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?


the ladder upSome years ago, when riding home in the family car from her grandmother’s house, my little girl sat up front, making the most of time alone with me her Mom, as that noisy baby slept in the back. She looked at the sky.  “If I could make a big enough ladder,” she said pensively, “I could climb there.”

Time keeps slipping for me this week. I think of the cold night earlier this month when I found myself in a florist’s greenhouse. It was near suppertime, but the shoppers there seemed reluctant to depart this damp Eden with its glass walls and ceilings all misted over with moisture.

Then time slips again to a long-ago night: Our then six-year-old had gone to bed. Downstairs, his father was playing his weekly bridge game with his pals. Elsewhere in the house, our other kids attended to the night’s homework. Then here came suddenly a sound of weeping, faint at first, but building in despair as it built in duration.

Our six-year-old appeared suddenly at my bedroom door. It was he who wept so. What was it?, I asked rushing toward him. A bad dream? He shook his head no. A pain? No again.

He sat on the edge of our bed and, after a long time, did his best to convey it: “I was thinking about death,” he finally whispered. “How when you die  you just have to lie there. Forever.”

“Ah but most people don’t believe that. None of us has been there of course, but most people picture Heaven.”

“I don’t want to go to Heaven!” he burst out. What would I do there? What do people do when they’re  there?”

I remembered an image that had comforted me once. “Well, they say it’s like a big party and everyone you ever loved is right there in the room with you –  and your old pets, and the toys you lost and thought you’d never see again…”

“But even a party can go on too long.” He shook his head sadly. “And what if there is no Heaven and you just…..end?”

“I don’t think it’s like that,” I said, hugging him now and swallowing back my own tears. “Why don’t you stretch out here a while?”

And so he did, as I busied myself nearby. Thirty minutes later, he was still curled in a tense ball.  I went over and lay down beside him; buried my face in his little-boy neck. “Listen!” I said at last. “Can you hear all those sounds? Daddy downstairs with his pals? Two kinds of music? Your brothers and sisters all talking and moving around?”

He nodded his head without opening his eyes.” Always you will have that: other people all around you. No one is alone, you know.”

“I know,” he whispered, and gave a final shuddering sigh.

He had looked over the edge into that terror. Most people look there exactly once, then get to work building a structure against it, whether you call it belief in the hereafter or faith in one’s fellow men or That Which Does Not Die.

I can’t say if  that youngest child of mine began building his then and there. I can tell you that as far as I know he never wept like that again.

In that wintry greenhouse, I watched the clerk wrapping a plant against the cold with all the care of one easing a baby into a snowsuit. So. I told myself, there is this care, then.

There are the long bars of sunlight, winter or summer.

There are the voices of others as you slip into sleep.

And then there’s that ladder, which, built of strong enough stuff and fastened with Belief, may let us climb it upward after all.


Heaven Down There

Here’s a poem for a Sabbath Day and what if it’s true? What if Heaven really is down, in the salt sway where all life originated and not up past the sky at all?

The poem is called ‘New Religion’ and it was written by Bill Holm:

This morning no sound but the loud

breathing of the sea. Suppose that under
all that salt water lived the god
that humans have spent ten thousand years
trawling the heavens for.

We caught the wrong metaphor.

Real space is wet and underneath,
the church of shark and whale and cod.

The noise of those vast lungs
exhaling: the plain chanting of monkfish choirs.

Heaven’s not up but down, and hell
is to evaporate in air. Salvation,
to drown and breathe
forever with the sea.

 It reminds me of that scene from Terrance Malick’s 2011 film The  Tree of Life.  I could watch this trailer again and again. It’s all in here, from the Creation to miracle of conception, from Cain and Abel to prodigal sons, from stern and yearning fathers to mothers who ache for the sight of their lost children – and under and around it all the waters, the waters, the waters.

Why We Stay Up Late

What do we stay up late for these days?

We stay up to read about our friends on the Internet. Say what you will about Facebook, it brings you closer. There’s a woman in Colorado who once lived just five minutes from me here in New England. I knew her not at all then, except by repute as a writing tutor to the young. And I was jealous, knowing her this way. “What’s wrong with ME that I’m not a writing tutor to the young?” is all I could think when I heard her name.

Today she lives among those mountains. Somehow we found each other on Facebook and now almost I every day I feel her gentle spirit as she shares a thought or a photo. (And my, how she loves her dogs! If they added to the Seven Cardinal Virtues surely loving animals would be right up near the top.)

So we stay up to check on one another.

We stay up with sick children. Also with children having nightmares, hallucinations, irrational fears. We have them ourselves.

We stay up late to watch YouTube videos like the one I recently posted of the grand swoop of that owl with his mighty thighs and his outward-reaching talons as he comes to snatch up his prey. A video like that thrills us, clear witness as it is that something is coming for us too, something fierce and strong.

I stayed up so late a few nights ago I had a kind of waking dream. It was of my grandfather about whom I have never dreamed even once since his death 50 years ago.

As a small child I felt so safe living in his house as we did. In my dream I didn’t notice him until someone said “Hey did you see who’s here?” and there he was, working in the garden out behind the farmhouse where he passed his boyhood in the 1880s. I recognized the place because I have every picture he ever took.

Also every journal he ever wrote in.

I have his degrees, rescued from the attic and framed now, Also framed pictures of him both old and young. This picture below shows him in
his very first year as a lawyer, looking so proud to be sitting at a real desk with his own law library behind him and his assistant beside him, he who went barefoot most of the year and got to school only when they held school, the typical thing in those rural communities.

It was so nice to see him again in this waking dream. He even called me “Blackberry Top”, a name he gave me for the shiny black curls clustered tight together on my two-year-old head..

