The Space You Leave Behind

I buzzed a new-ish friend tonight. Let’s call him tenshi (天使).

I need to sleep now, his message read.

What?! I exclaimed. It is only 2.39am.

He is a notorious night owl. Not as resilient as I am, after all I have had 10 years of practice. But he usually stays up til later.

I just got out of the hospital, was the reply.



I almost died, came the answer.

I then told him that I would talk to him tomorrow and bade him good night. But not before calling him an idiot.

I have no idea why he almost died. So, calling him an idiot was probably an inappropriate, callous, insensitive thing to do.

I don’t have much experience with death. When confronting my own mortality, there are only two distinct incidences that made me think of death – an unprovoked vision brought upon by a sudden, debilitating migraine in 2005 while having supper at (then) Strudel’s in Bangsar with an old friend ; and about 2 months ago when my insomnia became so vicious that I ended up being awake for 96 hours and hallucinated about death (mine). Thankfully I became lucid long enough to seek immediate medical attention.

The last conversation  that I had with my (late) grandfather was when he insisted on buying me lipstick; and the last one that I had with Adial, a former colleague from my production days, was about music and his freelance work. When my grandfather passed away,  his younger brother died shortly after – from a broken heart, I was told. He never recovered from his sadness. I still remember seeing him sitting and crying at the roadside when we gave him the news, unable to talk, unable to function.  As for me, the day I found out about Adial’s death was the very day that I was looking  him up to reconnect after  many years of separation (unintentional as it may – planes to catch, bills to pay, the usual). I cried involuntarily for the next few days whenever the thought of him crossed my mind.

Very recently a friend told me (and I paraphrase) – when the time comes, the space that you left behind is too huge and they feel it…I feel it too.

I never thought of it that way.

I started off this blogpost wanting to write about something else, but ended up writing about this instead. But I guess what I really wanted to say is the same thing.

There are many kinds of love. We recognize it immediately – the space that is left  behind – that it is simply one of the many manifestations of that love.  Adial would never know that there is a hole in my heart that keenly reminds me of  his absence. My grandfather left not knowing that his younger brother would be  so devastated he eventually succumbed to his grief. The one that I loved would probably never realize how I searched for that last  sliver bravery to fill the space that he left behind.

(It couldn’t.)

And once, from a time that seemed so long ago, someone said this when asked about what happened to him in the decade past. Sitting by my knee, and half obscured by the darkness, he said I died. Though it wasn’t a physical death, it was no easier to bear. For a long time, it followed me around like my own inseparable shadow.

Over time the heart heals, grief lessens, sadness goes away. We know that. We have gone through it many times before, in varying degrees, in many forms, in  many reincarnations. Love renews itself. Life renews itself. Humans are resilient that way. I say that again and again, thousands upon thousands of times before I sleep at night.

But what we are oblivious to is the space that we leave behind. We couldn’t fathom that  this particular space, even if it occupies the tiniest corner in anyone’s heart, is irreplaceable, too.

So tenshi, I hope you know that whatever peace that is waiting for you on the other side, whatever salve that you believe will finally make you whole and complete,  on this side, that space that you  leave behind remains. And it too, will follow many in its wake, like invisible footsteps of a ghost.

I hope you will be okay.

by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)

Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more, day by day,
You tell me of our future that you plann’d:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.

p/s: Happy birthday John Lennon (9 October 1940 – 8 December 1980)


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