my 9-year-old—my best boy, my incandescent boy—minding the window.


He falls asleep over what I assume is Kansas in the last minutes of a long trip. During this trip, we felt lonely together due to circumstances beyond our control, circumstances near the edge of our love yet safely tucked within its wide, wavy borders.


Over his drooping shoulders, I gaze out, counting every layer of heaven. Gray clouds huddle, sitting up and sitting close to absorb the warmth of their eternal fireplace, the sun. Later, the scattered lights of civilization scarcely prick miles upon miles of dark land, for once like an ocean, below.


And the father in the row before us lives in tune with his young daughter, connected by some invisible string.


And the man in the aisle seat leans over, joking with his wife about his Dewar’s and Sprite in a language only they know.


And my boy and I are alone in our way, together.


 
This is the rhythm we accept, the rhythm we seek each other in: someone close, something absent. Always.
 

So I name this loneliness, just as I will the next: not to shame him or to sew my own hairshirt, and not to identify something needing to be fixed, but to locate us among the distant lights and encompassing darkness.


As I do, I fill this late-night seat and recline across my afternoon bed, flush with the knowledge of each presence and loneliness between. This is the rhythm we accept, the rhythm we seek each other in: someone close, something absent. Always.


Loneliness, we say, is absence and death its ultimate form. And we talk of heaven as presence stretching to fill eternal space. But maybe this is how both come into being: a little something, a little nothing at once. Both lean into the other until they become something altogether new.



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