It sounds morbid, but one of my favorite places to walk the dog is in the graveyard down the street. It’s dead quiet (ha, ha, ha), there are no cars and very few visitors. And no, I never let the dog lift his leg on the headstones or do his business in the grass. That’s what the surrounding woods are for.
I hadn’t noticed the man pull in or stand there polishing a gravestone. But Mesa did and kept pulling me toward him rather than let me steer him the other way– away from the man so he could have some privacy. I could tell he was a veteran by his baseball cap adorned with pins and metals. Another clue was that it was July 4th. It was early in the morning and we were the only two people there. Well actually there were hundreds of people there, but we were the only ones who were upright.
“I’m so sorry!” I said, scolding Mesa as he sat at the man’s feet, wagging his tail. This dog actually smiles, too. It’s crazy but he really does.
“He’s a happy guy!” the man said, reaching down to pet him.
I looked at the gleaming gravestone and saw a photo of a woman embossed in the marble.
“Is that your wife?” I heard myself asking him.
God Laura. What is your problem? Don’t be so personal!
He said it was.
“What was her name?” I asked.
Laura, Laura, Laura. Leave the poor man to grieve in peace.
“Barbara,” he replied, voice cracking a bit. “Her name was Barbara.”
“May I say hello?” I asked.
Are you seriously going to walk over and introduce yourself to a complete stranger’s wife’s headstone? You are truly weird.
My mother and I had been on the phone the whole time.
“Who are you talking to?” she asked. “I thought you were in the graveyard?”
That’s when I put her on speaker phone.
“This is my Mom,” I said to the man, introducing her as if she were the phone.
“Hi Mom,” he said, right on cue. “My name is Willy.”
“Hi Willy,” she said as the three of us laughed.
“And I’m Laura,” I said, extending my hand to shake his. “This here is Mesa.”
We all chatted for a minute, both my Mom and I thanking him for his service to the country, before I told her I’d call her back.
“I have someone important to meet,” I said to her. That’s when I went to Barbara.
What are you, the grave whisperer now?
“Hi Barbara,” I said outloud. “How are you?”
This made Willy and I laugh.
“Tell me about her,” I said registering the pained expression on his face. “She was a beautiful woman.”
She really was. The photo showed a kind face with big brown eyes and a pretty smile. You could tell by her hair style that the photo was probably taken in the 90’s, perhaps at Sears? It had that professional portrait, blue background quality.
Jeez Laura. Why not just make the man break down?
Willy stood there, tears welling in his eyes until he did begin to cry. It wasn’t sobbing, but it was a lot more than teary-eyed.
“I miss her so much,” he managed to say the way that you’d expect a tough tattooed war veteran to admit defeat. “She was the love of my life. I took one look at her and asked her to dance at that dance and that was it. We got married a few months later. We never left each other’s sides for 66 years.”
Now I was crying, as I listened to this old man talk about his life. Born and raised in Yonkers. Fought wars. Worked in the old carpet mill factory. Raised three children. Has four grandchildren and three great grandchildren. Barbara got cancer and he took care of her for almost a year. Lives alone now, well, he has two cats. Sees the kids regularly. Misses her constantly. It was then that I noticed one of his tattoos was in pink script. Barbara.
“When did you get that?” I asked. It actually didn’t look out of place on his arm.
It was a year after she died, said the man with the pink tattoo.
I looked at the headstone to see how long it had been. 11-26-2009
Oh my God! She died a day after my husband, Mark! Do I tell him?
I tuned back into the conversation. This was not about me. I was here to learn from him and to give him an opportunity to talk about his wife. This is something we don’t get to do often — talk about our lost loved ones– or people worry that you haven’t moved on– that you’re stuck in grief.
“…She was a good woman and I miss her every day, but you gotta live in the present. You gotta move on. You can’t live in the past,” he said, wiping his eyes with a real handkerchief, the cotton kind that Barbara probably ironed for him.
I prefer tissue, personally. That way you can calculate how much better you are getting by the amount left in the box. Mine is more than half full as I become more and more optimistic that I have mastered life. The pit is no longer in my stomach. I handle my relationship stops and starts and life’s ups and downs with grace, not with the overshadowing of resurrected grief. I miss him still and always will, but I no longer feel as if there’s a ghost living inside of me.
We stood there for a few more minutes, now comfortably silent, as we looked at Barbara’s face.
“Do you think she sees us?” I asked.
“I hope so,” he replied, looking a little wistful. “That’s why I come here every single day. They even shovel the snow for me in the winter. I tell her I love her every day.”
Maybe that’s what 66 years of marriage does to a person.
It was hard enough and I only got 15 years with Mark. I thought about my decision to spread his ashes on cross country RV trips as opposed to burying the box at a cemetery. Some people may appreciate my sense of humor and adventure in wanting to give Mark the best afterlife that I possibly could. Others may not. I don’t really care. It was the best way I knew how to honor my husband and this was Willy’s.
poem by: Francine Pucillo©2001-2003
|Quiet in the desert
Peaceful restful plains
Within this sight remains
| Shades of purple glowing
In deserts softest light
Mountain in it’s majesty
Cast shadows grand and bright
| Spirit’s silent whispers
Heard throughout the land
Heart is full of wonder
With sky at God’s command
Reaching out to touch us
| Standing in all glory
For those of us who seek
Purple mountain’s majesty
God’s beauty so unique
The sprinklings also lifted a possible burden of duty in having to visit the cemetery and of feeling impossibly guilty for sometimes not. I mean, how many visits would be enough? Once a week? Everyday? Only on holidays? Every 25th of the month? Would the girls and I end up fighting about how they need to go see their father more like we do about walking the dog or doing chores? It all sounded dreadfully depressing, now that I was actually stopping to think about it.
I decided it was much better to have what’s left of Mark’s ashes in his box on the bookshelf.
That way, I could do spontaneous things with him like sprinkle a little sprinkle next to Barbara’s plot the next day.
May they both rest in peace.