Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Confessions of a Reluctant Grave Digger

I am fortunate to have incredibly talented people in my life, artists who produce beautiful paintings and photographs, jack-of-all-trades who continually impress me with handy(wo)man/problem solving/crafting creativity, and friends far smarter than me who challenge me and simply make my life more interesting.  I also happen to know more than my fair share of amazing writers.  While all make a living doing something else and all are far too humble to admit their talent, I wanted to take a few weeks to spotlight their literary skills.  This month, I have six or seven friends who have agreed to continue the "Lessons in ...." series that I started last month.

First up is an old Centre College pal who I met in 1998 and have kept in touch with over the years.  Although he went to school in Metcalfe County, we didn't meet until college.  He was in a band. He drove a green El Camino. He was hilarious. In short, he was far cooler than me.  Shaun now lives in Tennessee with his wonderful wife and precious daughter and is a public school teacher.

Confessions of a Reluctant Grave Digger
by Shaun C. Smith
in loving memory of Loette Smith
                I was sitting in the backseat of my parents' car with my hand on the door handle. I knew when I opened the door I would once again be bombarded with the onrush of summerhot Texas air into the for-the-last-second-cool cabin of the car. We had driven into the dusty grave yard accompanied by a few other cars bearing assorted family members. I had been looking forward to Grandma's service for the chance we would all have at emotional release, but had started to dread it due to the finality it brought with it. It didn't help that the graveyard was quite a bit older, not one of those fancy new grave yards they have these days with well-manicured lawns, flower maintenance/management programs, and markers that have been kept neat and straight since day one. Many of the markers were care of Modern Woodmen of the World and gave the grounds the look and feel of a petrified forest (you may want to look that up if you haven't seen a field full of Modern Woodmen of the World markers, pretty impressive stuff). Either way, I knew the first thing I would do after catching my breath from the barrage of hot that would attack my face and person the moment I exited the vehicle would be to find the pastor or preacher in charge and follow his lead.
                Grandma was from Texas. She married Grandpa in Louisiana. They moved to the San Francisco Bay Area of California. Grandpa died out there in the 1980s. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered on the Bay. Toward the end of her life, Grandma moved to Kentucky so my Dad could help take care of her. It wasn't too long before she started having mini-strokes and started falling. It was a fairly quick decline and rather tragic. I got to tell her good-bye and rub her feet for her one more time, I hope she heard me and knew it was me. It happened in February or one of those months before or after. She was cremated. 
                Grandma loved her father and her step-mother. In fact, her wishes were to have her ashes interred alongside them. They are both buried in Eustace, Texas. Good luck finding that on a map, but I'm sure if you looked hard enough, you would find it eventually. Grandpa, at one point, ran his own newspaper there and my Dad was born there (at home, not in the hospital) and eventually, Grandma would return there indefinitely.
                When Grandma passed away, we knew she was going to be cremated, so there was no rush to have a funeral. Because her wishes involved interment in a different time zone, and because ashes don't decompose we decided to wait until we would be headed to Texas for our family reunion later that summer. Waiting for the family reunion made it convenient for everyone to be there. Considering the vast majority of mourners were also on the family reunion invitation list, it just made sense. I took a lot of comfort in waiting for summer, I also figured it gave my parents enough time to get the service planned and make all the necessary arrangements over the phone or by email. One of the things I was most excited about in regards to waiting for the reunion was the chance to spend some time with my cousin, who is really more like a sister. I knew I would be able to help comfort her as she had spent several years living with Grandma and had been incredibly close to her.
                My Mom, Dad, and I left from Bowling Green, Kentucky late one night in their car, along with a puppy (long story). We were leaving at night because I had always been able to drive through the night and figured it would be a great way to give my parents the chance to sleep in the car and arrive somewhat rested in the morning. Around about Jackson, Tennessee, I learned that a lot had changed in the past few years and night driving was no longer my friend. My Dad couldn't sleep because he wanted to make sure I was awake. When I realized that I had some "staying awake" concerns, he took over for me so I could sleep. I soon realized that I couldn't sleep because I wanted to stay awake to make sure my Dad could stay awake. It was a Catch 22 of sorts. I suppose the smart move would have been to get a hotel room, sleep, and then wake up early, but we had places to be in the morning. So, the rest of the night went on in endless, startled awakeness with all of the bleary eyed terror that accompanies one of those through-the-night-but-no-one-really-wants-to-be-awake-and-in-a-car rides.
                Upon our arrival, we became nomads in search of place to rest. We sought refuge first at our hotel, booked for the night, but were laughed at for our request for an early check in (at 7:00 am). We headed to my Dad's cousin's house. She said we could let ourselves in, but she was going to a doctor's appointment. It was another lengthy drive on top of the incredible sojourn we had just completed, but we had a breakfast in us and the sun was out. We made it, found our way in, and instinctively found the softest surfaces we could find, faceplanted and passed out.
