Ephemera: Meditations on life and death, presence and absence

Posted on Updated on

“May you never have to make another phone call like this again,” Diane says as we hang up. She had waved her husband Lance away twice, and I told her she should go and tell him why she’s crying behind her sunglasses.

They’re on the beach. I had left Diane a voicemail and a text message asking her to call me when she had a couple minutes. I was in the car, just arriving home, when she returned my call. The beach was windy. Diane said she could barely hear me over the noise of it. Still inside the car, I yelled, “IS THIS BETTER?!”

“Yes,” she said. “I can hear you if you talk like that.”


I live next to a pizza place. Customers were in the parking lot. I was yelling my head off, trying to tell the story both to give Diane time to brace herself and also as a way to control my own emotions instead of just bursting into tears and alarming Diane more than necessary. Suddenly, instead of tears, I started laughing.



I don’t know when I first became interested in ephemeral writing. I think about it in all sorts of ways, from grocery lists and receipts to deleted text conversations to “to do” lists and reminders on dry erase boards. These written records are discarded as if they do not matter, but they often do matter, even if they disappear and will never be viewed again.

In my teaching I have especially appreciated the ephemera–the notes, scribbles, brainstorms, journals, false starts, marginalia, and so forth–that contribute to research, to new discoveries, to communicating ideas with purpose, ideas that others can take up and use and add to. Ephemera in such a context is not meaningless writing but rather is generative, allowing ideas to develop and be shared in ways that matter.

My interest in ephemeral writing may have first sparked when teaching an introductory linguistics class and considering speech as ephemeral. We utter words, sometimes making things happen with those utterances. We pronounce people married, we declare people to be guilty or not guilty. The speech act ends; it is temporal and temporary, heard and then gone. Of course, speech acts connected to legalities are recorded in writing, and the writing has more longevity than the speech act. But it was the utterance that led to the written record. The words no longer hang in the air, but the impact of what has been declared determines what happens next. People are married. People are imprisoned. People are set free.

Utterances do not last. But that doesn’t mean they have no impact.


Maybe it’s because Diane is on the beach that I think about all the words and shapes and symbols that have been etched in the sand. Maybe it’s because my friend Mindi sent me a picture last night of a labyrinth she and her family had created on the beach. Maybe it’s because life and death are on my mind, and if there’s one thing that marks time it’s the movement of the tides.

Maybe the sun is a better marker of time? Probably. But let’s stick with the tides for a moment. I’m Pisces, and both my parents grew up in beach towns on Cape Ann, and I like Blondie, so tides it is.

At low tide, when more of a sandy canvas is available to us, we are called to write our names or initials in the damp sand. We trace hearts, compose messages, create hashtags, proffer words of hope. We build sand castles. We dig pits. We don’t need to read Shelley’s “Ozymandias” to know our efforts will leave no lasting impression. Our marks are transient. Here and then gone. Smoothed over, erased, washed away as time moves forward with the rising tide.

But we make these marks for a reason. We may create as a meditative act, the pleasure not in the product but in the process. We may be writing for ourselves, as a reminder of who we are or what matters to us. We may write or create with or for others to create a bond, share a moment, solidify a relationship. The work of our hands, fingers, and toes may quickly disappear as ocean overwhelms sand, but the effects? The effects are not ultimately in the shaped sand, are they?

Sometimes we hope others on the beach see our words or structures. Sometimes we take a picture and remember. Sometimes we share the picture. As with speech utterances that are recorded in writing, moving from the medium of sand to a photograph–a visual image–is a way of magnifying the significance of a transient form of communication.

We write in the sand. Our work has an effect. The writing disappears. The effect does not. The writing is gone, absent, no longer there.

Or is it?


A lot of depictions of what happens in the crossing over from life to death seem ludicrous to me, involving a bodily presence that looks similar to the person’s living form. Maybe people become ghosts who hang out in some spectral form that’s really just a blurry body. Or maybe the body grows angel wings and the person hangs out on clouds watching humans on earth. I hope airplanes aren’t too disturbing if this is the case. Or then there are the visions of people being reunited with family members in some land filled with lollipop trees, again in some kind of body that seems a lot like the earthly body they inhabited. The details are hazy. None of it makes sense to me.

I also don’t like the way heaven and hell are used as carrots and sticks to motivate people to behave. I’m much more of an instant karma kind of person. When I’m behaving badly and hurting myself or others, I am not happy. When I’m making decent choices and using my gifts and appreciating stuff, I’m not always 100% happy because sometimes life is sad and painful, but I’m far more likely to be happy, or at least at peace.

The whole heaven/hell carrot/stick narrative has been used historically in some bad bad evil ways, so I’m not a fan of it for that reason, too.

Anyhow, at some point, maybe when I read the children’s books The Tenth Good Thing about Barney by Judith Viorst or Nadia the Willful by Sue Alexander, I started thinking about death in a new way.

