My wife likes to point out how non-visual I am. If she repainted our dining room purple, I probably wouldn’t notice. I mark my calendar with the days she has her hair done. That way I won’t forget to notice what a good job they did.
She thinks this is odd, because in my work I look at skin all day. I ought to notice things.
This paradox is only apparent, as there are things I do notice. For instance, I see absences.
Going to shul every day gives me many chances to do that. Three places to my right each morning is the seat my friend sat in for many years. When he took ill, others avoided it for a while. Then people began to sit there. Some didn’t know it was his seat; others did, but thought they would give it back to him when he returned.
However, he did not return. Now other people sit there. If you drop by, you will see them. I still see my friend, though, even though he isn’t there anymore.
Twenty years ago, a man used to come daily to morning minyan. Having grown up in a community where loud schmoozing was the norm, he was given to share greetings and jokes in full voice. Another man who had been sitting nearby for some time found the first man’s noisiness troubling, then intolerable. He moved to another section. Then the boisterous man moved away to be closer to his children. The first man never moved back to his original seat, even though the source of his annoyance had gone away. Now both seats are empty, but I see them filled. You just have to know where to look.
Then there was the fellow who used to be there at 9 o’clock sharp every Shabbat for the main service. You count on people like him to be there on time, so the minyan can get started. The rest wander in later, at their leisure. He was an on-time fixture for years and years.
Then one day, the story went, another minyan-goer insulted him, and he was gone, to another minyan across town. Not long after, the man who did the insulting passed away himself, but the first man didn’t come back. People don’t always share all the reasons they do things, even with themselves. Two more empty seats. I don’t know how many others see the men who used to sit in them, but I do.
I hear their voices. I hear their laughter. I hear their irritation, their grumbling, their quarrels. The arguments some of them had were quite vivid. They seemed very important at the time. Arguments often do. Now their voices are quiet, and their seats are empty.
Absences are everywhere. Seeing them is a useful skill to cultivate. The older you get, the more absences there are to see.