lessons from a gravedigger

I stood at the upstairs bedroom window for a few minutes this morning, watching as a man chipped away at the cold, hard ground, squaring up the sides of a new grave in the cemetery that butts up against our backyard fence.

People sometimes tell me they think it would be weird to live in the shadow of a graveyard, but I’ve really learned to love it. It’s like a library to me.

Whenever I walk out there, I think about the hundreds of life stories there that are now forever silenced. I love to look way up at the trees, through the trunks of giant oaks and evergreens that rise like columns supporting a ceiling formed by their interlocking crowns. And the gravestones – which date back to the earliest founders of this city – are sort of like rows of books. (Seriously, the dead are way more organized than the living.) Those stones bear the names of those who’ve been blotted from the pages of life; some of whom may have been forgotten out there in the world – but are always remembered in the cemetery just beyond our back door.

As I looked out at the grey day, I saw the digger heave himself out of the finished grave and I wondered about the person who will take up residence in that plot of earth soon. Were they old? Young? Did they die in the middle of their life? In the middle of a sentence? Tragically? Beautifully? Surrounded by love? Alone? Were they afraid? At peace? Did they have regrets? I wonder a lot of things about death.

When we learned that my mom was dying in late 2019 – like the-end-was-most-certainly-just-around-the-corner-dying – she wasn’t afraid. She said as much. And, as all the moments were gathering toward the last one, I wondered about that. It had been hard to admit what we had each known to be true in the secret chambers of our hearts for several months before – that she was actively dying. But, as we hurtled toward the end, she would only say that while she didn’t want to let us down, and she didn’t want to leave Dad, she had endured the suffering on the other side of the sublime for as long as she could. She clung to her faith in The Next. And I clung to her promise that she would always be with me.

I had been chronicling her cancer journey in journals and through my blog for many months before she died. It was a way to resurrect the deep pain in me, giving it a place to live that wasn’t in my body. It hadn’t occurred to me then that the story I would most long to tell was about my love for her, my grief over her death, and my gratitude for her light in my life. I didn’t know that part of the way I’d make her present in her visceral absence would be to share stories of her through my writing. Both the hard and the wonderful. And that I’d make her alive in the hearts and minds of people she knew – and so many she’d never met. And in doing so, I’d keep her alive for me, too.

She’s the one who taught me that our stories survive us. That they’re with us. And always will be. And she reminded me this morning as I watched out the window, that cemeteries are full of indispensable people. Moms and dads, children, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, and special aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. People we all once believed we could never live without – and maybe some of us still believe that on the hardest days.

Those we love never truly leave us. And the cemetery then, isn’t really their true final resting place. The real graveyard is somewhere deep in our heart, where we can always visit them at any time of the day, to talk about unforgettable summers and Christmases, or to cry in solitude as if they were always there to stay, just for us. They are immune to our earthly prison of time. Waiting for us somewhere close by, in another room, wanting the same things for us as we wish for ourselves: comfort, love and a peaceful heart.

As I stood there watching out the window this morning, I thought about how our lives are really just a collection of moments that are not ours to keep. The people and the experiences we have loved and lived for, are never really ours. They’re fleeting teachers, showing us how to love and to let go – over and over and over again.

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