THE MISSING CHAIR
BY STEPHEN THOMAS
BY STEPHEN THOMAS
After walking back from a late, lingering dinner, my mother and I sat in wooden chairs in the open air living room of a Costa Rican guesthouse in the dark. Cicadas or birds or frogs or we didn’t know what-all gossiped in the trees, and the Caribbean Sea boomed beyond the seaside town, but we sat in an extended silence.
My parents had rented the place for my mother’s seventieth birthday, and my dad was asleep in the next room. They and I have been living largely separate lives for the past fifteen years—we -established only a few months ago that they could call me without scheduling first by email—but we were growing closer, and I had joined them. Even pre-Crisis, long silences were not unusual in my family, and this one could have dissolved unremarkably like all the rest, but, affected by the sudden plunge into the tropics and the proximity to my parents, long-frozen districts of my mind were thawing, and I felt strangely loose. Also, I had finished my first book the night before, and with the momentum of that milestone, a different reality felt within reach.
“Do you miss your parents?” I began. I didn’t know exactly where I was going with this. My mother's parents have both passed on.
Yes, my mom said. She did.
How often did she think about them?
Often, she said.
I said for some reason I thought she hadn’t been that close with them.
She was surprised by this, asked why I would think that. It was because it seemed to me like it seemed normal to her and my dad that we weren’t that close, but I didn’t say so.
We talked some more about my mom’s family, her relationship with her parents, and eventually I brought up my sister, who has not spoken to my parents or me for over a decade.
“Have you and Dad gone down there lately?” I said. They drive from Kingston to Ottawa every few months and visit the flower store where she works. If she’s there, she runs into the back of the store as soon as she sees them. She does this to me too, and to all family members and all her friends from her old life.
Yes, said my mom, they had visited her recently. She had not been there, and they had turned around and driven back to Kingston.
My mom asked if I missed her. I did. We cried. I asked my mom if she and my dad had ever seen a therapist about what happened.
“Kind of—we saw that guy from Philadelphia,” she said, referring to a specialist she and I both knew was not a therapist. But no, they had never been to a therapist about it.
I asked if she and dad would want to go to one with me. With tears and her eyes, she said, “I’ve thought of it, but I think, what’s the point—a therapist can’t change anything. They can’t bring her back.”
In the end, though, we decided to set up an appointment.
Back when our family was whole, I had often felt like the odd one. I was the kid who went to science camp, solved the unassigned “Brain Teasers” in the blue boxes in the math textbook, and literally just read the dictionary. My mother, father, and sister were warm, intelligent, and empathic, and I felt they and I had nothing in common. Family dinners, especially in my first couple years of high school, resembled those dinner-table shots in Buffalo 66 where one chair is missing: my parents and sister laid out like a banquet the things they did all day, with other people—the petty dramas and annoyances and reversals of social intercourse—and I was the ghost with nothing to bring to the table. I loved my dining companions, and they loved me, but we lived our lives, it seemed to me, in different worlds. My lunch hours were spent making Tom Green references as I watched two other guys play Mario Kart on a PC emulator—none of my friends did anything. No one had a girlfriend, no one got in rebellious fights with parents, there were no reversals, or drama, or changes of any kind in any of us that I could detect, and if anyone had any problem at all beyond basic social ostracism it was never mentioned.
When I was a teenager my parents seemed like emissaries from planet normie, but I think now we probably weren’t (and aren’t) so different—it’s just that they were adults, pressed harder against the world, and had had to adapt. My dad had been an outcast in his own way—he has been waging a private war against the vanity of his parents’ aspirations his whole life. My mom, for her part, rose from a more modest background into the most elite college at the University of Toronto, when those distinctions still mattered; she is sharp as hell but has been talked down to for seven decades and has a hard hate for pretentious bluster.
