Everyone has a story.A couple years ago one of my neighbours gave me an exercise bicycle. He knew I was losing weight and had one kicking about the garage–did I want it? I took it off his hands; in return he asked that I give a little money to charity. The bike had belonged to his wife’s parents, who were now too old and too ill to use it. It would only have continued taking up space; this way I’d benefit from it as would a charity that helped people in the same position as his mum- and dad-in-law
I rode the bike on a daily basis and dropped a hell of a lot of weight. That was my story, one I’ve told on this blog before.
A couple weeks back the same neighbour knocked on the door. His wife’s mother had died, he said. They’d been close, she was distraught and he–rather at a loose end as to how to deal with this–had come to tell me; he thought I should know.
This week he came knocking again. His father-in-law had died, not a fortnight after his wife. “They pine away, when they get to that age,” he said–but he then elaborated, saying he didn’t think his father-in-law had pined away at all. Both he and his wife were certain that confronted with the prospect of living without his beloved the old man had committed suicide. It was a theory they’d otherwise kept to themselves, that they didn’t investigated. They’d been offered an inquest into how he’d died but declined it; on his death certificate the physician wrote that he’d died of heart disease.
Today my own father drove me to the garden of remembrance at which we’d scattered the ashes of my paternal grandparents. It’s a wet day and the roads between here and there had flooded numerous times. The rain itself was indecisive, falling torrentially, then in scant, heavy drops, then not at all. The world outside seemed to phase in and out as if we were searching through radio frequencies, trying to find the right one.
It’s surprising the data stored by the human brain. Though I’d only been there two or three times before I recognised the cemetery. It’s hardly surprising: so many times I’ve written about death here, with such angst and such passion. I’ve spent too much of my life near the dying, and am constantly reminded that I’ve been left behind by those dear to me now gone, as have we all. The world we live in is full of ghosts. It was made and lived in by people who came before us: we will forever be those who came after.
This place of the dead is in fact nothing of the sort. It’s a place for the living, where we go to remember. Written everywhere–every wall, every plaque, every stone and every tree–are the same three words: In loving memory. It’s a place the dead only visited to mourn those who went before them.
Those final moments–buried, or cremated and scattered–are moments of finality only for us: our last chance to say goodbye. The last seconds of the deceased’s life bled long hours and days before they were removed here, to the chapel of repose and the gardens behind. Only skin, meat and bone remained, only tooth and hair: a toy now broken, a body, now a corpse.
Rows of grave markers lined the cemetery’s gentle curves like saplings in an orchard. It’s a strange feeling, knowing each one marks an absent soul, that occasionally ebbs into heartbreak when you notice the headstones in heart shapes, the headstones with teddy bears and balloons engraved in the corners. In loving memory, over and over, and I wondered how painful it must be to have so few memories of someone so important, whom you never had the time to get to know.
The graveyard stretches for a good distance; I couldn’t tell its limits standing so close to the chapel. Further out the city reeled on, but even though there must have been walls or gates or trees I couldn’t see any clear line delineating the land of the living from that of the dead. Only at the entrance where we’d come in did the cemetery come to an end; in every other direction it stretched eternally.
The garden was close to the entrance–just a short drive and off the gravel path, opposite the chapel where a service was in session. A sign outside asked for our respectful quiet. It didn’t have to.
There were tiles around the outside of the garden’s walls, as if it had contained so much woe it overspilled to the cemetery outside. On every tile both without and within those same three words, In loving memory, names of strangers and the dates upon which they’d been born and had died.
It wasn’t a peaceful day at the garden of remembrance. Workers maintaining the grounds were hosing dirt from the plaques, sawing errant branches from the trees and rosebushes. One sang a song occasionally, quite forgetting anyone else was there to hear him.
I knew this place. I knew it like I’d been there many times–so many times–in dreams, lost in a writer’s fug, always standing the same place, small and doused in dust.
Not dust: ash.
Someone had spilled the ash of a loved one in the corner where I’d said my final farewells to my grandad and gran, many years apart. She hadn’t pined away without him so much as her clockwork had gradually run down. Eventually she’d become barely mobile, a statue with the scantest spark of life, shuffling from her bedroom to her seat in the kitchen, spending her final days existing, not living.
I hadn’t gone to her funeral–I couldn’t. I’d been to one and that was enough for someone still so young, who’d seen so much. I went to the garden days after and luxuriated in its quietude. I’d cried, of course.
Flowers were strewn here and there, in wreathes, in bunches or alone. Two floral displays nestled side-by-side–MUM read one; DAD the other–might have indicated two spouses who’d died as they’d lived: close together. Just as likely, they might have been disparate souls who’d now fled the Earth, and were remembered individually by families standing side-by-side with strangers.
Being dismal Autumn, the rose trees weren’t in bud, and looked more like skeletal hands bursting free from the ground. I had to smile at that–a grimace if ever there was one. Sometimes it’s difficult for me to shut off the writer’s side of my mind; it describes everything I see as though it’s writing as I stand there, noting the slanting chapel roof, the overgrown crypt, the strange golden quality of the sunlight, the plastic crucifix in the corner, nestled next to flower vase that looked like a pepper pot.
I remembered being there before, but I didn’t remember them as I wanted to, as I went out there to do so. I couldn’t imagine what they might think of me now that I’m moving away from this life, such as it has been. Though they’re never far from my thoughts they’re gone, and have been for the longest time.
I’d travelled to the cemetery to say goodbye to them. Instead, I was saying it to myself.
My dad showed me a small room to the side of the chapel. Inside was a glass case in which a book listed those interred and cremated at the cemetery. Every day someone opens the case, puts on the gloves set to one side and turns the page, so those left behind might come on anniversaries and see their loved ones’ names. If I’d ever known the book existed I’d forgotten all about it until then.
I wish I’d come earlier to see their names. There are a lot of things I wish I’d done earlier.
Back in the garden one of the plaques had read Reunited, and had the passing dates of a husband and wife who’d died thirty years apart. Though it’s been a matter of months I’ve been separated from my wife for far too long. I can’t imagine how it would feel to live on without her: not for two weeks, not for three decades.
Poetic license demanded that the sky would open the second I got back into the car and we drove from the cemetery for the very last time–it didn’t. Beneath the same fickle weather we’d driven out in, we went to my living gran’s house, where I said goodbye to her, too, for what I fear is the very last time.
The end is near, but beyond it is a new beginning: a second chance to live. Not many people get to write a second story. Some, foreseeing only dark chapters ahead write their endings too soon; it’s their only chance to live happily ever after.
What I’ve been given is a special and delicate thing and something I’d be wise to take care of, lest the rain wash it away.
I’m going to be with my wife again. Not everyone gets the same chance.