August 26, 2005

Notes from Graveside

The man from the funeral home has a deformed left hand attached to a half-length arm – he doesn’t seem to notice the condition, nor does anyone else. The hearse driver has a fat, red, wrinkled face under his shock of white hair, blinks spasmodically behind dark glasses, and has a creased earlobe – the sign of future stroke. The young woman at the cemetery office is slim and brown and earringed, and looks so comfortable at her leisurely work – looking up plot numbers, offering forms to sign – that I imagine her sitting at the same desk, stouter, double-chinned, when the body in the hearse will be me.

I hug people I haven’t seen in thirty years and may never see again, and the hugs are completely sincere. Each person who wants to pours the customary shovelful of earth onto the lowered coffin in its hole. After the ceremony I walk from grave to grave, placing the traditional pebble on each relative’s headstone to commemorate my visit. Do these stones sense the addition of a pebble’s weight? Favorite uncle, do you know I’m here, waiting for one of your rollicking stories? And you other one, uncle I never met, do you know me somehow, you whose deaths set in motion that events that led to my birth?

At the restaurant afterwards, I eavesdrop on five white-haired people talking brightly of an overseas trip to their ancestral land, to a wedding. A dress is described, and an inherited shawl, and the friendliness of faroff nephews and nieces. “We hated to leave.”

We drive a long way through unfamiliar streets. On a lawn, an old woman stands blowing away the first leaves of autumn. A young mother walks alongside her two sons, on tricycle and training bike, wearing helmets to keep them from harm. And then the shops of all those who help us get where we’re going: the gas station, the coffeehouse, the florist’s, the car rental…

How do they do it? They seem as heroic to me as Norse gods – more so, for in the old stories the gods’ end was far away, while for these people it’s next year, at most a few years, maybe even this year.

“Have a good day.”

“Have a safe trip.”

“Is everything okay for you?”

Defiant war cries flung in the face of the infinite.