My sister always had the easiest social grace—extravagantly and almost ridiculously altruistic, she had an outward persona unmolested by a shadow of irony. She wore tie-dyed pajamas to school, shaved her head bald, and singlehandedly spearheaded the recycling program in our high school. (Every memory becomes a crime scene, which you comb for clues to What Went Wrong—were there signs here of unbalanced piety?) She was often the social glue for the rest of us. While she was around, family dynamics seemed effortless, and I could therefore ignore them.
This all changed, as they say, slowly, and then suddenly. When my sister was seventeen (and I was fourteen), she attended a meditation demonstration in the gymnasium of our high school organized by a group I have been advised not to name. This group advocated meditation, exercise, and singing as the path to enlightenment, and my sister began attending their meetings in the living room of a local lawyer. The summer after her high school graduation, she was offered a job at one of their flower shops. She accepted, moved to Ottawa, and lived in a room barely big enough for a bed in a house with other members of the group. She was eighteen.
Three years later, allegations by ex-members began to be spread online of sexual abuse within the group, and, when my sister was home for Thanksgiving, my dad confronted her about these allegations. Four days later she called home from Ottawa and told my dad she wouldn’t be talking to him or my mom for a while. “Okay, well, don’t leave it too long,” said my dad, sensing danger. “Life is short.” That was the last time my sister spoke to either of my parents.
Suddenly, my parents and I had something to talk about.
Except we didn’t talk about it. Or we did, we totally did—there were phone calls and long, tense, tactical, speculative discussions and a rushed meeting in a hotel beside Pearson International Airport with a specialist who’d flown in from Philadelphia—but only desperate, scattered talk, at the pitch of emergency, and only with one, very understandable goal: how to reestablish contact.
If we weren’t trying to contact her—what else was there to talk about? Well, how it felt, I guess. How it felt to lose her/not lose her?/but probably already have lost her?/but she’s just in Ottawa, we can see her behind the counter if we just show up at the flower shop and stand in the entrance—we can see her for one second before she sees us and bolts into the back.
It’s hard to describe the peculiar emotional fallout of definitively losing someone extremely close to you who nevertheless is not dead and could return to you any day—in theory, any of the individual seconds of your life. It’s similar to grief, but it’s not grief. It’s Schrödinger’s grief: each day of your life may be either, from the perspective of a future in which she has returned, part of a deeply-regrettable-but-ultimately-survivable ‘interim’, the pain of which was wiped out in a moment, OR, in an alternate hypothetical future, today might have been just another day I foolishly didn’t give up hope on a clearly lost cause. It’s like being on a desert island with a gangrenous ankle the black rot of which is slowly crawling up your life: do you hold out hope that a doctor will sail up with a packet of penicillin, or do you cut off your body at the knee and begin the long hard process of healing?
And there’s the guilt, the second-guessing. The last time I spoke with my sister in person was eleven years ago. We walked around Parliament Hill and the park across the canal. Across the Ottawa River, downtown Hull loomed and made us miniature, as we explored the pathways of this finely groomed park like it was a playground. As we walked, my sister told me what she’d been learning from the group—their theory of enlightenment through meditation, exercise, and singing. We had dinner at a restaurant owned by the group. Late in the evening, there was a lull in the conversation. My sister had at that time not spoken with our parents for three years (it has been fourteen now) and I was very aware of the tenuousness of her decision to stay in touch with me. As we looked silently at each other over the last smears of our potato curry, there was so much I wanted to say. Come back to me. Come back. But I couldn’t, or she’d never talk to me again. I said, “Well, wanna get out of here?” She was like, well, okay, and I realized she didn’t quite want the evening to end. She walked me to our mother’s car in an underground parking lot. I had told her at dinner I was planning on leaving the country, “maybe forever,” in the grandstanding language of twenty-three. At the car it was clear we wouldn’t be seeing each other for a long time. We hugged, tight and long. I was the first to let go. She was crying a little when I did, and we hugged again for longer than the first time. She was crying more openly when I let go again. As she was turning away, I hugged her a third time, and again it was me who let go. “Bye... bye Steve... bye,” she said meekly, as she walked away, waving. I waved and said bye, got in the car, and drove out of the parking lot, leaving her standing there, waving.
