Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Standing on my own grave site

While I was off on one of my gigs as poet laureate (which my youngest daughter insists on pronouncing "low-rate"), my wife did a surprising thing.

She is chair of our village board of trustees, and as such, happened to be talking to a member of our town's cemetery committee. He told her that a spot in the "old" (and more beauteous) cemetery had just opened up, and quite unexpectedly, the town having lately celebrated the inking of its charter 250 years ago, and two centuries and a half of citizens passed on having crowded the little yard to full.

Now my wife is merely 57 to my 70, so actuaries would suggest that I have a better shot at bedding down in that plot in the imminent future than she does.  But she is in the midst of working out the affairs of her wonderful mother, who died unexpectedly late this past winter, and who left those affairs in anything but order. So mortality and its practical consequences are of course much on her mind just now.

My attitude toward death is a bit like a peasant's: I try (unsuccessfully) to avoid thinking about it, and hope that, when it comes, it does so quickly and mercifully, not least because I have the saddest possible memories of my grandmother, who lingered in a nursing home for five years after she'd lost capacity to remember even her children's names.

My wife is way too good for me (how COULD I get so lucky? How could I "get the girl"?), and she is different too. I have drafted a poem  that ponders that difference with respect to how we look at the ultimate loss.  I'm not sure if it's any damned good, nor whether it's finished, nor if it ever will be or can be:

Thank You Note
My wife points out that we’ll be forever close
To Tink and Polly, old-timers, dearest of neighbors,
And then –is she crazy?– suggests that instead of a headstone
We should ask for a bench, where our children can sit and eat.
(She loves a picnic, like her late sweet mother before her.)

From that seat, she adds, they can take in the panorama,
Ideally thinking of us with more laughter than grief.
She’s always been good with what children (and now grandchildren)
May need or want or do, though when ours were small,
They proved to be more than resourceful by themselves.

The two youngest daughters dreamed characters up for their games:
Sharlee, the bright one, Sally, her sister, the fool,
Meek Bunnum the rabbit, the villainous Moody Hawk.
An older brother imagined a dog named Ruffy.
(The death of his real dog, Plum, kept him home from school.)

The eldest daughter at four years old, in delight,
Reported she’d found a pair of slugs on a pumpkin,
Pronouncing it thlugth.  The firstborn son was obsessed
With Jeeps. I gave him bumbling nightly lessons,
Guiding his hand with my own in our cold old kitchen.

He wanted perfection, but then who doesn’t want it?
I’ll lose these things and others accrued all these years,
And here at my grave I wonder if one can have been
A father without recalling such random moments,
Or on doing so, weeping actual tears?

At the plot we’ve just bought, my wife now sweeps an arm  
Once more at the view: our favorite mountain to eastward,
Purple with May but still holding snow at the summit.
An eagle appears as if at her conjuring,
Reflected pure and intact below in the river.

Feather spangled by sun, it skims the trees.
My love claps her hands to behold it while I consider
For no reason a check I wrote today for a woman
Who comes now and then to help us with cleaning our house.
She bore a child too early, but the boy stood by her,

Good husband now. They’ve raised that daughter together.
I scribbled a thank you note along with the payment.
Typically broody, I think how the note is akin
To so much on which I’ve laid my hand that at last
Will be gone forever and ever. Those children’s children:

How could I have known how I’d come to love them? 
It isn’t death, that vague abstraction, that daunts me;
It’s rather the leaving behind of so many dear creatures
with whom I’ve trodden the earth that will cover my ashes.
And yet my wife –without saying a word– reminds me

That what I should be feeling is gratitude
For ever having had all this to lose.

Oxbow Cemetery, Newbury, Vermont


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