May 9, 2013

A Visit to the Boneyard

True story. . . . 

I was visiting back home. The year was 19__ and the month was May. My mother wanted to go to the cemetery so she could check on some new plantings she had put in last fall. My father is buried there along with two of his children. My older brother, the first born, drowned. My younger sister died from an infection when she was still an infant.

There is room in the plot for my mother, myself and my three sisters, should we choose to do so. I am firmly committed to cremation, so I don't figure to be taking up any space. My mother isn't happy about that, but she has come to terms with it. She did ask me for a portion of my ashes so she could have them at the family plot. I figure, what the hell, I won't be in any position to object one way or the other, so I had no trouble agreeing to her request.

So anyway, we finished what we needed to do, and we just started walking around the cemetery, looking at the headstones. The cemetery is divided into an old part and a new part. Our plot is located in the older section, where the headstones go back into the 1800's. My mother knew just about every family name and gave me a running history of their fortunes and follies as we ambled past each generation.

Eventually, we wandered over to the new section, which is closer to the road, definitely a less desirable location. The grave sites had a rawness to them. There hadn't been time for weathering to soften the edges or dull the bright colors of the polished granite.

The chiseled letters of each name still stood out clear and crisp, not yet smoothed by the centuries of winters and nor' easters to come. Lichen had not yet had time to mottle the granite with the gray green concentric circles that would soon start spreading inexorably across the face of the rock, obscuring the names. Soon enough the wind and rain would eat slowly away at the stone like the cancer that doubtless brought many of the current residents to this, their final resting place. But for now, the flowers were still fresh, the earth not yet settled.

We were walking back to our car when I saw a couple off in the distance. I couldn't make them out but I could tell the man was much younger than the woman. As we got closer to where we were parked, I was surprised to hear my name called out. Turning to look, I saw that the couple were people I knew. It was David W. and his mother.

David and I had been next door neighbors until I moved away when I was 12 years old. He was the bold one, the first to smoke, the first to drink, the first to learn about girls. We went our separate ways after high school. I would see him from time to time when I came back home for visits. He had been married a couple of times that I knew of and had kids somewhere, although I wasn't sure how many.

Standing there talking to David and his mother, I couldn't help noticing his fingernails. They were black and brittle and curling. I remember thinking at the time that I had read somewhere that doctors could tell a great deal about your health just from examining your fingernails. I wondered what a doctor would have made of David's.

I asked if he and his mother had come by to visit his father's grave. No. They wouldn't drive across the street to visit the old bastard. I remembered that his father had been a drinker. My older sister told me that David's younger brothers had it pretty rough. So nobody was too broken up when he finally died.

Somehow we got to talking about what kind of funeral we wanted, and I stated my preference for cremation. David also wanted to be cremated. He loved the ocean and that is where he wanted his ashes scattered. Personally, I shudder at the idea of being buried at sea. I want to stay connected with the land. Get back into production right away. Maybe end up in a tree limb or as part of a rose petal.

The ocean was endless and dark and empty. Not my kind of place. But that is what David wanted.

We talked a little more and then said our good-byes. I asked my mother on the way home, what are the odds of me being home for a couple of days, of us going to the cemetery and me running in to my old boyhood friend David.

A couple of weeks later my mother called me. She told me that David had died. Liver cancer. I thought about those black fingernails. My mother and I were both a little freaked out by the whole thing.

I have come to believe that David and I were given a last chance to talk, to say good-bye, standing there amidst those tombstones. Call it coincidence if that makes you feel more comfortable. I think of it as just one more sign that there is a benevolence at work and that once in a while it arranges for us special moments of grace, moments that are meant just for us. I can live with that.

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