Boy, when you’re dead, they really fix you up. I hope to hell when I do die somebody has sense enough to just dump me in the river or something. Anything except sticking me in a goddam cemetery. People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday, and all that crap. Who wants flowers when you’re dead? Nobody.
~J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, 1945
What Holden Caulfield failed to understand is that the flowers aren’t for the dead, they’re for the living.
The flowers, the memorial, the dinner after, the condolences posted to the funeral home website, the memories shared on Facebook….these are all for the living. They’re all ways in which those of us left behind find comfort.
I first met Sandy & Kevin Clifford in 1982 when Jim was assigned to Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Michigan. Jim was a 1st Lieutenant and Kevin was a Captain. We were relatively new to the Air Force life and the Cliffords were seasoned and worldly; they ran with the “older” crowd. Sandy was one of my first exposures to a Southern Belle. She was from Louisiana and had a deep accent that was exotic to my Yankee hearing. She played bridge, could throw a wicked bowling ball, had a hearty and infectious laugh, smoked cigarettes, and drank bourbon. I was in awe of her.
Years later we found ourselves living in the same neighborhood in Abilene, TX. When we arrived in town she immediately took me under her wing and taught me all there was to know about the city. Before we knew it, a friendship was born. Our sons were constant companions, we were both active members of the spouses’ club, our families started celebrating holidays together, and many a summer day was spent at the base pool while our kids swam.
In 1994, at age 41, Sandy died of breast cancer.
By then I was living in DC. I didn’t attend her funeral. I chose, instead, to visit her while she was still living. During that week I drove her to San Antonio for a chemo treatment. I still remember how much we laughed on that trip. She kept telling me to not worry about the speed limit, as she had the whole “cancer patient” persona down pat and no cop would dare ticket me once she took off her turban, exposed that gorgeous bald head, and started throwing up. It was so typical of her to take a reality that sucked and find the humor.
For three and a half years I’ve lived in the town she’s buried in. I finally visited her grave this week.
Sandy became a grandma for the first time on January 15th. I wanted to be with her. I wanted to physically commemorate her grandson’s entrance into this world. I left flowers on her grave. I did it for me and for her daughter, who lost a mother when she was just a preteen. For a daughter who would give anything to be able to see her mama hold her grandchild.
And I took pictures because the word “beyond” has been on my mind all week. When I visit a cemetery I usually spend quite a lot of time thinking of what is beyond.
I went back three days in a row, looking for the perfect light and time of day, which I never really found. But I did a lot of “beyond” thinking and a lot of wondering about all the families and the stories contained in this particular cemetery.
You are still remembered and missed my friend.
Someday those of us still walking around cemeteries will find out lies beyond. You already know. And yes, I can still hear your laugh.