It occurred to me today, as I found myself standing in the middle of the family plot talking to the people I love who are no longer with me except in spirit and memory, that anyone not Irish might consider it odd to find comfort in a cemetery. Yet, I always do.
I’d gone there to to talk to my family about life and I’d brought coffee because they’d loved it and because I thought it might be a lengthy conversation. A middle-aged woman passing by smiled and waved at me from the road below. “I’m so happy to see I’m not the only one who brings coffee when I come to chat, ” she called out and we both laughed at the loveable absurdity of the scene.
Maybe it’s the fact that we used to visit old graveyards when I was a child – admiring the tumbledown tombstones, scrying the inscriptions, imagining the heartaches both recent and long ago. So much history captured in moldering memorials – died in childbirth… lost in infancy… gone but not forgotten… we will miss you forever – so much of love and anguish preserved forever in a line or two. I used to wander from stone to stone reading the messages, imagining lives. Or maybe it’s the fact that I’ve lost so many of those dearest to my heart that makes this a place of solace for me.
My own two daughters now lie beside my parents on a small hill in the shade of a gentle Japanese maple, four pink granite headstones echoing the color of the leaves in Fall and making the plot seem somehow softer in the snow.
I tend the graves and the memories. Flowers planted in Spring, a blanket of balsam and Christmas tree ornaments to keep them warm in winter, foolish as that sounds. I am not resigned to the shutting away of warm hearts in the cold ground, said Millay, and because I, too, am not resigned, this is my small gesture of rebellion.
The memories of those I love are as much part of me as blood and bone. When I stand before the headstones, it all unfolds again. The laughter and the love… the library paste-and-glitter birthday cards presented proudly after school… the chubby child fingers clutched in mine, trusting that I’ll keep them safe from sorrows neither they nor I could yet imagine. My parents’ voices and my children’s lost dreams are all hidden away where only my own heart can find them now. Yet, somehow, here in the cemetery my family is together again.
My father’s favorite cap… my daughters’ letters… my mother’s prayerbook … I kept them all, unable to part with what still bore a trace of their touch, lest all that was tangible slip away forever. And deep inside me, I kept the rest. Those we truly love never leave us, the sages say, but oh, that shadow presence isn’t nearly enough! We long to hold them, touch their beloved faces, hold their hands again, trim the tree again. Hear the laughter and the love again. Say the words left unsaid. Rescind the regrets. We don’t get over the death of those we love, we just get through it and go on – anyone who has ever lost a loved one knows the depths of that truth… knows we are changed irrevocably by the loss of each and every one who leaves us. Never ask to know for whom the bell tolls…
So I go to the cemetery and I talk to them, keeping them abreast of the vicissitudes of life. Just so they’ll know for certain that I haven’t forgotten for a moment who they were and what they meant to my heart.
I know it sounds silly to think they know I’m there.
But I do.
© Cathy Cash Spellman/The Wild Harp & Co. Inc 2013