In Absentia

A meditation on the nature of grief, at a time when the whole world seems to be grieving.

Matthew Bremner | Longreads | July 2020 | 12 minutes (3,429 words)

Clementina doesn’t know who she is. She doesn’t know her nine children, her grandchildren, or the names of her mother and father. She doesn’t know where she lives, where she has lived, or where she is now. People she has never met tell her that they love her. They say they are her daughter or her son. They assure her they used to play cards together — make wine in the bodega across from her house and chorizo on the patio after the local matanzas (pig slaughters). But Clementina doesn’t trust these people; she doesn’t know what they are talking about.

She didn’t trust me either when I first met her seven years ago. I was at my girlfriend’s family home in Villaveta, a dusty hamlet of dilapidated houses in the hinterland of Castilla y León, Spain. We were preparing lunch for the whole family. Clementina sat at the head of the table next to me. She was hunched by her 93 years, and her skin was wrinkled like a date. “Who are you my boy? she asked, squinting through creamy cataracts.

I mumbled that I was her granddaughter’s boyfriend and that I was from Scotland. “Oh, darling, you’ve traveled a long way today,” she croaked. “You must be hungry.”

Clementina looked away to ask one of her children something, but when she turned to me again, her brow crumpled. She felt for the contours of her face. She jolted her head back and forth: from her daughters and then back to me. But she found no answers. Then her hand, swollen like fresh ginger, seized my arm. “When are we leaving?” she whispered. “I don’t know these people.”

***

That was the first time I had met someone with dementia. I had never witnessed that type of fear or seen someone so threatened, by what, seconds before, had been familiar to them. Over the following years, I would return to the village with my girlfriend with relative regularity, and I watched as Clementina’s condition deteriorated. I saw how it weighed on the family.

When Clementina became frightened and refused to eat, when she had forgotten even her earliest memory, that’s when the family felt it most. I saw her daughters’ shoulders sink and her sons’ brows furrow; in fear and frustration.

Their mother’s decrepit frame warned of life’s fragility, or more precisely, its cruelty. Would this be their future in 20 years? Would they be the next to slurp on liquified meat and stare into the abyss? A somberness hung over the dinner table on those days. They all knew it, but talking meant facing too many complicated problems. There was grief, though no one had died.

I thought about this type of grief a lot over the following years; how it must take its toll — how it was possible to miss someone who was right there in front of you. And I thought about it more when my own grandmother died in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I thought about this type of grief a lot over the following years; how it must take its toll — how it was possible to miss someone who was right there in front of you.

Clementina’s story was in no way similar to my grandmother’s. In many ways, they were complete opposites. But over the days and weeks that followed, as across the world, tragedies pixelated into statistics across TV screens, when people talked about death and infection rates like they were football scores, each helped me better understand the other.

***

The first time Mum called, I ignored it. I was dancing with my 7-month-old son in my kitchen in Spain. It was a thing we did. When he’d start to get grouchy, I’d put on some thumping Reggaeton and we’d bound gracelessly about the apartment. It always seemed to make him laugh.

But then Mum called again, which was something she never did. I paused the music and picked up the phone.

There was that marked silence, like a cliché from a bad novel. There was also a groan of verbal constipation, as if Mum didn’t know where to begin, as if she couldn’t find the words. I knew then (though it’s also possible I retrospectively invented this premonition) that something wasn’t right. “Your grandmother has had a serious stroke,” she finally said, “and it’s not looking good.”

The news provoked a strange reaction. I didn’t cry, I didn’t even feel conventionally sad — whatever that meant. Instead, the first thing I did after she passed away the next morning was to try to find her again. I had lost her, I thought, and I wanted to find something that would convince me she wasn’t dead, that would prove reality had gotten it wrong.


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I found her first on my outgoing calls from the day before: we had spoken for 15 minutes and 51 seconds at 10:10 am. There was also a receipt for the flowers my sisters and I had sent her for her birthday. Because of the slow postal service, she had received the bouquet two days later, the morning she died. She had sent us all a thank you text. She was fine, she told us, bored with the lockdown, but otherwise okay. Twelve hours later, when she lay in the hospital morgue, I thought of the flowers still fresh and in their squeaky wrapping plastic.

