Afternoons in the Graveyard
The graveyard is an accident, a strange circumstance wrought out of desperation. It is also exactly what I need. My twenty-one-month-old son bursts out of the car like an escaped zoo animal, careening into the sunlight. My husband chases after him as he beelines towards a brightly glowing pinwheel adorning a grave. A man in a folding chair next to a nearby headstone looks up in alarm. I wave apologetically in his direction, but he does not seem to notice.
Slowly, I climb out of the passenger seat, my insides still raw from childbirth. My ten-day-old baby is asleep. His tiny head is slumped to the side. My heart drops in my chest, as it does nearly every time I find him sleeping. Is he still breathing? I hold my own breath and steady my gaze on him, so I can be certain the movement is coming from him.
His miniature chest rises and falls. I exhale. Even in sleep, the breath of a newborn looks exaggerated, like they have just gone for a run. Jaundice makes him appear vaguely like an oversized squash, although the pediatrician informed me at his visit that everything is going beautifully.
Motherhood has left me bereft for reasons I cannot fully articulate. I feel the joy that is expected of me as well, but this does not cancel out the sadness I so carefully conceal. To speak of grief as a new parent can feel blasphemous. When my mother had daily crying spells following the birth of her first child, the nurse told her that she had no right to be sad with a beautiful, healthy baby by her side. The graveyard gives me a way into this strange paradox that is the never-ending dance of motherhood.
We find ourselves here one week into quarantine. Our usual hiking spot is a mob scene of outdoor enthusiasts, far too many unmasked. Hungry for green open space, I beg my husband to pull into the cemetery adjacent to it. The same rolling foothills, lush with life, fill the horizon. People (or living ones anyway) are few and far between. I am immediately comforted here, reminded that beauty and tranquility exist amidst grief.
The specter of death looms large in the early stages of life, the tenuousness of beginning a reminder of the constant possibility of termination. This ghost now haunts us perpetually, with heightened urgency. In Ecuador, corpses line the streets. In Brooklyn, bodies are piled into trucks. While nursing each night, I religiously check the tally of the dead on my phone. I want more than a number to turn over in my head, though. I want that number to make sense. I want to feel that number, to cradle it in my arms as though it were my own baby.
Each weekday afternoon for the next month, we pile into our steel blue Mazda and head to the graveyard, like any family of four off to make memories. My toddler chases after balls in an adjacent field dotted with wildflowers—glowing poppies, velvety fiddlenecks, fairy lanterns, and blue-eyed grass. Every so often, he runs after turkeys who reluctantly share the field. My husband sprints after him, on occasion detouring to urinate in bushes towards the back while I silently curse him for the ease with which he moves through life. I lumber along, the baby nestled in a wrap against me. Sometimes I join my son and husband in the empty field, but more often, I weave my way through graves like a lost penguin.
When my father passed away, I avoided the gritty reality of death. My mom called to ask me if they should wait to cremate my father’s body until I returned home and could see him one last time, and I gave a quick and resounding no. I was thousands of miles away in Israel, visiting my sister and her family. I had just arrived that day in Ramat Gan via Tel Aviv. My mother said that he must have been waiting until we were reunited—as though while my father’s body was failing and he waned in and out of consciousness, he managed to make one final loving gesture towards us. I wanted to believe her. What I struggled to admit is that I was secretly glad I was across the world, in a place where grieving was interwoven into the fabric of daily existence—a garment I could admire but did not have to wear.
Sitting shiva, the Jewish way of mourning, was a novelty to me. Customs vary depending on your level of observance and geographical proximity to the departed—for us it primarily meant staying at home while people brought us food. The foreignness of it all soothed me, turning death into something abstract, freeing me from the burden of needing to make sense of it, to answer anyone when they uttered their condolences:
“Hamakom y’nachem etchem b’toch sh’ar availai tziyon ee yerushalayim.”
