In the last couple of years, four widowers have been sitting together every day at dinner in the old folks home where my father-in-law has lived for the last decade or so. The dorm-room like place has a few other men, but their wives are still their roommates and dinner partners. So the four gents were alone, happily munching down the food none of them think much of.
Last week, one of them didn't show up for breakfast, which is, in the Home, startling news. Sure enough, sometime in the evening, he'd sat down in his Lay-Z-Boy and never got up. That's where he was found. Death had come again to the Home, very sadly to my father-in-law, and yet, oddly enough, encouragingly because all of them fear dying and just loved the old man's noble exit. Few of the residents fear the life to come, but all of them are afraid of long, agonizing battles their bodies may well put up when their minds and souls would just as soon forgo the fisticuffs.
My mother would just as soon go, quite frankly. She believes herself bound for glory--why not embark on that sweet path? But she fears the passage. A death like that of Dad's friend, who she didn't know, is an encouragement, a reminder of what might be.
Death is vastly more real to these two parents of mine, both of them 94 years old, than it is to me. They experience it in the neighborhood sometimes as often as once a month, when residents of the homes they live in simply don't show up for breakfast or when the ambulance comes to take someone from down the hall to another place, a home where they can receive additional medical care and from which they only rarely return.
Dying a fact of life for them. I swear my heart bled last week when my father's good friend left a gaping hole at the dinner table, as others have, many others.
But death is a fact of life for all of us, too. "No young man thinks he shall ever die," wrote William Hazlett, correctly--and that's a good thing, too. Brooding, like musing, is best left for those whose futures are far shorter than their pasts.
For the last couple of decades I've been a cemetery bum, not because of some dark dalliance with death, some sort of death wish, but because history is alive in a graveyard, especially if you know some names. But even if you don't know the people, even if it's a country churchyard on a couple of acres you've never seen before, gravestones tell a community's story in a profound silence that's opens up with human meaning and character. They're great places to visit, even for those many who wouldn't want to live there.
I have no relatives, no close relatives, in the Oostburg (WI) Cemetery, but I know the names. I spent some time there on Sunday morning, mostly because I like cemeteries, especially if I'm alone in them. And, forgive me if you think this is maudlin, but I like shooting pictures when the warm light of dawn drenches the stones and enrobes them in long shadows. Almost anyone, including Hazlett's young men, can do a lot worse on a Sabbath morning than a take a walk in a cemetery.
Welcome to Oostburg's. It just seemed that the Wailin' Jennys "Bright Morning Star," a capella, was playing beneath the wide arms of the lakeshore pines.
It was a good morning to be out there.