It is pitch black. I feel the leaves crunching under my bare feet. I wish I had worn shoes. The darkness is quickly turning to gray as the promise of dawn approaches. It isn’t as early as you’d think—likely pushing seven or seven-thirty instead of the four or five in the morning you’d think because of the darkness. I’m not exactly sure of the time. I don’t have my watch with me, but I’ve learned to read the sky on my morning walks here.
Fall tricks us. Dawn breaks early in the spring and summer, but in the fall the night drags and darkness hangs on much longer so that when your alarm sounds, it feels like you should still be sleeping. Fall mornings in the Midwest tend to be dreary more often than not. The black turns to charcoal to ashy gray. Lots of times—especially October into November—that light gray hangs on throughout the day and the sun never does break through the cloud cover until late in the day. By then people are ready for the darkness again.
Other days, the gray is eventually pushed out by the sun’s light. You get those crisp, clear fall days where the sun shines so bright that you head outside in shorts only to realize it’s a brisk sixty degrees. Those days are my favorite types of fall days.
I open the gate and walk on, my feet crunching the dried leaves. The cemetery is littered with full oaks and maples and the leaves are turning brilliant colors that not even the most skillfully trained artist could create. Reds as deep as your boldest lipstick, golds Midas would envy, burnt oranges, magentas, even sage greens as the leaves enter the last of their cycle on earth preparing to let go.
I always marveled how leaves are like people. They grow and change and fight to hang on during the worst of storms but then, as sure as the sun rises, it sets. They age, get brittle, fade and eventually let go and gently fall to the ground, dead. But in that death, new life comes just a few months later to take its place on the tree and bring joy to the world for another season. My son had once asked me how that whole idea works for leaves that are plucked from their spots by children or when a storm rips them from their branches and they die. I had told him that sometimes tragedies happen that are out of our control and there’s nothing we can do about them. He was still quite young, but I think he understood.
The cemetery, St. Catherine’s, is the largest in the surrounding areas with tombstones spanning centuries. Some are faded and decaying without a single flower or visitor for years. Some have pictures and beautiful designs. Some have fresh flowers and visitors year-round. There are multiple roads and walking paths winding the acres of gently rolling land and if you don’t know your way around as well as I do, it’s an easy place to get lost. The cemetery is removed from the buzz of the small Midwest town and gloriously peaceful. Birds always chirp here, even in the dead of winter. The trees are healthy and strong and Muskrat Creek trickles through the property.
The cemetery is impeccably maintained by the nuns who live nearby. The Sisters of Charity spend many hours lovingly trimming, planting, pruning. What they can’t do, they hire out and keep watchful eyes that the jobs are meticulously completed. I often see them while I walk the property. Sometimes we wave but usually I keep to myself. Sadly, there’s no doubt that this generation is coming to an end, with far more nuns ending up in the cemetery themselves and fewer and fewer women taking vows. Eventually the care of St. Catherine’s will be passed on and I doubt anyone will do nearly as good of a job as these women have for all the years the cemetery has existed.
The leaves continue crunching under my bare feet as the sun starts pushing the gray away. I come here every day. I’m a school counselor. Since I was little, I’ve wanted to help people. My strongest quality is my ability to listen and so, when I stumbled upon this place, I found that I was able to do just that for those that need it the most.
I wasn’t looking to start being the local graveyard counselor. One day, I was wandering the cemetery and came across an older woman planting beautiful geraniums at a grave. I made my presence known—people in cemeteries are always a little jumpy and I didn’t want to scare her. She was in her seventies, with a mop of black curls half stuffed under her stocking cap. The digging had left her slightly breathless.
“Those are lovely.” I quietly said.
She had looked at me, squinting behind her glasses with her head tilted. I figured it was because I was a complete stranger approaching her in a cemetery.
“Thank you,” She had finally responded. “I plant them every year for my mother.”
She had nodded towards the tombstone. “Geraniums were her favorite.”