As a journalist, I had seen death before. I had seen dying babies in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh; I had covered mass graves in Mexico and peered at the puckered, waxy bodies of gangsters in the funeral parlors of El Salvador. Still, in my personal life, my mind was warped by denial. I wasn’t even that I was professionally detached, I was just disbelieving that this could happen. I had been made invincible by middle-class privilege; hidden from inevitability.

Of course, this made it all the more difficult to countenance the suddenness of my grandmother’s passing — that journey from moment to moment, from when she collapsed in the shower at my auntie’s house in Peterborough, when the blood vessel in her brain burst and the pressure started to swell, to when my mum saw her contorted body and collapsed face in the searing light of an anonymous hospital on the crisp white sheets of an anonymous bed. I couldn’t bridge those two disparate moments, from when everything had been fine to when it hadn’t.

It would strike me days later how often ordinariness conceives tragedy — how, in one moment, you are doing something so normal, and in the next everything has changed. I was dancing, my son was laughing; then, the music paused, I listened to Mum’s words, and nothing was the same.

I suppose this was just denial — the type of denial that, in Western society at least, comes from seeing death as a shocking inconvenience rather than an inevitability. We complain about the meanness of life — its shortness — as if our mortality were a personal affront. Death is denied as if it were a conspiracy, or treated unanimously as a tragedy; a societal defect that needs fixing. We’re always on the lookout for guilty parties: governments, doctors, nurses. Why couldn’t they have done more? Why did they let so many people die?

Maybe it was better when we believed in God — when living was the worst part, and in death, we had the chance to be saved. Maybe it was better to understand morality as part of destiny’s design, instead of our inability to fix or solve it.

Still, I knew the root of my denial went beyond these lofty concerns. In reality, it grew from guilt. I had been very close with my grandmother when I was younger. I remember interminable summers at her house in Leeds, in northern England. I remember her chicken and ham pies, her soggy pasta, and the malicious tabby cats she used to keep — cats that only seemed to like her, and despise everyone else.

I remember her chicken and ham pies, her soggy pasta, and the malicious tabby cats she used to keep — cats that only seemed to like her, and despise everyone else.

When she moved to Scotland, where my family lived, I saw her more often. I spent many afternoons with her in her living room, besieged by cups of tea and bacon rolls. We talked about her evacuation during the Second World War, about her first and second husbands, about her neighbors, about her friends. She became more risqué as she got older and could never resist picking up any object, be it a sweet potato, banana or kitchen utensil, and comparing it to a penis: “I haven’t seen one of those in a while,” she’d say.

After I moved away from home, first to London, and later Madrid, I saw and called her less. I knew I should have made more of an effort, and sometimes I thought I could hear it in her voice when we spoke on the phone. Still, whether I was right or not, she meant so much more to me than my negligence suggested.

***

I watched her funeral through a webcam link. COVID-19 had swept through Spain and the UK, and strict travel restrictions were in place. Outside my window in Burgos, the streets were deserted, save the flashing lights of police cars, and the protracted grunt of military trucks. Everyone was ensconced in their apartments, afraid of the air and their neighbor. The outside world was alone.

At home with my girlfriend, and with my baby squirming on my lap, the crackling silence of the crematorium stirred through my tinny computer speakers. A sludgy drizzle was falling 1,000 miles away in Peterborough, England.

As the undertakers dusted the creaking pews and straightened the lectern, I took in my grandmother’s last room: the oversized crosses; the cool shine of the concrete walls; the threadbare green carpets; and the large floor-to-ceiling windows. A modernist death factory, tired and overworked.

When the funeral began, I listened to Mum’s shaky voice as she read “All is Well” by Henry Scott Holland. I listened as my auntie and uncle coughed and sobbed, and as the pixelated coffin jittered and froze amid the purple velvet curtains in front of them. Then I saw Mum trying not to cry, my sister motioning toward her, Dad hanging his head. When the funeral ended, I stared as my computer screen flashed “buffering.”

Seneca wrote, “it isn’t that life is short, it’s that we waste a lot of it.” Granny knew love and happiness; she knew divorce and pain. She had once run away in the middle of the night from the drudgery of a 25-year-long, often loveless marriage to a man some 20 years younger than her. And though that relationship had not worked out as she had hoped, she at least had had the guts to bet on change. Her life was full and imperfect, and, as the crematorium curtains drew shut, I was comforted by that — I knew her death wasn’t a tragedy.

