Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

Phrases.org identifies the origin of the phrase “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” as “Always toward absent lovers love’s tide stronger flows” from Sextus Aurelius Propertius – a Roman poet from 15BC. (The same site also conveys the bawdy wordplay that Shamus may appreciate – “Absinthe makes the fart grow stronger”.)

I’ve been thinking of this particular saying recently as we in the Gulf Coast (and beyond) watch with guarded optimism the absence of an unfettered plume of oil and gas roaring from the mangled remains of the BP/Deepwater fiasco. While not exactly making my heart fond of BP – the absence of the gushing oil expands my heart in the hope that someday the lives and livelihoods in and around the Gulf may be able to heal.

Also, too, I have been thinking how gladdened my heart is each day as I drive to work and don’t see Mr. Jones’ teal and purple truck with the camper top parked under the overpass. Mr. Jones had lived in that truck every day for over three years – taking compulsive care of the area surrounding his truck in the concrete jungle of the overpass. He read his bible, ate his meals, slept and entertained the occasional guest in and around that truck for over thirty-six months. It took a long time to untangle his veterans benefits and get him into the small bungalow where he now resides. But every day I pass the space where his colorful truck was parked and see the void, the growing weeds (which never stood a chance when he was a resident of the underpass) my heart is gladdened for the extended team of UNITY outreach workers, housing specialists, directors and administrators who created that concrete void where his truck once sat. The daily absence gladdens my heart.

When, on outreach runs in the van, we drive by the intersection of Tchoupitoulas and Jackson Avenues, my heart is likewise cheered at the crumpled, empty tent in the vacant corner lot. For years this particular intersection – proximate to the now-shuttered ferry terminal – was dominated by Mr. Beck and his grizzly yet cheerful personality. Mr. Beck had found an intersection where he could “fly a sign” – also known as panhandling with a poster- without an undue amount of interference from law enforcement. He used the collected change to buy his food and his one vice – cigarettes. For quite awhile Mr. Beck lived in a nearby abandoned building, but when the building was sold and the new owner threatened demolition Mr. Beck moved to living on the benches of the vacated ferry terminal and then into a tent in the weedy lot. Again after a lengthy time unscrambling veterans affairs and mixed stories, Mr. Beck, with the assistance of an entire team of people, is living in a charming apartment uptown. While still periodically found “flying a sign” in order to buy his cigarettes, Mr. Beck’s absence from that flimsy tent, the ferry terminal benches, and the abandoned building cheer me considerably.

Like many phrases though, the opposite is also true. There are, indeed, some absences that make my heart hurt.

On the same drive to work each day, and on our night journeys within the city I notice the absence of a particular man, James, who we found sleeping on a porch of an abandoned home on a busy avenue.

During the two nights that we were able to talk to James before he disappeared, my heart was deeply touched by the depth of the grief and guilt he carried since Katrina. A resident of one of the housing projects prior to the storm, James had lumbered through the floodwaters for days assisting as many neighbors as he could carry to reach higher, safer ground. Yet his present-day dreams, almost five years after the storm, were filled with the faces and names of the people he could not save. His dreams were filled with floating bodies of neighbors that had drowned attempting to shelter in place or who stumbled in their own journeys to dry land. He told us of these images as we sat with him on the porch lit only by nearby streetlights. He cried with us as he told us and then he disappeared. My heart hurts when I look in anticipation of his return to that porch – and our ability to help him — and see the void, the absence of Mr. James.

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