A lot of things had changed, especially the old neighborhood. But the graveyard had mostly remained the same, except for the missing climbing tree. It had been fifty years, so it’s hard to remember when the beautiful dogwood tree came down, the tree that gave shade to the small grave. I looked for a trunk, a hole, but there was no tell tale sign that the tree had ever existed. Yet in our memory, the three siblings of the little boy that was buried there, we all remembered the climbing tree and the different view that two brothers, twelve and four and a sister age eight, had back then.
It would’ve looked odd to anyone who passed by to see three graying 50 to 60 something adults, sitting in a semi-circle in lawn chairs around a small unassuming grave. The years of neglect showed on the small gray granite stone, slightly mossy, and the dry grass that was neatly mowed around the stone. Many years ago my mother had transported pachysandra from our front yard to the gravesite, and it flourished there. From up in the tree I watched her hands move through the tendrils of ivy, like she was tucking Timmy in. Then we would play hide and seek between the gravestones around him. Dad would stand at the foot of the short grave with his hands in his pockets looking down without words while mom bent down, talking softly to the dirt.
The brother that we all loved, that went off to camp one sunny July day and never returned, is still a puzzle to us after all these years, like a question that can’t get a good answer. And as we talked, the pain surrounding this traumatic event resurfaced, but after fifty years, it was less traumatic and more like an old friend we all knew, each in a different way. There was a tender sharing between us, remembering a time which would also catapult our mother into an abyss of pain so intolerable that she would never really appear again as a recognizable mom. Withdrawn, tormented by failure, she eventually became schizophrenic, and unreachable. Our dad turned his affection to a bottle of scotch, becoming angry at anyone who tried to intercept, finally emerging eleven years later sober, then died from cancer, leaving us all again.
The profound sadness that still burns within our hearts is a true reality. There is no, “Well thank God we are over THAT!” There are some things that you can’t get over, or around. They cast a long shadow over every thing you do, then eventually find a place of residence within your soul, but the questions never stop nudging you, Why? How? Where are you?
The same night Timmy died, I sat out on the front porch steps with four-year-old Graham beside me. And I pointed up towards the stars and said, “Timmy is there!” with great confidence because my mom had said it and I hadn’t really thought it through. There was a long pause, then Graham, still looking up, said “Where?” and under the immense night sky I had no answer. Thirty-eight years later, after I buried my son, I found myself still looking up, to the clouds, to the stars, searching still, “Where?” And now, fifty years down the road, as I sat between my brothers in a cemetery, we are still looking up. God hears, and He bends His face down to ours to listen. And if you wait, He will answer.
Before we left the graveyard, Bob looked down at the small stone and commented on the scripture my mom had engraved under Timmy’s name; Walk in love.
“I think that’s what really saved us,” he said softly. “It was more of a command and it was the only thing we knew to do.”
The familiar scripture from Ephesians 5 was in a prayer book my mom kept next to her bed. On July 28th, 1964, it simply read “Walk in love.” It became our secret family creed, and in some ways, an anchor for our drifting souls. It still holds.
Any child can survive. So can any adult. Bu there is so much more than just getting through. There is learning to love again, daring to embrace joy again, and that takes much more courage than enduring the worst tragedy.
Cemeteries seem like a strange place for an awakening. Sometimes I would go down to Woodside Cemetery three times a day after Spence died and just walk over to his grave and stand there, reading the name and then the two dates beneath it, over and over and over as if I was memorizing a complicated formula. It made no sense. My heart was colliding with a truth I could not bear. So I planted things there, just to make something grow, and thought of the pachysandra my mom had planted at her son’s grave many years before.
I have a lot of graveyard stories. Some stories are funny like the time they buried someone in the wrong place. Peculiar, like the old woman with the big floppy hat and sunglasses who would read for hours in her chaise lounge parked next to her husband’s grave. And others haunt me today; a father shattered by grief asking me through an interpreter if his son had enough time to call out to Jesus before he died from a bullet. Yes, I told him and he thanked me, his shoulders heaving as he wept and turned to go back to Brazil.
A part of me will always be revisiting this hidden place, where time is hushed and we ask questions we never thought we’d have to ask with unrestrained transparency before God. It’s good to join with others in this place away from the hectic din of life. God hears and walks among us, with armfuls of grace. And when it’s time, only then, we find He’s left a path to follow Him, a way that leads back to the main road again, walking in love.