She became more risqué as she got older and could never resist picking up any object, be it a sweet potato, banana or kitchen utensil, and comparing it to a penis: “I haven’t seen one of those in a while,” she’d say.

As I looked at my girlfriend, who had tears in her eyes, I thought of Clementina. For her, fate did not seem so kind. Because while Clementina is still here — while her breath still smells of garlic and her body of soap; while her false teeth still need washing, her glasses wiping, and her clothes ironing; while she still farts, burps, snores, sleeps, and wakes — she is absent, death bagged up in a sack of skin and cartilage, and without a final goodbye.

Though I couldn’t believe the suddenness of my own grandmother’s passing, my girlfriend’s family had been forced to endure that same disbelief for more than a decade: caught between Clementina’s presence and her defining absence.

***

Before the fog, Clementina had been a busy woman. Together with her husband, she ran a small farm and butcher shop. When she wasn’t cleaning out pig intestines, hacking through joints of beef, or pressing grapes to make wine, she was nursing one of her nine children.

Back then, Spain was under a dictatorship predicated on deeply conservative Catholic values. The church controlled the school system. At the same time, the Francoist dictatorship promoted masculinity and the traditional role of women.

In rural areas, the Guardia Civil patrolled small towns and hamlets, weeding out any who spoke out against Franco’s regime. Standing out or asking too many questions back then could bring some unwanted attention from undesirable people, the family told me. If God didn’t provide the answer, then no one else would.

I couldn’t believe the suddenness of my own grandmother’s passing, my girlfriend’s family had been forced to endure that same disbelief for more than a decade: caught between Clementina’s presence and her defining absence.

Clementina was a product of her time and circumstance. She was small and stocky, with short hair and skin weathered by nine children and four decades of farmers’ hours. She was stoical, and she muddled and mucked through life, making minimal drama from tragedy and trauma. When her eldest daughter ran away from home for six months after a dispute with her brothers, Clementina cried, but when no one could see. She was not noisy with her pain, even when her family, the only thing that really mattered, was in disarray.

Food was important to Clementina. She liked to cook and to prepare large meals for her family, their families, and any stray friends. But it was in her cooking that her life started to malfunction. Around 20 years ago, she started putting strange combinations like prawns and pineapples in classic Castilian stews. While the family would feign enjoyment, Clementina was baffled; she couldn’t remember how she had prepared the dish.

Such odd behavior was initially excused and justified as a mistake. There was no need to worry; surely she was just having a bad day, the family thought. Then, several weeks later, one of her daughters found 20 kilograms of steak crammed into the freezer. Clementina had been going to the butcher three times a day.

The family took their mother to see a neurologist. Clementina’s frontal and parietal lobes were, indeed, atrophying, and it was likely she was suffering from dementia. The doctor told her she would feel confused. She would be stumped by everyday tasks, experience mood swings, feel apathetic, or suddenly angry. But this would just be the waiting period before the disease took hold, he said; she would still have quality of life.

For Clementina, it was a purgatory flecked with visions of hell. A time when she would look in the mirror and question who she found there. She found salt in the underwear drawer, her false teeth in the oven, and her shoes in the pantry. When a spoon became a knife, a bowl became a mug, a mug became…well, a bulbous, cold, empty thing.

There was still a future, yes, but it was a future crowded out by the inevitability of the disease, and constant remorse for her behavior. And she feared everything about it. She feared its fog, its nausea, its dark, its light, its bitter taste, its rancid smell, its forgetting, its remembering, its crying, its laughter.

Her children suffered, too. First, she would confuse their names, then she would forget them, and when she became very panicked, she denounced her sons as robbers breaking into her house. When she remembered who she was, the abrupt resumption of life caused her to break down in tears and ask her sons for forgiveness.

For the family, their mother wasn’t dying, she was disappearing; the relentless, unforgiving grind of reality squeezing her mind like a tube of toothpaste. They could only sit and watch.

***

I thought about Clementina’s fear in the days following the funeral. My grandmother’s death had been unforeseen and painless; she probably never knew she was dying. Clementina’s death was slow and suffocating. Something intangible, invisible, and insidious was out to get her. She didn’t know when it was going to come, or how bad it would be when it did.

