Death, and the dolor which through its breath it wreaks upon the living, has pressed its chilly finger into the lives of my family recently, with what seems almost an effort to make up for lost time. I lived for twenty-five years before smelling the suffocating air that exudes from loss. And, as if the building suspense of those years justified an extraordinary climax, when mortality finally reared itself to my awareness it did so in the closest, most profoundly devastating way. It offered no clue, no time to prepare; no tolerable reason, or chronic and anguished decline that appealed to death as an escape and rendered the loss more bearable. No, this death—of my parents’ daughter, and their parents’ granddaughter, my best friend and my sister—was, in every sense, undue.
Just as an injury can halt immunity to infection, our loss shattered the pane which had afforded me a view of death without the cold damp weather with which it consorts. Once an aperture had opened, the gusts of mourning seemed hesitant to subside. They carried with them the waste and wane of my father’s wearied mother, the final gasps of my mother’s long suffering father and the sudden, ripping abduction of his exuberant, if grief addled widow. The floodgates opened and the reservoir seemed bent on emptying. In the years that followed, I have been treading just above the surface of a numbing, violet-black tide. That July, still only few years behind me, opened into an October with no end. Everything slowed and grew austere. An uninterrupted cycle of late fall evenings settled in. Life is somber and dusky; but the sadness, like a fog laden October morning, is graceful and embracing.
I’ve always found fall eerily comforting. There seems to be a familiarity about the ghosts that swim through the knee high miasma lingering in the sun’s absence. We walk within their world for a time, we step through them and feel their breath move the hairs of our arms, but we breathe different air. We catch wind of the grave and wondrous aroma, but still we are only faintly aware. Yet in the funereal overcast of the season, perhaps more acutely attuned than at other times, we seem to feel more often the brush of the unseen passersby.
These memories, that forever drift around and throughout us, that teem within our person and thus weave the fabric of our atmosphere, are the foundations of a grief that comfort those who walk the earth, and honor those who drift about it.
No more than a mile from my home, under less soil than I’ve dug from my own yard, lie the fragments of three people who have blessed my life in ways of which I have only a narrow understanding. To me, they are nothing more than the remnants of physical existence. They are the discarded capsules that once carried the curative agents, but once the medicine is administered they are no longer important. Shells and scraps. Our bodies are simply the vehicles that drive and deliver the precious cargo which we come to know as loved ones, and friends, and enemies. I find no solace at the cemetery—at any cemetery. The brilliant essayist, Willie Morris, remarked that he had “never been lonely in a cemetery,” that “[t]hey are perfect places to observe the slow changing of the seasons, and to absorb human history…” I am never more lonesome than during my brief, sporadic visits to the cemetery. To me they are places of perpetual winter—barren and frost-bitten, unresponsive, dry and unfriendly. I speak to my sister, standing there amongst the abandoned vessels of life, and I feel contrived. I sound to myself like an actor—as insincere as a forced apology. Perhaps the very act of visiting the cemetery—this resting ground for the spirit’s earthly transportation—is an apology, of sorts, for feeling as I do about something so traditionally regarded as a form of reverence and honor.
The respect that I have for those whom I’ve lost cannot be roused from an urn beneath a few feet of manicured sod. No matter how personal, how significant or impacting a grave marker may be for some—maybe for most—to me they are as cold and lifeless as the ash that it rests above, and as impersonal and blank as the blocks of granite that they are carved from. Cemeteries do not, and cannot, make me feel sadness. I feel nothing. Indeed, if the graves of my lost and gone loved-ones filled me with solemn remembrance, or awakened in me the grief that I somehow find so comforting and reassuring, than certainly the cemetery would be as welcoming and cradling for me, as it was for Willie Morris. But I feel neither the “sense of belonging,” nor the “ineffable tenderness” that Morris had come to cherish. Even the “tragedies and anguishes…the guilts and sorrows of vanished people” are absent to my perception. They have vanished indeed. The only sense that I experience is that which stems from my own memories and sentiments—my personal grief.
The dampening mist of an incessant fall that descended in a mid-simmer not long ago, and bed down to its permanent seat in the hearts of my surviving family, is the atmospheric monument of the love that once graced our lives. And now it transcends love in both intensity and endurance. It is a devotion so strong and so tender, so deep and acute that its pleasure is indistinguishable from its pain. It is mournful sorrow that flows from a wellspring of adoration, excitement, and passionate devotion to family. It is through the agony of loss and the sadness of longing that my love is filtered to such potency.