“May God comfort you amongst all the mourners,” my sister translated for me. The idea of all mourners being lumped together struck me as odd at first, but then seemed natural and appealing. I pictured a room with no walls, full of people brought together through their tears, the salty water running off to form an endless sea.
The strangers, mostly relatives of my sister’s husband, delivered sumptuous platters—dishes I did not know the names for, along with more familiar fare—chicken, Israeli salad, hummus, challah bread. At first, I could not eat anything; the idea of savoring food at this time felt wrong; it made me want to vomit.
Shiva goes on for seven days; the food and people kept coming. Strangers from the synagogue, strangers from the swim club. How did my sister even know so many people? After a couple of days of munching on dried fruit and nuts like a field mouse, I allowed myself a full meal. I piled my plate with casseroles and pastries of every color of the rainbow, each morsel more delicious than the last. I went back for seconds. I was voracious.
As I walk with my baby through the graveyard, I read headstones like storybooks, filling in the details with my sleep-deprived and delirious imagination. The cemetery was established recently, in 1971, and some headstones feature photographs of the deceased. I am shocked by how many die young, even in the nauseatingly affluent Silicon Valley. Sometimes on the way home, I google names I can recall. No sense comes, even when answers do. A family of four died in a plane crash. A three-year-old of leukemia.
I often find myself frequenting the corner of the cemetery reserved for babies and children, the pain in my womb palpable as I look down at their epitaphs. Though this would seem like a terrible choice, given my history of postpartum anxiety, it feels surprisingly right. People who suffer from phobias are often treated with exposure therapy, where they confront the things that frighten them by peacefully immersing themselves in their respective entities of dread—a scenic view from the balcony to treat acrophobia, a short trip to the store for agoraphobia.
The serene atmosphere is an unexpected antidote to the intrusive and sometimes graphic thoughts that visit me in more ordinary moments. These thoughts catch me off guard, although they crop up so persistently that they are not entirely unexpected either. One moment, I will be walking down the hall of our apartment holding the baby, starry-eyed as any new mom, and the next moment I will be overcome with dread. Will this be the moment that I snap? I envision myself breaking like a brittle piece of candy—my arms giving way underneath me, my baby falling to an unknown fate. Such thoughts plague me daily, undermining my faith in myself as a mother. I have dropped the baby in my imagination more times than I can count, but this does not happen in the stillness of the graveyard. Here, it is as if we have already fallen.
I worry that something remains unfinished, no final farewell to my father. Just a hurried hug as I depart for the airport. I don’t remember if I even told him that I love him.
Still, I am certain my dad would not want my final moment with him to be me staring at his lifeless embalmed face, chemicals pumped through his veins to give a semblance of vitality. My most recent memories of my father were already of his slow and painful decline. I want to remember him full of life, to return to a time before he was sick with Parkinson’s—when we one-upped each other with goofy basketball shots, and he read me bedtime stories with amazing accents and voices he staunchly refused to use when it was not story time.
After my father passed away, his image in my mind’s eye transformed as if overnight, the specter of himself he had become making way for the robust father who stood over six feet tall and had meat on his bones to spare, the father who wore mismatched plaid and moved throughout the world like a hipster Santa Claus, a twinkle in his eye and his head in the clouds.
My dad did not want to be buried in a coffin. He had spent his whole life escaping boxes, a Presbyterian minister turned agnostic academic turned inventor of games. He was a man more at home in the mountains than in civilization. He worried about the world’s water supply running short; his dying wish was to spend eternity in the water that he loved, in the heart of his beloved Lake Champlain in the Adirondacks, where he and his father built a log cabin. There I could return every year to swim in his grave. And what is nature anyway but a giant graveyard?
I can’t help but marvel at how right it feels to spend our afternoons here, in this portal between the dead and the living. In such liminal states—the vessels in which we exist like props in a magician’s sleight of hand—we are stripped of any masks we acquired; we anoint ourselves in the sheer vulnerability of being. “Do you cherish your humble and silky life?” Mary Oliver asks in “The Peonies.” “Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?” You cannot fully adore one without adoring the other, and how badly I want to exist in that space of wonder.