I dropped out of university and left the country. I taught English in China and canvassed door to door in England, and then I returned to school as an exchange student in Australia. I had two compulsions while traveling: meeting people, and writing. Both were ways of processing my present and laying brick between myself and my past.
I consumed the people I met. I recorded our interactions with a mania meant to place these strangers in permanent positions inside of me they themselves never intended to occupy. For a month in London I was as close as two people can be with a Scottish carpenter a decade my senior; for forty minutes outside a noodle place in Kunming, I was the life partner of an Australian ex-heroin addict; for a week in a hostel basement in Chengdu there was no one in my life but a Swiss backpacker who read Fear & Trembling all day in a bean bag chair. I put a lot of pressure on these brief encounters, and more than once my energies were unreciprocated, but for anyone looking to exchange vainglorious and high-contrast origin stories, I was like one of those broken slot machines that never stop paying out.
I stayed away for three years. I was searching, I think, for a foundation upon which I could build an entirely new psychological apparatus. I was in pain, and desperate, and willing to try anything to make it stop. After China I spent two Canadian winter months waiting for a British visa at my parents’ house in the country in what seemed like permanent midnight, and when I went to England I decided that in China I just hadn’t committed fully enough to incinerating my past, and I decided I had to never again talk to anyone I had previously known. I didn’t talk to my parents for six months. My father’s mother died in that time, and I learned about it through an email from my father I did not respond to. I also did not respond to the email offering to fly me back for the funeral, nor any of the emails asking where I was and whether I was alive.
One of my sister’s former best friends recently told me that she visited my sister in Ottawa once when they were both still eighteen. My sister had placed all the belongings that reminded her of her old life on her little bed, ready to be thrown away. When I heard this, I couldn’t help but think I had been trying, while traveling, to do the same. For me, though, it did not work. When I visited Canada between England and Australia and slept on my friend’s couch, I experienced what felt like a richer hunk of life in those twenty-odd days of Canadian winter than in my past two years of wandering dry-mouthed and deranged, and I knew I had to come home.
The act of coming home on its own, however, did not solve the problem of my relationship with my parents or my past anymore than fleeing did. It had been easy, though essentially meaningless, to open up to Marcel on the bean bag chair with his Kierkegaard. It was less easy to open up to my parents.
We did reopen our connection, but, being so intimately linked to the trauma, my parents were still mostly a source of pain to me, and I needed a way to process my experience outside of them. I now understand I was going through a lot more than I realized—one term is “unresolvable grief,” which is when a psychosocial ‘death’ has the potential to be reversible, your awareness of which prevents you from progressing through the normal stages of grief. I was also experiencing “disenfranchised grief,” which is a kind of grief not understood or acknowledged by your community—despite the fact that many people lose people close to them, my particular situation is rare. On top of all this, at the age of twenty-four, my social skills were not hugely developed from my Mario Kart days, or not developed enough to foster friendships in which I could express my grief—something most men in their twenties aren’t exactly eager or equipped to handle. I turned to mediated communication, and for a long time—and still, largely, to this day—my primary outlet for expressing myself was in public, through my writing and social media.
I sat with my mother again in the basement of a church on the Danforth. My father was there too this time. We all sat in worn wool-covered chairs across a Kleenex-stocked coffee table from a therapist, a specialist in the kind of group my sister had joined.
My mom began by telling the therapist what had happened, but started crying right away and couldn’t continue. My dad took over, narrating the story from start to finish. The initial demonstration in the high school gym, my sister going with her friend to the house in town where the meetings were held, being offered the job, moving to Ottawa, cutting off contact with my parents, cutting off contact with me. As my dad spoke he maintained a normal, expressionless exterior, until the point in the story when she called him for the last time and said she couldn’t talk to him for a while. That’s when he broke down.
We covered a lot of ground. My dad had resented me for seeming less affected by the loss. The therapist stepped in and explained it was normal for a sibling to be less grief-stricken than the parents, who had lost their baby. My mom said she felt guilty for putting so much pressure on me in those three years when I was the only link between them and their daughter. We addressed, for the first time, the six months when I was in England and cut them off completely.
