|Jul/Aug 2015 Nonfiction|
Photography by Lydia Selk
After driving a thousand miles from southern California up to our small town on the northwest edge of Oregon's Willamette Valley, a large delivery van pulled up in front of our house. As Laura and I stood near our front door looking out, the van arrived at just the day and time it was supposed to.
Stepping out onto the large concrete porch, we watched as the driver put a small pallet with a package onto a dolly.
"Where would you like it?"
"Right here," I said, "on the porch."
"You sure?" Laura asked me.
I watched the driver closely as he set it down. His eyes avoided mine, and his smile came and went a few times, friendly but a little nervous. I wondered if that was his personality, or if it was the package. Did he know what it was? He must have.
"Do you know how much it weighs?" I asked.
"Two hundred pounds."
There was a time, a long time, when the weight seemed infinite, too heavy to contemplate. But that time had passed as we took delivery of a headstone for our son.
More than once in the ten years since Paul died—in a wreck the day before Thanksgiving— more than once we had tried to take up the task of getting a marker in place. It was a task made of smaller ones that were not small but mountainous, and at first we could not begin to think of tackling them. The first attempt came only two months after the funeral. I picked up a catalog of headstone designs from the funeral home. The first task, we supposed, was choosing a design, then the words, then the color of stone. At our dining table I opened the catalog to the section for children and infants. After browsing through pictures and sentiments for lost boys and girls, I brushed my tears from the pages, closed the catalog, and returned it.
A year or more later, Laura did the same. Looking at gravestones for children, it turns out, is not chicken soup for the soul. The weight of the stone, our stone, was more than we could lift. The weight was not the mass-times-gravity of a chunk of granite cut from a quarry in Vermont. Instead, that heaviness was our grief—which felt like our hearts cut from inside of us, broken, crushed. Can we possibly find words for this anguish? Then let those stand as the stone-etched words to mark his grave.
We did not go back to the catalog. Instead, we considered what the stone should say. For me, this was the real difficulty. Paul lived for just a little less than fourteen years. But a headstone, this stone, is supposed to say something about the person buried beneath it. A headstone is a memorial, after all. But how could we choose only a few words, a single phrase that can remember the person who is Paul Dehner—his clever and inventive mind, his humor, his friendships, his faith and love? The thought of having to find and settle for those words sickened me a little. I didn't want to do it. And not wanting to, unable to bring myself to it, I didn't, for ten years.
By endowing it with so much, I was standing on the stone, adding to its weight, and the stone would never become lighter.
But over time, the burden was lessened. We saw that the marker did not need to carry a lifetime. It did not have to hold memories, or stand for love. A slab of granite, it would mark a place, a temporary place, an allotment of the earth given to hold and receive a body back to itself—but not Paul himself, who lives forever, whose memories are kept by God, who is missed in ways that can never be committed to a few, bitterly few, words.
The stone became lighter, as eventually we came to see that setting the stone was a small thing, or at least, small enough. We die, and most of us are forgotten when everyone who knows us has also died. The memory of my lifetime can only outlive me by less than a hundred years. Then, the living will pass by my gravestone looking for a different, fresher one. Someone may look at my grave and wonder who is buried there. The stone will be there to tell them. For those who know the deceased, it marks a place to visit, to remember, to mourn. That's all.
Ten years later, we are ready to place the stone. Today the funeral man came and took the stone away, and in a few days we will meet at Paul's grave to set it in the ground.
We ordered the stone from a company in California. We chose the words, and then the design, and then the color. Laura did most of the initial work, consulting my mom, and asked me to select a verse of Scripture.
Finally we chose the kind and color of granite. The finished stone is of flat red granite with Paul's name on top and a Celtic cross centered beneath. On either side are the dates. Recalling his love of performing, instead of saying, "Born" and "Died," Laura wrote, "Opening Night" and "Final Bow." Across the bottom, in italics, from First Corinthians 2:9:
No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined
the things God has prepared for those who love Him.
Hillside Cemetery lies seven miles north and mountain-ward from our town, on the gentle slopes rising to the Coast Range, founded in 1887 by pioneers who settled the area, and whose descendants still manage and care for it. Among them are some friends who offered us a plot when we suddenly needed one ten years ago.
We drove out with our daughter Elyse to find a man about our age, the funeral man, finishing the work. A couple of shovels and half a bag of sand lay between him and the open tailgate of his pickup. A mist of rain lighted on us and a mild wind swept the slopes. Kneeling in the well-soaked turf, he poured water across the shiny face of the slab, and brushed off the sand that framed it in the ground.
Laura asked him about caring for the stone, and he explained that keeping the engraved portions clean with a brush was most important. He also talked about how long the painting in the lettering should last—about five to ten years, after which it could be re-painted if we like. But the stone, and the inscription, they would last forever. Or, I thought, as close to forever as anyone would care about.
We talked about our own arrangements. I want a burial, Laura cremation.
"Have you thought about a green burial?" he asked me. "If you're environmentally-conscious. No casket, no box, just wrapped in a shroud and put in the ground."
Laura was surprised that it was legal to do that. Not in the city limits, he said, but out here, it is.
"Oh, yeah," I said. "I think I'd like that."
Then he explained the downside to cremation.
"It has a huge carbon footprint, because it uses so much fuel. If you drove an SUV from here all way across the country, to DC, then drove back as far as Colorado, you would burn the amount of fuel it takes to reduce a single body to ashes."
In the course of talking, as we stood next to Paul's grave, and he stood over the stone, the man mentioned that he'd also lost his son. Yet, apart from muttering, "I'm sorry," which I don't think he heard, none of us offered our sympathies, and I thought it was odd, a funeral director not offering any condolences. Until it occurred to me, looking at the dates carved in the granite: it's because it's been so long.
Ten intervening years. The lightening years, the softening, normalizing, easing years. They were long and hard—long enough, I suppose, that condolences might not be thought in order. Long enough that the sorrow is not such a stabbing pain. They were years that could bring devastated parents to smiling and laughing at the graveside where on that ever-receding day they had wept inconsolably, canopied from a downpour.
Now we listen as the funeral man tells of disinterring someone who died in 1968— "There was nothing left of him except a few vertebrae. But his polyester suit and tie were good as new: they were perfect."—And we all laugh.
We tried to remember how Paul had been dressed, but couldn't be certain—another memory lost in the awful, swirling haze of grief over a son lost and a daughter yet in a coma. We remembered the simple but beautiful wooden casket a friend had made, Paul's youth leader at church, and how Paul's friends had gathered together to write messages on the inside of the cover: words of love and sorrow and farewell.
Though our grief has lightened over years, it's still heavy, hard, sharp around the edges, and insoluble against the years of our remaining lifetimes. As in the setting of the stone, our heartache becomes a lighter, a bearable sorrow, as heaven heals us.
Planted in the dirt and grass, the marker is surrounded by the life of the ancient hills draped with bean-rows and vineyards, evergreens and yearly-renewed flora—life that stubbornly goes on, indifferent to death or graves, to past pains and sorrows. Grief can look like this: it moves slowly, and some days not at all, as life and the world go on their way.
Though it was long in coming, the headstone was made and set in the ground at just the right time. And it will outlast us all, past the day that each of us who knew Paul in this world will greet him with inexpressible joy in the next, lighter than light.