(This is an expanded version of my column in Saturday's paper.)
The last time I had been to Highland Park Cemetery was four years ago, when we buried my mother there. The time before that was 1984, for my father. Fair to say I don't like cemeteries, I guess.
It's not that I try to avoid thinking about death, at least not any more than most people. And I get as much comfort as anybody out of pulling memories of the departed back into the world of the living. It's just that cemeteries, with their orderly rows of markers and neatly mowed grass, never made me think much about living or dying, and the ritual visits left me frustrated at not having the experience I thought I should be having. My mother and sister used to go walking in the Catholic Cemetery near their northside apartment because, they said, it was such a lovely setting, gently rolling and wooded, dappled with sun and shade. That seems an incongruous description for death's resting place, but it is a lovely setting. All you have to do is not think about ghosts.
I have recently been forced to think a lot about life-and-death matters, even brood about them. My friend Vivian died a couple of weeks ago, on the seventh, and it was a grim battle at the end. She had fought back against cancer and kidney failure and heart trouble and a host of other bodily assaults for 14 years, and the cumulative effect finally overwhelmed her at the age of 81. In her 20s, she had been a model who walked on department store runways in Michigan with a co-worker named Betty Ford. In her last days, she was tethered to her bed by tubes and monitors.
Actually, Viv was the mother of my friend Lisa. But when you stumble across good people, the whole family adopts you, so Viv was my friend, too. And my sister's. And my mother's, when she was still alive. My sister had begun to join us here for my made-to-order-omelets Christmas breakfasts. “What will we do this year?” she asked me a few days after Viv's death. Even new traditions are hard to let go of.
I went with Lisa and her dad, Art, to the company that would be taking care of Viv's cremation. Art is an ex- a former Marine (see UPDATE) who survived shrapnel wounds in the Pacific during World War II, a painful hospital stay and a long and wearying rehabilitation, but this was a tougher battle for him. People being tossed between numbness and grief need a friend sometimes just to answer the simplest questions thrown at them.
The company happened to be at Highland Park, so I found myself at the cemetery for the third time in 26 years. After the cremation visit, we went looking for the Morris grave site. You can see a pond from it, and there is a small tree nearby. I took some pictures, and Art and Lisa noticed that creeping ground cover had hidden the grave markers. Before I knew it, they were both on their hands and knees, clearing the stuff away, so I took a picture of that, too.
Our time here is finite. That is the central reality of our humanity that we have to deal with, however many excuses we make for not going to cemetries.
Life goes on, even if lives don't. So we have to learn to let go and move forward, remembering but regrouping, until the gatherings come around to us and it's our turn to be let go of. I don't know exactly what we'll do for Christmas this year. It's the gathering itself that's important, so we'll think of something that helps us remember Viv's part in the previous ones.
(UPDATE: Art informs me there is no such thing as "an ex-Marine." The proper term is "former Marine," or even "a Marine formerly on active duty