Thursday, January 20, 2011
Apologies to anyone who finds these cemetery posts a little shady and dark. I don't mean them to be. I'm always looking for ways to better appreciate the gift of life, and I find powerful motivation for living well in contemplating the too-short and often tragic lives of others. The route I run every day, weather permitting, leads me to a tiny Methodist cemetery, where a little white clapboard church once stood. I loved that church, loved the phoebes who nested in the foyer, loved its weathered whitewashed siding and its raccoon-soiled pews, and I hated to see it razed and burned down. That's what a township has to do when a building is beyond repair and kids are going there to drink and raise hell and in doing so probably fall through the rotting floor. All that's left of the church is a dip in the hilltop. The scorched tops of the cedars that stood closest to it tell of the fire that consumed its clapboard, its wooden pews, its probably bat-graced belfry. How the two trees lived through it I'll never know. I figured they'd die right away, but they haven't; they just keep right on going. I don't think they're growing any more, but they're alive, and that's something.
I think a lot about Osborn and Adaline Congleton, who lost their son Thomas at age 25, and their first daughter Ida at only six months. Ida B. was born the day after Phoebe, albeit 119 years earlier. Like me, Ida's mother carried her in the heat of summer. I know what that's like, but I can't imagine having to say goodbye to her the next January, when you've barely gotten the chance to know her.
What more defining events could Osborn and Adaline have experienced? How did they go on? Like the twin cedars, scarred by fire, they just did.
Our Loved Ones Await Us
As Robert Frost, who had a terribly tragic life filled with loss, wrote,
"In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life: it goes on."
There is nothing quite so clarifying as standing at the grave of a child who never got to grow up and have her own children, a child who never got the chance to delight her parents by becoming a person in her own right. To think of Liam and Phoebe, who but for advances in medicine, might already be done with their lives…well, it’s hard to go on feeling sorry for oneself when you stand by a little obelisk, toppled by frost heaves, and you turn it over, for it’s just light enough to move, and puzzle over the names and dates until it sinks in on you just what happened here on your road in a house long gone, 117 years ago. You look around at the young cutover woods and realize there were farmsteads and houses all along it, and women giving birth in back bedrooms and people falling ill and not getting better, even the sweet young girls and the youngest dearest babies.
Standing at the grave of Catherine and Jane King, who both left their parents at ages 14 and 10 in the second week of January, 1892 (doubtless from influenza), I resolved to make something worthwhile of the day.
I don't know what happened to Jane, Emma, Delia and Grace Long, but I can only surmise, from the miniature headstone that remembers them, that they died very young.
Living in the 20th and now 21st centuries, we have been spared so much, and we simply cannot realize it, cannot carry through the thought of how incredibly blessed we are for more than a few minutes at a time. We fuss and fume about the tiny indignities; the slights and inconsiderations that life heaps on everyone. We let ourselves be consumed by small concerns, and forget to look around at the abundance that surrounds us, to listen to the laughter of our healthy children, to bury our noses in their sweet hair and thank God or grace or modern medicine or whatever combined forces that have worked together to allow us to watch them grow up.
So I visit this cemetery every morning in clouds and rain and mist, in snow and in rare sunshine, and each morning I choose another stone to contemplate. I piece together a little story and so often it is of parents grieving for their young ones. And when I’ve wiped the tears away I turn back to the gravel road and kick my feet up as high in the air as I can (which is not very high any more, but high enough). I stretch the live, strong muscles I have been given to use and set off down the road for home, resolved to make something of the day.