At my mom’s 80th birthday party I read aloud a letter he had written her when she was a college sophomore, eating too much and flunking French and smoking her brains out with the dorm windows flung wide to the cold night air. He knew she was doing all that – other letters were filled with admonition – but this was a birthday letter and it was only loving.

When I got done reading it aloud to all gathered there for her special day, she turned to her younger sister and said “Did you feel that Grace? He was HERE in the room!” Then, 20 minutes later, she closed her eyes and died.

Some months later, after writing to a childhood friend about what had happened, he wrote me back: “In my faith tradition we’re taught that one who loved you in life comes for you at the end. Maybe that’s what happened with your mother: her dad came for her.”

What a comforting thought! That someone comes for you, strong with beating wings, and lifts you up and carries you home.

Good as New

Speaking of undoing cataclysm, here’s a shout-out to Kurt Vonnegut smoking those Pall Malls of his up in Heaven now. The passage below is from his book Slaughterhouse Five, a war novel by a veteran of WWII who refused to glorify war.

In the book Billy Pilgrim gets abducted by aliens shaped like toilet plungers (as you can see)  is forced to mate with fellow captive and B-movie star named Montana Wildhack and ends up learning all about the way God sees the universe because … all of a sudden Billy can time-travel.

But first let’s  back up again to yesterday and watch Titanic’s tragic fate reverse itself as the clothing of passengers and crew magically shed moisture, the waters course back into the sea, a thousand shattered dishes leap whole into cupboards and the ship itself mends – ah, mends!  

Go ahead, watch it again here and take in that haunting music too. Then, when you’re done watching and listening, read the following passage, one of the most hopeful passages in all of literature. It starts with Billy Pilgrim who, seeing that he has an hour before the flying saucer comes back for him, decides to keep drinking and watch some TV:  

“He went into the living room, swinging the bottle like a dinner bell, turned on the television. He came slightly unstuck in time, saw the late movie backwards, then forwards again. It was a movie about American bombers in the Second World War and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this:

“American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

“The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

“When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.

“The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby, Billy Pilgrim supposed. That wasn’t in the movie. Billy was extrapolating. Everybody turned into a baby, and all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve….”

Pretty nice vision eh? How great would life be if we really did all turn back into babies, guileless and innocent like this little guy who is skipping his nap to get in a little fishing.

The Dead Are Not Dead

Once you’re grown up, you stop making a big deal about your birthday. If you’ve learned anything over the years it’s not to wreck a nice thing by wishing it were nicer.

On my birthday last month I had mail from my sister in Florida and my husband David’s 90-year-old uncle. That was it for cards.

But I also got many shout-outs from my friends on Facebook and what did I care that a spot at the top of their ‘page’ told them it was my birthday? I still felt touched.

I saw my kids and there were presents.  It was all very nice and after they’d all left and David and I were settling in for a quiet night we had an exchange that I think surprised us both. “So did you have a nice birthday?” David asked me.

“Oh I really did! Only… well, my mom hasn’t called yet.”

“I know,” he said with a kindly expression, “but she will!”

“How?” I said, and we smiled sadly because both our mothers lie now under that rafter of satin and roof of stone that Emily Dickinson once spoke of.

Still, what he had said changed my whole orientation.

For some reason I couldn’t fall asleep that night. I lay in our bed for two long hours before doing something I had never before done in our marriage: I left our room and went to the guest room, whose bed felt strange and unaccustomed.

I lay in it for yet another hour. Finally, giving up on sleep, I went and got my laptop and brought it t back to the bed.

I opened up the social network called ‘Goodreads’ and there saw this passage from Marilynne Robinson’s wonderful novel Housekeeping in which she is writing about the ones we miss:

“There is so little to remember of anyone – an anecdote, a conversation at a table. But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home.”

I had to stop a minute at the tenderness of that phrase: “the hope that the memory will become flesh.”

I read on, to where she speaks of the accompanying hope that “the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting long.”

“To stroke our hair with dreaming habitual fondness”: ah what a touching image! I closed the laptop then and was again stretching out in that unfamiliar bed when I suddenly I realized it wasn’t unfamiliar at all. The bed I was lying in had been my mother’s own bed, the same one in which I had lain during every childhood illness, while she slept across the narrow hallway with both doors open so she could watch me as I slept.

So I had had heard from her after all, just as kindly David had said I would, a realization that caused me to smile, yawn once, turn on my side and sleep like a baby ‘til morning.

Strange Beauty

Last night when I stepped out of the sold-out I-Max theatre for a moment, I saw that I’d received a text from a young person in my life. “Hey, I’m at Avatar,” I answered. “It’s a truly phenenomal movie. See it twice,” he texted back and I think I just might do that because when was the last time I witnessed people clapping at a the end of a movie? When was the last time I saw folks talking so animatedly as they exited? One woman saw me looking at the crowd. “Were you as moved as I was?” she asked. “I cried!”

A lot of people did as I could see since, with those 3-D glasses on, you can watch people without their knowing. I was completely swept away by what I saw. The great dragon-like creatures who fly against the human invaders with their death engines reminded me of the  Siamese Fighting Fish I used to  kept just to look upon the beauty of their  bright veil-like fins. The sight of the Na’vi  people  swaying like sea anemones in their religious ceremonies made me think how we could look like to God if we ever stopped fighting long enough to entwine our arms. And the main metaphor of Sully in his chair brought real tears to my eyes – not so much for what it says about so-called ‘civilized’ man with his shrunken and twisted legs, helpless as a fish on dry land without his ‘wheels,’  but for the pure force of that visual, repeated every time Jake enters the capsule that translates him to Pandora. It shows how, broken and weak, a human swoons down into Death; and then there’s that vortex of light; and then he wakes, a tall strong ‘angel.’ Ah that it might prove true!