Visiting the Graves

mt. auburn cemetry springWondering about what Memorial Day means to people nowadays, I conducted a small-scale poll find out. “Another Monday off,” three people told me. “The start of summer,” reported two others.  

Time was, the day meant more. Time was, it marked a time to pay respects at the graves of the dead, lying quiet now under that ‘rafter of satin and roof of stone’ Emily Dickinson speaks of.

I told a friend about my research and she said she figured almost nobody saw it in the former way now. “Just maybe the old-timers.”

So  call me an old-timer then; because every day I think of the dead, and every day I feel death’s silent swoosh, as if a great black curtain were rushing shut above me.

I saw a dead bird in the yard, its stiff body propped oddly erect somehow, its small head resting on the soil, as if listening still for breakfast. I saw a tree on a twisting road with a spray of flowers tied to it, signifying someone had died there, hitting it in his car. Outside a funeral home, I saw two people stood holding each other. Not moving. Not hurrying to break apart, or giving small pats. Not even speaking, but only holding each other as they stood and stood. And I saw all these things in one 90-minute period.

The man I love lost his father young. when he was 13 and in his sorrow so long-unexpressed, he found he could not speak his father’s name or go to visit his grave. But his mother went sometimes, and when I came into the family she took me too.

Then I began taking myself there. When our last baby came and he a boy-child, I took him there, not yet a month in this world. Eventually, our two other children learned where it was, the daughter 14 and the daughter eleven. The older one would bike there sometimes to sit and draw. 

One fine spring evening when the whole family mobilized for a dinner out, the hour came and we could not find this older daughter.  “Let’s try the cemetery,” her younger sister suggested, and so we drove there.

Once inside its gates, we looked and looked, but plainly she was elsewhere.

Then her younger sister the eleven-year-old did a fine brave thing. “Park the car,” she told her dad.

“Let’s get out a minute,” she said. She circled the vehicle and took him then by the hand.

“Come,” she said simply. “I will take you to your Papa.”

And so she did. And I tell you as the woman who has loved this man long and long, then with his hair all dark and now with his hair all silver, that a change began in him that very day.

Was it finally facing that first death, or just being so gently invited to? We didn’t know. All we knew who loved him best was that a sadness deep inside him started lifting.

In denying death, we somehow deny ourselves life and live diminished. For do we not all sense that it is life’s completion? That death is but a door, through which we all will one day walk – and who knows what adventure awaits us there?