And what if the joy of new life and the darkness that lies beneath are not diametrically opposed? They never used to be, with shorter life expectancies for countless generations before us imparting a drastically different understanding of life and death than we have today. Aristotle conceived of three ages: youth, the prime of life, and old age. Medieval writers drew upon natural cycles such as seasons or planets to represent the stages of life—always metaphors from the natural world that went round and round. Jill Lepore notes in The Mansion of Happiness that the polarization of birth and death coincided with the mechanical age and a new vision of eternity, which morphed our conception of life from a circle to an ironed-out line. The stages of life have multiplied, and our vision of eternity has become one of undying humanity, complete with notions of humans jumping ship for outer space when the Earth perishes, as we imagine it will before us. As science has triumphed, death has grown more and more taboo.
In my own postpartum map, the circularity of life seems obvious, with no boundary marking the celebration of life from the contemplation of death. Grief comes instinctively to me, inextricable from my joy, a song harmonized as though in prayer. Grief often involves the remembrance of some source of happiness; the ghosts of those delights we carry act as gatekeepers to the new ones. The song of my old body, the song of lost sleep, the song of life as I knew it, the song of my father. All these losses that once were delights, blended into melodies.
Towards the end of my father’s illness, he began to run. Called festination, a common symptom in people with Parkinson’s, this running was awkward and involuntary. His body would carry him faster than his mind could process. To me, it looked like he had caught a wind of youthfulness and was jogging towards a past he was trying to recapture. He would lean forward as he ran, like a batter lurching clumsily towards a base, trying to get to the safe zone in the nick of time. It usually ended up with him planting himself face first on the ground, unless someone or something was there to catch him.
One time, when I was alone on caretaker duty with him, he landed himself on the bathroom floor before I could get to him. His walker remained untouched in the corner of the room, as it often did when he could get away with it. Help would be there soon, and neither of us felt strong enough to do the physical work. He rolled over on his side and asked for a pillow. Without pause, I fetched as many pillows as I could carry and a blanket, and I tucked him in on the floor. Then I went to grab a book and joined him there. I don’t remember what the title was—I think it was poetry—but it doesn’t really matter. As we sat there immersed in words, just as we had done so many times before when he read to me, the rest of the world slipped away. For a glorious moment, we fell off the impossible track of life with the unthinkable finish line of death; we let time encircle us. In the years that followed, I would trace his footsteps, my own body moving through space faster than my mind could process, delivering me again and again with my face in the dirt. Who knew that the way to rediscover the magic was not running endlessly towards something but just letting ourselves be still?
I float seamlessly between the currents, a pebble tossed about in a stream. Some days the graveyard is our playground. I kick the ball with my son down the open pathways; we pop bubbles. I close my eyes as if dreaming, inhaling the sweet milky scent of my baby’s head like a drug. One afternoon, as if on cue, the baby has a blowout to send me back to reality. When I realize I forgot a spare diaper, I fashion a questionable cloth diaper out of my cardigan, which somehow eases the weight of other uncertainties in my life. Another time when the graveyard is empty and the kids are both napping nearby in the double stroller, my husband and I devise a cemetery scavenger hunt. Breathlessly, we race one another to find someone whose date of birth or death matches our own birthday, someone who lived over a hundred years. I cannot remember the last time we stopped to play a game like that, just the two of us, our sense of urgency redirected towards seeking pleasure. We giggle loudly, irreverently, as though we have forgotten our surroundings, but really we have not forgotten a thing. We behave ourselves amongst the living, but alone with the dead, our laughter is unbridled and reckless.