This fear was heightened for its similarity to what gripped the outside world. I looked out and saw it on the street outside my window. People rushing around in their own capsules of preoccupation and paranoia, veering from each other’s paths, looking down at their shoes when they once would have looked up. People enveloped in masks, plastic screens, and surgical gloves — fighting and flirting through pixels on a faltering Zoom calls.

We didn’t know what was coming, when it was going to happen, or how serious it would be. We just knew it was out there, and that was enough to fear ordinary life.

***

Though the years anesthetized the family’s shock, and treatment slowed Clementina’s deterioration, her descent into amnesia was inevitable. Five years after the diagnosis, she had lost all sense of who she was. She became a baby: she needed feeding, dressing, and regular trips to the bathroom. But, unlike the nonsensical conversations one has with a child, those with Clementina were never endearing. She was a haze of perceptions and reactions, always in flux, ever-changing. There was no way of knowing who she would be next.

Although almost all of the family lives in the nearby city of Burgos, every weekend, sons, daughters, grandchildren, aunts, and uncles make the 40-minute drive to Villaveta. Lunches start at 3:30 and pass in gesticulations, gulps of wine, and oven-roasted legs of lamb. The family talks about what most families talk about: achievements and failures, times gone by and times to come, people alive and dead, housework, and holidays. Listening to many of these conversations over the years, it appeared to me that the family’s collective memory somehow compensated for Clementina’s absent memory.

Over the years, I admired their patience. I saw how, amid spooning mashed-up meat into her mouth, routine bathroom trips, rattling medicine bottles, stray false teeth, convoluted conversations, and having her ask who they were 15 times a day, they endured their mother’s gradual disappearance. Though Clementina no longer knew what home meant, at least her children could see her in a setting that was familiar to them. After all, their childhood was all there, and she was their childhood. There, among the ramshackle houses all leaning on each other for support, between the fresh green grapevines and in the yawning yellow wheat fields, bristly like stable brushes, they could see their mother as she had been.

I would often watch her in a wicker chair on the porch outside of the dining room in Villaveta, her false teeth strewn across the table in front of her, her auburn hair shining in the pale spring sun. She clapped her calloused hands, snapped her fingers, and bobbed her head to the rhythm of her shaky vocal cords. She sang about the time Franco’s fascists came hunting Republicans in her village, about the migration of the villagers to the Basque country in search of work. She sang the songs that she had learned when she was young, when she was middle-aged, and when she was old.

Clementina would sing her life’s history, remembering every word and every melody. As Clementina’s daughters sang with her, she looked at them not with her typical vacancy but with the mischievous grin of collusion — as if she knew them again.

She sang the songs that she had learned when she was young, when she was middle-aged, and when she was old.

***

In the days following my grandmother’s death, I worried most about my mum. Though she would eventually take my calls, I knew she was wrapped up in administration, in death certificates, undertaker bills, in condolence cards, and bouquets of flowers. She was always busy giving people details.

Mum talked to my grandmother at least four times a week and visited her house at least twice weekly. Now, she had one less person to speak to, one less person to attend to. The gap in her life would be abysmal, impossible to fill.

I knew she would try to reassure herself that she was okay, that she was doing well. I knew she would try to be tough, would try to demonstrate her fortitude. But I was also sure that these icy walls of common sense would be floored by searing moments of red-hot memory that reminded her of the contrary — reminded her that her mother really wasn’t there anymore. Perhaps it would hit her in the garden while pruning my grandmother’s favorite rose bush, perhaps when she came across papers etched with her handwriting.

Grief starts off as a fear of absence and then becomes the acclimatization to it. I think Clementina taught me that, or at least, her daughters did. Though they had once tried to suppress the fear of their mother’s disease with denial or outward displays of positivity, they now confronted her absence with stoic resignation. They lived with the fear because they had no choice. Because though Clementina remembered herself when she was singing, though she knew her daughters and they knew her, almost every time the last song ended, when the words in her head ran out, her brow creased, and she sank deep into her diminutive frame.

“When are we going home?” she would whisper to her daughters.

“Soon, Mum, soon,” they replied.

***

Matthew is a Scottish writer and journalist. He has written about topics spanning suicide in Japan to the drug-trade in Bangladeshi refugee camps, and now works mainly in Latin America. His work has appeared in the LA Times, Slate, VICE, Men’s Journal, The Guardian Long Read, and Bloomberg Businessweek.

***

Editor: Krista Stevens