As the session progressed, it was my parents who did most of the talking, and, although in the past while talking about my sister with loved ones I have wailed like I was being paid to wail, my affect remained mostly neutral, and I did not cry. The therapist, I think, noticed this—my silence, my lack of emoting—and towards the end of the session, she asked me if I was a “sensitive person.” She spoke neutrally but I sensed a push to open up.
I said I didn’t know how to answer that. She asked what I wanted from the session. She knew the session had been my idea, and she gave me room to try again.
“I guess it seems we’ve talked a lot over the years about how to get her back,” I said, “but we haven’t talked that much about how we feel about the situation, and her.”
“How do you feel about these things?” said the therapist.
“I miss her,” I said.
The therapist asked if we had been close, my sister and me. I said, I mean, the age difference, and the gender difference, and our personality differences... we never fought, we got along really well, but we were never the kind of close where we confided in each other. She was three years older than me, was popular, had lots of friends—there was a lot about her life that was distinctly outside my realm of understanding. But she was always nice to me.
“Did you love her?” said the therapist.
“Yes,” I said. I looked at my parents, and with my eyes tried to ask forgiveness in advance. “I loved her the most.”
In the dinner table trick shots in Buffalo 66, which came out the same year my sister moved to Ottawa, each shot is missing one of the four characters, their plate of food, and their chair. The camera is pulled back just a little further than where the missing person would be sitting, so we’re looking not through their eyes, but at the family without them. It’s an uncanny effect, in part because the relations between those left in the frame are brought into unusual focus. The relationships between my parents and me, in the aftermath of our loss, had similarly been put under unusual strain, and the therapist, playing the role of the camera, helped us see that a little better. On the steps of the church afterwards, my parents and I agreed the session had been helpful. We hadn’t covered everything, but it was a start.
For days afterwards I felt as relaxed as I’ve ever felt—I was walking on a cloud, angels lifting my ankles—and this sense of sustained wellbeing, even more than the in-the-moment relief of opening up in the session itself, was how I sensed the supreme importance of the therapeutic process. In the days afterwards, I noticed I was kinder to those around me, more focused, and less anxious about everything from interactions at the checkout counter to my longterm future. It came as a shock to me how much my grief had been following me throughout my day, casting a pessimistic pall over everything I saw. Simply put, I had been avoiding the core of my life. I wasn’t any closer to having that wise little blonde girl with the self-shorn head and the plaid pajamas back, but I had begun to return myself to my mom and dad, from whom, I think, I had been away.
Most people have lost someone in one way or another, and you can become obsessed with that loss. It is vivid and conveniently concrete and can be the answer to “Why Am I Sad?” for as long as you need it to be. But it has no natural end. What if, for example, in the underground parking lot, I had offered her a ride home, allowed her a neutral excuse to get into the car with me, let her see how she felt about that. The fixation must be finite. Other people are still in your life, and it’s your relationships with them that determine whether your life is good or bad. And I would submit that it’s especially easy to overlook these relationships with family members, because they’re always there—until, of course, they’re not.
Two weeks before the therapy session, I was on a train to Toronto, coming back from Montreal, where I had read from the book I finished in Costa Rica. In the seat next to me was a woman who worked at the government’s First Nations library in Ottawa. Her seventeen-year-old son didn’t talk to her as much as she wanted him to. She had raised him in a one-bedroom apartment in which he slept in the bedroom and she slept on a couch in the living room, and now he lived with his father. She was alone now, and her son didn’t want to talk to her. I said it might take a few years. She said, “Time goes by so fast though. The years start to fly by.” Later, she said she wanted to quit her job at the library, because defunding had created an unbearable environment. She was planning on taking a course in medical administration. She said she needed a change. But then she paused—she had been pausing a lot, she spoke in a halting francophone English—and said we shouldn’t always look for the things that are new to make us happy. We should just not take for granted what we have.