As I cradle the quivering blob of barely articulated life that is my newborn against me, I imagine now that I am holding my dying father. I am mystical in the way that loss teaches us to be, a believer in the transference of things. I search my son insistently for signs of him—the twinkle of my father’s eye in my son’s sleepy gas smiles at a few weeks old, a mischievous lift of the eyebrow that is probably also gas. Then, begrudgingly, in the vulnerabilities: in the fragility of his frame, the outline of bones visible through flesh. I wonder if I loved my father well enough. Why did I so often look past the shrunken father, the sick father, to the father I wanted to see?
The tears come suddenly, without warning. A storm without clouds, perhaps because I am so immersed in the clouds I cannot see them. The process of regrieving, or reliving the experience of grief, is as natural as the process of breathing, eating, sleeping, loving. With milestones, in particular, grief is often activated, meaning that the moments one would expect to be happiest are underscored by the reminder of something lacking. Holidays, birthdays, marriages, childbirths—in her book Option B, Cheryl Strandberg describes “the year of firsts,” in which typically happy milestones become like active volcanoes, reigniting the grieving process all over again.
I spent the years following my father’s death in a web of never-ending romantic dramas, high on mushrooms and marijuana and life, constantly onto the next thing as I convinced myself that I was okay. Now, craving simplicity and peace, the grief I have not confronted emerges like a woodland creature awaking from hibernation, groggy and starving, desperate for sun.
In many parts of the world, mourning over the loss of people you never met is not unusual. In my nightly COVID briefings on my phone, I learn that some countries around the world have professional mourners, because one of the greatest tributes you can pay the dead is to make sure they are properly grieved. In parts of Africa, these professional mourners have been out of work due to lockdown restrictions that limit the number of people at funerals. In a YouTube clip, a group of professional mourners stands in a circle crying, displaying their talent with no place to go. But their crying is much more than a form of livelihood, many of them claim. Some are widows and widowers, they crave tears. As one mourner states in an interview, “There is no way to fake mourning.” Grieving follows no algorithm. All tears speak some truth; the well they fall into is the same.
I think of these professional mourners as I wander amongst the library of graves, an addict looking for a fix. All tears speak some truth, I tell myself like a mantra.
In my belated mourning of my father, I defer yet another grief. It is a grief I have not been given a vocabulary to process, grief that haunts a whole nation reeling from loss. America is no stranger to loss; we are formed from the remains of it. The losses of today bleed into centuries-old losses that have yet to fully face their reckoning.
In his famed Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln declared that a cemetery is not only for the dead. In designating a portion of the battlefield as the final resting place for the tens of thousands who lost their lives there, he states that it is also for “us the living…to be dedicated to the unfinished work” of the dead. Lincoln never directly mentions slavery in his address. There is no Gettysburg Address for the slaves, no monuments built in their memory, no consecration of hallowed ground to hold space for the memory of their loss and sufferings, for the rapes, beatings, and murders, for the separation of families, for the ransacking of dreams.
We have mourned the dead in nothing more than fragments, in parts not capable of representing the whole. The first American photography book, Alex Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the Civil War, was sold as a coffee table book and featured photographs of deceased soldiers on the battlefields. Gardner and a team of photographers would hose down the bodies before they photographed them; each body that symbolized the atrocities and needless suffering was indisputably white.
As I walk amongst the graves, I think of the unfinished work of the dead. I think of the injustice, of the need for reparation. I hang on, helpless, to the slivers of redemption that have sustained us, that forge a barely visible path through the earth that embraces us all, whether or not any human being ordains it. The audacity of those on the frontline, the power of tears swelling into an ocean’s roar, the inordinate hope that takes shape in the bodies of babies too seemingly small to contain such magnitude.
One afternoon, as I stand over the grave of a baby who had died the same day she was born, a middle-aged woman with dark hair comes to visit a nearby grave. Her gait is slow and measured, and I wonder if she is the mother of one of the deceased children.
Suddenly, shame rises in full force to the surface, despite my better knowing. I think of how we appear. My son and husband banter with one another in gibberish and kick a ball nearby. Who brings a ball to the graveyard? I feel like an imposter, grieving other people’s babies with my own breathing one squirreled against me. I have never even had a miscarriage.