                Upon awakening, the reuniting began as my Uncle and his family had also arrived. As he was my Dad's only brother, this was an "immediate" family reunion of sorts. From that point forward, the service was the farthest thing from the forefront of my mind. We eventually made it back to the hotel and got in our rooms. Some of us went to sleep; some of us went out to eat. The next morning found us all fairly well rested and happy to be together as a family. We ate breakfast before we left to go the "not-so-immediate" family reunion.
                It was hot; we reunited. At a certain point in the day, those that wished to pay their respects to Grandma started doing that thing where you have to do something and you don't really want to do it, but you know you have to do it, so you look at someone who must also do that thing you know you have to do, but don't really want to do and make that face that says, "I don't really want to do this, but I know I have to do it," and then actually physically speak the word, "well," which is understood by the second person as a sign that we now must collectively gather the others who have to go do the thing they don't really want to do, but have to do and then tell them that the time has arrived for doing the thing that we all have to do, but we don't really want to go do. Of course, not to say that nobody wanted to do it, it was just a somber occasion. Sure, if we'd all had our druthers, Grandma would have been at the reunion with us. The fact of the matter was that she wasn't with us and we had to get to the service.
                So we drove out there. It took about an hour to get there and I remember at some point, my Dad said, "This is Eustace." I looked up and saw a wide spot in the road with a police station on the left and a cemetery on the right. We turned right and pulled into the cemetery. I remember being somewhat surprised that no one was there to meet us. I made it a point to look immediately for the person in charge of the service when I got out of my parents' car.
                People were getting out of their cars and I figured I needed to join them. My Dad made his way to the trunk as I got adjusted to the blast furnace heat. I hoped for a nice breeze, but I hadn't felt one since we'd crossed the border the day before. My Dad called me over to the trunk and handed me something. It was a shovel.
"What's this for?" I asked.
"To dig the hole."
"What hole?"
"The hole for the ashes."
"Where are the ashes?"
"Here," he handed me a box.
I suddenly understood the definition of "aghast". All this time, we'd been driving state to state, through the night, reuniting with family, cousin’s house sleeping, bed crashing, breakfast eating, and puppy delivering (again, long story) all with the intent of holding a service for Grandma and all the while, her ashes (and the shovel that would dig the hole in which to place them) had been riding along with us in the trunk.
"Dad," I asked, aghast, "who's going to dig the hole?"
"You are," he answered matter of factly, as if I had stopped paying attention during that part of the conversation we had never had in which we discussed the plans for the service.
"Who's going to do the service?"
"We are," he answered matter of factly, as if I had stopped paying attention during that part of the conversation we (again) had never had in which we discussed the plans for the service.
"Dad, there's a police station right across the street! I think this is illegal!" I countered, once again, aghast.
"Well, we'll just form a wall between you and the police station. The hole doesn't have to be that big, you know." He did have a point there.
And so, as my immediate and not-so-immediate family formed a wall between me, my shovel, and my Grandma's ashes, some Bible verses were read, some prayers were prayed, some tears were shed, and then, I dug a small hole between the graves of my Great-Grandfather and Step-Great-Grandmother. When I was done, it was time to lay Grandma to rest. As I turned the bag of ashes over to return ash to dust, I got my breeze. Of course, my back was to my family, so no one noticed. My cousin brought me the small marker that had been made so I could put it into place. "What's on your shirt?" she asked through what had just been heavy tears.
"Grandma." I answered, with what should have been a stronger variation of aghastness. But oddly, I was no longer aghast. I was actually comforted by what I had just done and although I was a bit unsure of what to do with Grandma's ashes that covered the front of my shirt, my cousin and I leaned down and placed the marker over the ashes that had made it into the ground. When we stood back up, my cousin helped my brush off the front of my shirt. The not so immediate family slowly took off and the immediates stayed back to say good bye to each other and eventually, we left to drive back to Kentucky.

                I realized on the ride home, that I had been very fortunate to have the experience I had just had. Not many people get to literally bury someone they love these days with a day's worth of labor or heavy machinery. It was fast and simple, but a very tangible act of love that left me with a different view of death. Death is not just an end, but also an opportunity to quantify your feelings for someone. These days, people show their love in a time of death by pouring money into things that will be seen for hours at best, then buried forever. What an incredible honor it was to bury my Grandmother, by hand, in front of my family. The experience, although it caught me off guard, has been one of the most enlightening and spiritual I have ever had. It was an incredible chance to do just one more act of love for her. I can only hope that when my time comes, I'm surrounded by family and friends that would be willing to drive  700 or so miles only to form a human barricade between a graveyard and a police station just so they can lay me to rest. Of course, I hope that isn't necessary for a very long time.

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