Reviewed by Diane Gottlieb
I’ve often thought about the word “closure” when used in conjunction with loss. Closure. It’s a nice, convenient idea. Who wouldn’t, in the throes of grief or even beyond, welcome the promise of putting the loss behind them, the opportunity to quell the “whys” and the “what-ifs,” so they could focus on the “what nows.” As someone who has lost two close family members in separate car accidents, seven years apart, I know there is no simple way to tie up all the loose ends, place loss in a box, and wrap it up with a shiny bow. Consider, then, how much more difficult it would be to make peace with a loss if the details surrounding it were murky. How does a person even attempt to move forward when a loved one is here one day but disappears the next?
Such are the questions Robert Lunday explores in Disequilibria: Meditations on Missingness (University of New Mexico Press 2023), winner of River Teeth’s 2021 Literary Nonfiction Book Prize, a deeply researched and thoughtful collection of short essays, or meditations, as the title suggests, on the disappeared and on how those left behind may begin to fill the emptiness.
When a person goes missing, the empty spaces can feel much larger than one who’s absent. Huge black holes are everywhere. The most basic particulars of the disappearance may be elusive. “It’s hard to say when my stepfather James Edward Lewis, disappeared,” Robert Lunday begins in “Finding; Understanding,” the first short piece in the collection. Lewis was last heard from when he left his Fayetteville, N.C., house on October 3, 1982, for a job interview in Vero Beach, Fla. “Can we say he went missing on that day?” Lunday asks. Maybe. Or maybe it was three days later when someone parked—and left—Lewis’s white Ford Fiesta at the Fayetteville Municipal Airport. (His family would not learn the car was left at the airport until months later.) “Was it he who left the car there? Under what circumstances? What happened in the three days between his leaving our home and the parking of the car?” What happened, indeed?
“Sometimes life veers into something other than death,” Lunday continues. How does one process “something other than death?” Lunday’s youngest brother moved to Florida, hoping to one day cross paths with his father. Years after the disappearance, Lunday’s mother hired a lawyer to obtain an official death declaration. Lunday wrote a book. To search for answers? To chart that search? Maybe an examination of missingness from all possible angles and lenses—literature, film, philosophy, psychology, history—would provide some way to find meaning or grounding amid all the unsteadiness.
Lunday’s meditations are not arranged in a linear arc. Instead, they mirror the obsession with finding information when none is forthcoming; the short pieces take us down many paths, none with an endpoint. Lunday uses a mathematical concept to illustrate: “A curve pulls closer and closer to a line but never reaches it … The asymptote is a distraction from despair, though it might define the outer limits of the search. We’re always at the head of the line, getting closer and closer.”
Closer and closer is not close enough, however. Humans need the world to make sense, to find answers, but in the case of missingness, there often are none. Lunday looks to experts in the field, one of whom is Pauline Boss. He quotes from her book Ambiguous Loss: “Ambiguity destroys the customary markers of life or death, so a person’s distress is never validated. The community loses patience with that lack of closure, and families become isolated.”
Lunday and his family did feel very alone. They found little help in their search from authorities or from Lewis’s friends, which added feelings of shame to the loss: “A man had gone away. So what? Sometimes, searching for a missing person seems to violate an unspoken code. Aren’t we all free to go away? … We asked around, but an eerie silence quarantined us.”
Even before Lewis’s disappearance, elements of missingness existed in Lunday’s life. Lunday’s parents divorced when he was 6, and his father died in a plane crash several years before Lewis disappeared. Both Lunday’s father and Lewis had been Vietnam vets, and as career Army men, had to move their family often. While Lundy always saw moving as “filled with potential,” missing was a sense of stable, physical rootedness, of getting to know his neighbors or classmates deeply.
What confounds the challenge in dealing with Lewis’s disappearance is the difficulty in their relationship when Lewis was around. Lewis could be a violent man. He was hard on the kids, and there were many times Lunday was afraid of his stepfather. There are many questions Lunday has about and for Lewis that will never be answered.
Much time has passed since Lewis’s disappearance, but the missingness and the feelings it elicits remain: “Lewis’s death by now might seem a near-certainty, but the near is hard as diamond.” In Disequilibira, Lunday takes that diamond and holds every facet up to the light. Each meditation reads like a beautiful, mournful song. Still, Lunday—and his readers—are left with an asymptote. The meditations are sometimes hard to read. I imagine they were difficult to write. We are left wiser after reading but with no shiny bow indicating closure.
Lunday ends the collection with “The Return,” a meditation about the day in Lunday’s childhood when Lewis returned from the war. Lunday was playing with toy soldiers when Lewis stood in the doorway with his bag: “At that moment, I understood that I loved Jim Lewis. It was a clear realization, maybe one of the first I ever had.” That understanding is clear and rings through these pages. It may have to be enough.