Shame is rarely simple to understand, though it harbors at its core the weight of unmet desire. The psychologist Silvan Tomkins, writing at the dawn of clinical psychology in the 1960’s, identifies shame as being activated by “the incomplete reduction of interest or joy.” Through such experiences, Brené Brown adds, we often conclude that we are unworthy. When we lack reciprocity for whatever form of connection we seek, our own light flickers. Shame is activated.
Shame inscribes itself surreptitiously into the crevices of our cultural imagination, a terrain lacking a unifying space for coming together during our most vulnerable rites of passage—our bearing of life and of loss. When I returned to the United States following the death of my father, no one taught me how to grieve my father; no God guided me to other mourners.
It is not merely the physical fact of our separateness—the membranes, masks, and walls dividing us, whether we are breathing or not. We love and grieve in isolation—the connections we seek confined to the bounds of social scripts we did not write, hushed into the white noise of internalization so easily mistaken for silence. We grapple for words to articulate what a single life means, because to do that we must bear within us the meaning of all life. Our stories, or the few that are told, are like headstones. They only begin to scratch the surface.
As the woman walks towards a grave in our direction, I want to tell her how sorry I am about her loss, the loss I suspect she carries, the loss I too carry within me and yet do not know at all. Instead, I try to guide my family as far away as possible, towards a mountain of freshly delivered dirt and a row of vacant coffins at the end of the otherwise empty field. “BOX!” my son calls out proudly. He has just learned the word. He begins to count the coffins with a blissful ignorance that yanks at my heartstrings. “ONE, TWO, FOUR, FIVE,” he chants over and over, mysteriously leaving out the number three each time. He giggles, as though time were a game.
A half-hour or so later, as the woman is leaving, my son toddles in her direction. My husband has gone off somewhere, and with the baby strapped against me, I am not able to stop my son without risking injury to my back. I follow him as he heads towards the grave she had been visiting. It doesn’t take me long to figure out his motivation. The lady left a shiny package with a matchbox car next to the grave. My son can spot a toy car from a mile away; he talks of cars the moment he wakes bright-eyed each morning. The package has the picture of an electric blue truck on it, and through the plastic wrapping, the iridescent toy glistens in the sun.
“I’m so sorry,” I call out to the woman, who looks back to see what is going on.
From ten feet away, she responds in broken English, “Please, take. Please.” She sounds surprisingly casual, like a mother at the playground assuring me that my child can share her child’s toy. Her eyes look tired, but they seem to crease at the corners, and I convince myself there is a hint of a smile underneath her mask.
“Oh, thank you, but we couldn’t do that,” I say, but she has already started to walk away again. I look at the grave she visited and calculate that the child, Juan, would have been five years old that day.
Enthralled, my son waves the package around and sings loudly, “BEEP BEEP BEEP,” the plastic crinkling in the background. I don’t rush to take it away from him or even to contemplate my next move. The soundtrack of my shame has ended, and the strange wonder of it all washes over me again.
“Hamakom y’nachem etchem b’toch sh’ar availai tziyon ee yerushalayim.”
“May God comfort you amongst all the mourners.”
A brick in the walls that come between us has been removed, a beam of fresh light seeps through. The baby stirs upon me before settling back into a slumber, both of his hands curled upon my chest. I picture my son passing the car back and forth with Juan, and then with my father. The wheels glisten as he propels them round and round.
The woman’s car unlocking echoes my son’s voice; geese answer back from above. Soon, fires will come, burning over four million acres throughout California in a span of a few months, adding to the numbers that are already incomprehensible. For now, the sky is an impossible shade of blue, and it is ours to call home.
Becky Kling is a feminist scholar and writer whose work has appeared in publications including Mutha, Affinity CoLab, and Motherwell. She is a lecturer of the Humanities at San Jose State University. More of her work can be found on her writer site https://rebeccadebrakling.wordpress.com/ or through her Twitter account @rivkatheriveter.