Friday, December 29, 2017
[I wrote this in November, but got side-tracked and am just tweaking and posting it today.]
When you make the second turn down the short road, you see a sign that reads: Low/Soft Shoulder. Just like every journey to the cemetery, a soft shoulder is needed. When you go a bit further another sign greets you: No Outlet. I’m not sure if the sign is referring to the dead or to the rest of us.
The cemetery is Daniel’s Place, named by my children twenty years ago. On this late autumn morning, the sun casts gentle shadows across my son’s small marble marker as the old oak nearby stretches towards Heaven.
When Daniel died at age four after nine months of treatment for cancer (neuroblastoma), I came up with some ideas. First off, I didn’t order a large grave stone. And I didn’t want flower vases. A marker with a built-in vase would mean responsibility and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to visit the grave often enough to replenish the flowers for the vase. Fresh flowers would be best; I wasn’t a fan of plastic ones that faded in the heat of the summer sun. But would I have time (at six months pregnant with a six-year-old and a one-year-old) to buy flowers or pick them from the garden and take them to Daniel's Place? If I had any extra time, I was sure that the rest of society would benefit more if I used it to shower or brush my teeth.
How often was I going to come to this place, remote from the rest of life? I wasn’t going to be one of those Sunday cemetery visitors, heading over after each church service to pay a visit to my son, was I? Besides, I wasn’t sure that this place was going to be one I’d want to visit. Daniel’s memories were at the house where he played with the neighbor kids and his siblings. The garden on the side of our house held the memories of when he picked green tomatoes by the rose bushes. The roses would bloom and be his memorial flowers.
"I'm going to do great things in your memory," I said one March day as the wind made me want to jump into the warmth of my Mom Van, not stand by Daniel's grave. "I'm not sure what I'll do, but it will be great." Oh, the things I would do, could do.
Twenty years later, I have found that the flowers in the grave vases still look fake, staged, and often forlorn.
Also, I have realized that over those years, I still have not done anything great.
But I have learned lessons that only time could have taught me about life and death and the things we do in memory.
We have this continual need to care for our loved ones. We want to do things in their memory. Unlike flowers, our love and our relationship with them does not ever fade and wither. When the living can adorn the grave of their loved ones, that shows another way to say I still love you. I still care. So I bring pinwheels, helium balloons, and solar lights, and yes, even an occasional flower. I write a poem or short story and tuck it away to edit and perhaps, share.
The amazing truth is that over the years, love grows. My love for my living children, husband, and friends has grown.
And my love for Daniel has grown, too. I tell his stories, the silly jokes he recited at age four from a tattered joke book, and watch others smile.
It is love that remains.
And that's a pretty great lesson to have learned.