Life’s — and Death’s — Lessons

I visited my father the other day.

Generally, these visits consist of my kneeling before a concrete slab, embedded in which is a plaque bearing Dad’s name and two salient dates. I tell him how much we miss him and how glad we are that he’s in a better place, and then I bring him up to date on the latest happenings.

Visits to my father are quiet, contemplative times. Catching the Breeze by Steve Henderson.

Nobody looks funnily at you when you speak aloud in a cemetery; the only other safe place I have found to similarly converse is the interior of the car, when I am its only occupant. (The bathtub doesn’t work — even though no one else is in the room, the walls are thin. “Who are you talking to in there?” some family member shouts out.)

Anyway, when I was done, I looked up and around, my eye drawn to the memorial section across the path, pretty difficult to miss since it is filled with large, opulent, easily observable marble and concrete creations, in stark contrast to my father’s side of the tracks, replete with quiet, self-effacing ground level plaques and diffident floral offerings.

“Wow,” was my first thought. “Even in death the rich push themselves forward.”

But death is the great equalizer, and I wandered over to the other side, to see who was represented there.

And discovered that these people — and most significantly their survivors — are rich not so much in finances as they are in pain.

One eight-foot monolithic obelisk bore the embedded photo of a young man, 30-something when he died. Flanked on either side were flower pots etched with images of three young children — his? They would be in college by now.

Another long slab bore testament to Our Much Adored Son and Our Treasured Daughter-in-law, young when they married, too young when they died, their parents’ grief memorialized in two simple etchings.

It’s so easy to say, but so difficult to truly grasp: the things that matter in life are love, friendship, family, laughter — rich and poor, we can all strive for these. Afternoon Tea by Steve Henderson

There were a surprising number of babies, and toddlers, and schoolchildren, jumbled amongst people whose two dates spanned 80, 90, 100 years — what we generally expect to find in a cemetery — and the people left behind expressed their aching loss in Bible verses, perennial plants, and heartrending phrases, like, “Sleep, Little One.”

I was humbled, and mentally slapped for my quick jump to judgment. Death is, indeed, the great equalizer, and walking through a cemetery you get merely a glimpse of the lives impacted there, with just enough clues to feed your imagination and fuel your questions.

A large memorial may, or may not mean, that the person was rich and influential, or poor and well loved. A simple plaque hides a lifetime of achievement and grace, or bitterness and hate, or everything in between. I know that my father’s basic plaque says nothing about his famous all-day-to-cook spaghetti sauce, his research in tropical diseases, his inordinate sense of pride the first time he replaced the knob and lock on the front door.

People — big, small, old, young, cranky, sweet — these are worth investing in. Seaside Story poster by Steve Henderson

And when I turn to the land of the still living, I see people dressed in everything from rags to imported Mongolian Yak leather, ranging in confidence from nothing at all to far more than I can handle right now, bossy and humble, sleek and disheveled, skinny and . . . not so skinny, outside projections protecting the person deep within, and I ask myself,

“Can I possibly avoid being fooled by outside appearances, and take time to be patient with this person?”

I hope so, and I’ll keep trying, and the next time I visit Dad, I’ll let him know how it’s going.

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