There is a jar on the dresser along your bedside that contains the pulverized remains of your vertebrae. It is labeled with a date I recognize, and takes me back to the early days of our friendship. You were at the midpoint of living your life as a quadriplegic, though we could not have known that then. You had told me, almost casually, of the surgery you would be undergoing to remove further remnants of crushed vertebrae that had existed, like shrapnel from an explosion, in your neck for the sixteen years following your injury. You hadn’t told me then you were flying across the country for the operation and that it was being done in the hope of saving your life. You didn’t share that you cried alone in your room the night before, like Jesus in Gethsemane, with crushing dread, not that you would die on the table, but that you would wake up to find yourself trapped in a greater state of disability and pain. I didn’t know then that this night marked a turning point for you, a conscious commitment to keep living, despite the suffering, for the love of those who were not ready to let you go.
I turn the jar, label to the back and regard the contents. A small handful of darkened, yellowed bone chips, most smaller than peppercorns, and I think of the relics that have been kept of saints. Bits of fingers, locks of hair, the odd toe or tip of the nose housed in grottos, shrines and embedded in altars and I want to bring those bone chips home with me but I can’t honestly tell you why. What is that impulse in me that wants to protect any part of you from being lost?
I read recently that the first garden may have been planted to mark a grave. And even though this was surmised by a character in a novel I find myself believing that it is likely true. And if so, that garden, I suspect, was planted by a woman. As I think about those bones chips and their corresponding saints, I wonder if the first church was built by a woman, too, after she had laid the first altar.
When you were buried I stayed with you, for layer after layer. First they placed the concrete lid of the casket vault on top of you, although with the earlier rains I knew your feet were still going to be wet. Then came the layer of crushed limestone, backed up over you by a dump truck. There is simply no way to ease a truckload of limestone onto a grave which is why they encourage family and friends to go out and get themselves a nice lunch while the cemetery men commence with their work. I’ve been a witness to so many burials over the course of my visits to the cemetery that I was familiar with the progression. I stayed. I know, without question, you would have done the same for me.
The young cemetery worker raking the stray pebbles into the hole paused for a moment and looked at me. “I’m sorry for your loss.” I smiled and nodded. There were no tears in my eyes while at the cemetery that day. I knew how much you had longed, desperately longed, for that time you would lay at your parents’ feet. It was a glorious day for you, rain and all, and I was with you in rejoicing.
The truck left to refill itself with the next load, a bed full of soil this time. As I waited, I poked sticks of incense into the limestone and sprinkled deep purple delphinium blossoms over the light gray stone. The incense burned for quite some time before the layer of soil was poured on top, extinguishing them.
When I joined the family at the funeral meal after, your sister told me your young grand-nieces and -nephews had asked her why that lady was waiting by your gravesite.
“I told them, ‘That lady is the Guardian of the Land and she is going to stay with Uncle Mike to make sure everything is taken care of for him, ‘ and the kids all nodded and said, ‘Oooh,’ as though they understood.”