The end and the beginning of absence

Ever since I took a break from Facebook a few months ago, Jenny has been calling periodically to give me quick 5 or 10 minute blasts she refers to as my Facebook posts. Recently she put me on speaker phone so she could “update her status” while she made herself some lunch. In the course of our conversation, she asked what I’ve been reading these days.

Me: The End of Absence.

Her: The End of Absinthe?

Me: Absence, not absinthe! Michael Harris’s book that won the GG for nonfiction.

It was Jenny who, indirectly, put me onto The End of Absence in her previous Facebook-update-call when she told me that local poet Arleen Paré had just been awarded a GG. Naturally I and my mouse scurried over to the award website to investigate. There I learned that Michael Harris had delved into the very topic I’ve been pondering deeply myself.

What effect will the internet have on generations who grow up never experiencing life without it?

My question, really, one that Harris hints at but doesn’t ask, is whether it’s even possible now to grow up. How do young people navigate from dependence to autonomy when they’re constantly connected to their parents, friends, and social networks?

I’ve chewed this question since last summer when a young friend visited our farm for two weeks after her high school graduation. Several times a day, she Skyped with her parents and sister in Victoria. She updated them on every meal we ate and inquired about their menus. She showed them her mosquito bites in real time. She said she wasn’t homesick, but why would she be? She hadn’t really left home.

I couldn’t help comparing her visit to my son’s graduation trip. Michael Harris sets the cutoff date at 1985. Anyone born before 1985 knows what life is like without the internet. Anyone who was born later never will. My sons were born in 1987 and 89, but we were late adopters of technology at our house. Unlike many of their classmates, my sons didn’t have cellphones in high school. When Jesse graduated in 2005 and went to England for three weeks, we didn’t hear from him until he got home. Go back one generation: my classmates and I in the 1970s disappeared from our families for months, sometimes years. In those spaces of absence, we discovered who we were. We were forced to rely on our own resources. We grew up.

I know, I know. Thoughts like these are a clear sign I’m getting old.

I’m a generation older than Michael Harris, but like him I experience the internet as blessing and curse. I’ve talked about my dependency on it:

The internet is my lifeline, my connection to employment, my means of survival, my water cooler, my get-togethers with family and friends. It’s my library, university, entertainment, town square, cooking school, daily news, Friday night drive-in movie, revival tent. It’s a gateway to a million shiny ideas.

And it has brought me some of my dearest friends.


In 2003 I travelled to England myself to do family history research. In preparation, I asked on my Staffordshire roots listserv whether anyone could help me figure out where my great-grandparents might be buried because I wanted to visit their graves. A woman who lived in Stoke-on-Trent and had worked for the County Council offered to help. Not only did she track down the cemetery, she sent a map that showed the exact location of Leonard Burgess’s grave, which was fantastic because it was unmarked and I would never have found it.

Jacqui offered to drive me to the cemetery while I was in Stoke-on-Trent. She was cautious at first, not wanting to commit herself to more than a couple of hours with me in case I was a serial killer or obnoxious bore. We liked each other enough to have lunch, and over Staffordshire oatcakes and salad we became friends.

As it happened, Jacqui and her husband Garry had a trip booked to Canada the following month, and they visited us in Victoria. When they returned the next year, LW and I were at the farm, so they landed in Edmonton, visited us in northern BC, and then stayed in our Victoria house for a couple of weeks. When Jesse graduated from high school and said he’d like to visit England, Jacqui and Garry hosted him, toured him royally, and took him to a football game he’ll never forget.

It turned out that Garry grew up on Brook Street, Longport, Stoke-on-Trent, a few doors down from my grandmother but a generation later. They knew the same places, walked the same streets, and spoke the same “Staffysher” dialect. But these are not the reasons I loved Garry. It was these:

  • He could spin a story like nobody else, and make you laugh until it hurt, and then make you laugh more.
  • On a hot summer’s day, he felt no compunction whatsoever about cooling his feet in a goldfish pond in Butchart’s Japanese garden.
  • He taught me the meaning of a party piece and the value of always having one ready.
  • Like many men of his background and generation, he learned an honest trade, but he wanted to be the captain of his own ship, so he went into business for himself and set his own course.
  • He sailed his course with spirit, generosity, warmth, and humour.


Garry John Cooper died April 18, leaving those of us who loved him, most especially his beautiful Jacqui, to learn what it means to live with his absence.

13 Responses to “The end and the beginning of absence”

  1. Lindy

    I’m sorry for the loss of your friend. I hope he continues to cool his feet as he pleases where ever he may go.

  2. Paula

    beautifully woven memories …. and as long as those memories are alive, they redefine absence

    • commatologist

      Paula, yes! I’m really taken with Michael White‘s idea of “saying hello again” instead of saying goodbye. I’m learning to include my dead loved ones in my daily life, and it’s wonderful to be able to talk and laugh with them and enjoy their presence in my life despite their physical absence. I imagine you experience this, too, with your mom?

      • paula

        yes, my mom and others. And especially when I’m working in my mom’s memorial garden, she gardens right alongside of me.

  3. wilfred bright

    I liken your story to what I observed and concluded to well before I first left Cedarvale in 1959. Being that in absence or going away and leaving the confines of caring,love and nurturing that was your childhood and young adult life and especially when one turns 17 or 18 years in age, that either it’s you alone or /and if you were to ‘settled in’ ( now My thoughts are running together) in acceptance to what was holding you there, it sometimes took a couple of incidents and tell tale observances or plain out obvious hints that one should ‘go away and be somebody’. I observed the change in a lot of older friends and relatives that up and left and upon coming back, were mature, a lot more sure of themselves and were self reliant. A good example would be a returning soldier . One walked assuredly, dignified and seemed more alert in speaking and listening. That’s why I used to tell my kids when they finished high-school and contemplating their next move, I would say: Just go away and forget about us for awhile and do your own thing and become somebody. Thank you Leslie, forgive my errors, when one works with his hands and avoids writing for most of his life, there are bound to be errors.

    • commatologist

      Thanks, Wilfred, and please don’t worry about minor errors. You know what they say – “Don’t sweat the small stuff … and it’s all small stuff!” I’d love to discuss this and other topics with you over coffee – we’re overdue.

  4. Alexandra

    So sorry for your loss of a good friend Leslie. What a beautiful tribute with a wonderful message. I’m not on any social media anymore personally and I don’t miss it one bit now. I feel free and able to focus on what matters most to me. Remind me to read that book you mentioned above because it sounds really great 🙂 Love + Hugs ~ Alex xo

    • commatologist

      Thanks, Alex, and I will. I think you and Jesse would both enjoy the book. xo

  5. carin

    So very sorry for your loss, Leslie. I love that image in Butchart Gardens… Here’s to sailing one’s course with kindness and laughter.


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