Early in our marriage my wife's father was diagnosed with cancer. He was given 6 months to live. He lived six months, then left this world for the next. I' m thankful for the short time I was around him, and sad at how much fun it would have been for him to know our son. He was buried at my mother-in-law's family cemetary in the "mountains" outside of Clarksville, Arkansas. I have to put mountains in parenthesis because I've been to the Rockies in Colorado, and I can assure you these are tiny foothills in comparison. We make an annual trek to the cemetary around the first of June to lay fresh flowers on his grave as well as on my wife's grandpa and grandma's grave. Although there is a certain somberness about being there, the trip is always a very enjoyable time. This year as we wandered about the cemetary and looked at the tombstones, which, oddly enough, is part of the "tradition", there were a few that made me pause and think.
At the front part of the cemetary were multiple tombstones where the dates of birth and death ranged from 3 days to two months. Children. I felt a pain for those parents I never knew that I've never felt in my previous visits. When my little warrior woke up from his nap, I hugged him a little tighter, kissed him a few extra times, and just felt grateful. He had slept a grand total of just over five hours the night before, exhausting his mother and I, but I realized if he only gave me 2 minutes of sleep a night I'm blessed to have him.
The second tombstone was the one with my brother in laws name and birthdate on it. No date of death because he's still freakin' alive! And wandering around the cemetary with the rest of us, while his tombstone, all nice and pretty, is standing over there! I consider myself at peace with my mortality, but, dude, I've got no desire to see a tombstone with my name printed on it and a beautiful epitaph written. What if that's not such a bad thing, though? Maybe that kind of reminder would keep us from pursuing the trivial things we value so much, or at least put them in their proper place. Maybe if I was reminded of the eventual destination of this body I wouldn't be so concerned about what other people think of me and more concerned about doing what is right by my God and by those I love. Maybe the fact that this body won't last forever would help me not be so concerned about what tastes good and more concerned about how my eating habits will have a tombstone completely filled out long before I want it to.
The last two tombstones that impacted me were those belonging to a father and a son. Both lived decent lives at least in terms of length, over 80 years. Their wife/mother was buried between them, she lived a decently long life to, nearly made it to 100. Then I read something that seized my imagination. The father's said "Corporal" of the "Kentucky Infantry" Division 14 I believe. The son's said "Cavalry, Kentucky 8th Division". They fought together in the Civil War. I was able to put myself in both of their positions, as a father and as a son. The sense of pride, a bond of closeness already existing as father and son, now taken to a deeper and more complex level by the horrible realities of war. And the emotions they must have experienced! The father leading his infantry out first to establish the line. Did he often look back over his shoulder or out of the corner of his eye and see his son sitting on his horse with the Cavalry, and wonder if that was his last living look? What of the son watching dad disappear into the clouds of cannon smoke and into the screaming wounded and dieing soldiers on the field, barking orders as a corporal. Wondering if his compass, his coach, his friend, his mentor was walking away for the last time. How many passionate prayers were whispered on each others behalf? Then the line established, the rhythm of loading and firing the weapons are interrupted by the bugle sounding the charge, and the pounding hooves of horses as the cavalry mounts a charge. The father overwhelmed with contradictory feelings of pride and despondency, eyes shining with love and tears, as his son rides into danger. Responsibility and duty keeping him from doing what every father feels, placing himself as a human shield between his son and anything that would cause him pain. Finally, in either victory or defeat, the withdrawal from the field of battle begins. A father straining to see if he recognizes the empty horses that are led back. A sons eyes pacing up and down the weary soldiers as they march, looking for that familiar gait that belongs to his father. Duty fulfilled, all thoughts are on each other. Then, finally, eyes meet as the son slides off his horse and stands face to face with his father, relief, pride, a handshake that turns into a tight hug, then the retelling of the day. This scenario, countless times in countless battles. I stood there and heard the gunfire, smelt the smoke, listened to the screams. My heart pounded as I watched my dad walk off into mortal danger, and I felt angry and panicked as I watched my son ride past me maybe never to return. I loved them both more than ever, my father and my son.
So, what'd I do this weekend? Oh, not much, just a short visit to a cemetary.