I obviously don’t know more about life and death than anyone else. None of us knows. But what I believe is that we do last beyond the point of death. And the way we last–at least the way that matters to me–is in the effect we’ve had while hanging out in our earthly bodies. When I die, I will leave some words behind, and my image and voice are captured in some photos and videos, sure. (Lindsey, if you’re reading this, I hope you’re laughing while thinking of our many goofy YouTube vids!) But the part that matters is in the impact I’ve had. My biggest impact has probably been on my kids. My other family members. My friends, students, colleagues. The occasional stranger. It’s not about being remembered. It’s not about all the people who knew me eventually dying and leading to me being eventually fully gone, erased.

No. It’s about the effects. The impact. To the degree that I can live in ways that are good, that contribute in positive ways, that effect is carried out in others’ lives (and maybe in other ways as well, like in our impact on the non-human parts of the natural world), and these other lives have impact, and so on. The impact doesn’t die when people die. It is just carried forward in different ways, in new forms. That’s my version of reincarnation. It’s the carrying of impact from one person to the next to the next, both horizontally (the people/world around us at any given moment who then interact with the people around them) and vertically (over time and generations and the evolving world).


I called my dad when driving home, about 45 minutes before my conversation with Diane. I wanted to tell him I would visit him and my mom in Maine on July 3 and stay over. If my mom wasn’t up for the 4th of July party at Diane’s camp (the Maine word for a lake house), I would stay with my mom so my dad could go to the party.

When my dad answered the phone, I asked how he was, and he answered, “Not very good today.” And he cried. He told me Susan the occupational therapist (who has been a tremendous blessing) had visited in the morning. Our family friend Katy and her friend Jill, both retired nurses, had been at the house, too. They all talked about how little my mom has been eating.

“And then I asked the question, Laur,” my dad said. I knew what he meant but he told me anyhow. He knows sometimes I’m slow. 🙂 Or maybe he just needed to say it. “I asked how long she has.”

I was crying. Not a lot, not sobbing. I both wanted and didn’t want to hear the answer.

“It could be a month.”

He went on and qualified that. No one knows. It could be two months, it could be a year. He added care details. He would be transitioning from Susan’s visits to hospice care for my mom. He would see about the agency care provider coming more days to help out. He said my brother Stephen was calling the siblings and letting us know, so I could expect that call to come.

The logistics. The making things happen. The words of care.

“I’m sorry, Dad.”

Next I talked to Stephen. He was getting in touch with Janet, Carole, and Michael. I said I would call Diane.


When I yelled the story through the phone, Diane was crying. She couldn’t respond at first. Eventually she said she had known. Of course she had known. We’ve all known. But it’s different to hear it. To say it (or, in my case, to shout it). To acknowledge it.

The words are spoken, and then they are gone. But the effect is with us. The effect is what is present, and this presence marks the absence of the utterance.


One day, perhaps one day soon, my mom will be gone. Ephemeral. And we are already mourning not because she has not had a great effect on us but rather for the opposite reason. Her impact has been everything. We want her here, in her physical body–in her healthy physical body with all her faculties in place–to continue contributing to who we are and what we have to offer others.

Knowing she has already affected us, her children, and so many others…well, it’s never enough, is it? We want more. More time. More sharing of the gifts she brings to the world. More gardens filled with blueberry bushes and brown-eyed Susans and hollyhocks and foxglove and tomatoes. More stories about her grandchildren. More delight in Daniel O’Donnell concerts. More banter with waitstaff at restaurants. More times being delighted by telling people she’s afflicted with CRS (“Can’t Remember Shit”). More laughter. More hugs.


The tide is rising. And yet we go on, inscribing and reinscribing, doing what we can with the sand the tides allow us. Shoring up the walls of the castles. Knowing they will not hold long against the force of the white horse currents rushing further up the beach.

The salty waters flow and flow and eventually



there are no words left

from my friend Mindi

2 thoughts on “Ephemera: Meditations on life and death, presence and absence

    Edwina Rozelle said:
    June 19, 2021 at 12:29 pm

    Sending you an hug. I’m sorry you’re going through this. Loss is never an easy transition but so much harder when it’s your mom. It may be cliche to say, but she really is tucked in your heart and will stay there with you always.


    On Fri, Jun 18, 2021 at 6:41 PM Laurie Mac Reads wrote:

    > lauriemcmillan posted: ” “May you never have to make another phone call > like this again,” Diane says as we hang up. She had waved her husband Lance > away twice, and I told her she should go and tell him why she’s crying > behind her sunglasses. They’re on the beach. I had left D” >

    lauriemcmillan responded:
    June 21, 2021 at 4:54 pm

    Thank you, Edwina. I agree with you! Sometimes clichés ring with truth, and I love the idea of my mom tucked in a pocket in my heart, ready to pop out and guide me or simply remind me of her love when needed ❤

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s