The first message arrived by the way most personal messages travel these days, via email. It announced the passing of my friend Sylvia’s sister. I called Sylvia immediately. The phone barely rang twice before Sylva answered it with her usual happy greeting.
“I heard” I said. “How are you?”
“I’m fine, sweetheart”. Her voice sounded calm and purposeful, in oppose to her normal direct and inquisitive. Her mood appeared somber, as you might expect of someone who had just lost her only sister, but her spirit was good. I listened as she described her sister’s illness, the hospitalization, the hospice care, and her recent decline in health. I never knew Sylvia’s sister personally, and the news of her death was not shocking to me. Besides, my real concern was with Sylvia.
Sylvia’s state of mind was solid and decisive. Her focus was on coordinating the funeral arrangements, and receiving the family members flying into town. We spoke for a few minutes, promising to talk again at the funeral the next day.
When the clock turned ten-thirty the next morning, I set aside my work, and prepared to leave. The cemetery was not far, and I arrived there in less than ten minutes. A small crowd had gathered at the designated grave site, talking quietly in small groups. About fifteen minutes were left until the funeral was to start. I walked downhill a few rows, and looked for a particular grave near the edge of the section.
I remembered the morning less than two years before, sitting in my bedroom. The phone rang. I looked at the display and answered with a happy Hello. My friend Susie was on the other end.
“How are you?” she asked in a tone I failed to notice.
“Great. Doing real well. How are things with you?” I answered happily.
“You don’t know” she whispered. Only now I detected the foreign tone in her voice.
“Know what?” A chill rose inside me.
“It’s Michael” she said, her voice awash with tears.
The horror unveiled itself word by word, like a movie scene projected in slow motion, frame after frame. The death of our friend Michael revealed to be violent and untimely, and more than anything, unexpected. Susie and I combed over the past few months, helping each other to construct the story using our different perspectives. We attempted to make sense of the painful facts, and console each other through the shock we both experienced. Every conclusion we arrived at felt heavier than the preceding one, mostly because they all illuminated a past we could do nothing about now.
Later that day, after Susie and I hung up, I stayed in the quiet bedroom, letting the air cool around me. Disbelief can act as an effective shock absorber, as it maintains an appropriate amount of emotion’s drip in a situation that is ripe for overdose, loss, and blindness. The incredulity trickle continued to affect me during the funeral that took place a couple of days later. Michael’s young children eulogized him in front the dense, emotional chapel. Later, after most of the mourners had left for the reception, I stood over the freshly covered grave, and whispered into the frozen air “What have you done Michael, what have you done?”
In the months since that day I drove by the cemetery a number of times each week on my way to and from home, but never stopped to go inside. Sometimes, when I waited in the red light in the intersection adjacent to the cemetery, my gaze would wonder over to the thick line of trees that keep shade over the flat gravestones. For a quick moment I would wander back to that winter day and the times that lead to it. I would sit there, thinking and wondering, fighting off disappointment and pity.
With time came perspective and wisdom, and it became clearer to understand how life unraveled for Michael. But you never really know. I still catch myself sometimes, wondering about what could have been done to change the course. How can you prevent something from happening if you are bound from seeing it? If you missed this one, what else are you not seeing? Where should you look? How much do you really know?
You can only hope you know enough.
Now, first time in almost two years later, I walked between the graves. The ground sank softly under my feet, evidence of the recent storms. I reached the area where Michael’s grave was located, and scanned the headstones for his name. It appeared near the edge of the section, and stood out from the other markers. Two flower vases flagged the headstone, which was covered with an assortment of stones. Small rough rocks, round river stones, color decorated stones, – made no doubt by a child – covered the face of the marker. Only the engraved name and date were left exposed. A silver toy car rested atop one of the flat river stones. One vase laid on its side, knocked down perhaps by weather, a high school commencement pamphlet tucked against it. I leaned down and placed it back to its upright position.
The place remained quiet, even at this late morning hour, and despite its proximity to the busy road. I stood silent, and looked down at the plush green. The air breezing from the shaded area refreshed me from the warm sun peering between the trees. I whispered a quiet hello. The wind carried the words away, leaving only the murmur of the leaves above. No words came back. The difficult questions and hard wonders were left unanswered the same way they stayed on that cold winter day. I looked up. The crowd at the top of the hill was bigger now. A man wearing a miss-matched suite and fedora called for the pallbearers to gather at the back of the hearse. I walked up the hill between the headstones and joined my friend Sylvia.
June 28, 2010