I saw tears welling in her eyes and calculated from the stone that her mother passed well over ten years ago. It’s amazing how long grief clings when we miss those who meant the most to us.
We had struck up a conversation and she told me her mother had passed of Alzheimers and it had almost killed them both.
“Do you know what it’s like to look into your mother’s eyes only to have her look back at you as a stranger? All the time, all the years, the love, laughter, memories. All of it, totally gone. Permanently erased like a letter thrown in the fire.”
We had talked a long time—me mostly listening while she rambled on about the last few months and how much she hated the nursing home.
“I would’ve taken care of her myself but she was just about immobile and I have a terrible back. I was too old to do it myself and too poor to afford in-home care.” She said it defensively as if she expected me to judge her for her decisions.
“I’ll never forgive myself for it.” She had cried, hard.
I had comforted her and reassured her. I promised her that Arline (she had told me her mother’s name) was looking down on her now in complete peace and wouldn’t want her daughter stuck in time unable to move on over unchangeable things of the past.
We talked into the early afternoon and I helped her finish the planting and had said a prayer with her. We look for each other each time she comes to visit and over the past few years we have gotten to be good friends. On her most recent visit though, I noticed it took her a moment to recognize me and I can’t help but wonder if she will soon follow in her mother’s footsteps.
I’ve made many acquaintances here since my first encounter. Justin is one of them. He recently lost his wife and is a mess of guilt. She has a beautiful tombstone and even has a bench nearby that was, “Donated in Loving Memory.” I sit with him on the bench every Friday and listen as he talks himself off the ledge. Most times I say nothing. His wife, Theresa, was his childhood sweetheart and they had married right out of high school. He went on to become a doctor with her sacrifice and support to get him there. They had wanted a family and had tried for years. In both of their frustration with the monthly disappointment, they had grown apart—arguing often and giving up on their dreams of a family. She had fallen into wine and he had fallen into the arms of one of his nurses. The real shock came when they found out the reason they couldn’t have children was because Theresa had stage four ovarian cancer. She died just a few months after the diagnosis and in that time he had never gotten the courage to come clean and give her the apology she deserved. He had never forgiven himself for the affair or for not being honest with the woman he had promised his loyalty to in sickness and in health. I asked if what ever happened with the nurse and he said he had broken it off immediately when he found out Theresa was sick. I don’t know that I actually believe that. I’m skeptical that he never did leave that nurses arms, even throughout Theresa’s cancer. Guilt has a way of looking like grief sometimes and I can smell it on Justin like the cheap perfume his nurse wears. It’s not my place to judge here, though. So I sit, listen and do my best to offer a safe space for him.
There’s a cluster of families I observe often over in the newer section of the cemetery. They visit a row of four tombstones—each of them for babies who God didn’t intend to be on this earth for more than a moment. The families somehow found each other on their many visits and they have since started taking care of each other. When one family comes they bring flowers for all four graves, not just their own child’s. They pray together, cry together, rage over the unfairness of it together. Any tombstone for a baby makes me sad. Their little flames snuffed out before they had a chance to let that beautiful light of theirs shine. Sometimes one of the younger girls in the family—a darling girl of about five with crimson hair and freckles—waves at me shyly when she sees me watching. I don’t often interject myself into this group. They have each other for comfort and don’t need me as much as some of the others.
Next to an old oak down the western path is the grave of a man who passed back in the 1980’s. Every Sunday his lover comes to visit him. Marcus is a stunning gentleman with salt and pepper hair, a strong jaw line and piercing green eyes. He dresses impeccably and always brings a flask with him when he visits the grave. I once asked him what was in the flask but he told me that was between him and Devon. They had been lovers during one of the more tumultuous times of the gay rights movement and it hadn’t been easy for them. It still isn’t easy today for Marcus despite the progress since the eighties. He has since moved on and is happily married to another man, but he and I both know Devon will always have his heart.
Devon was on his way to a birthday party for his niece and had died in a car crash back in 1985. A drunk driver had swerved into his lane and hit him head on. There were charges brought up on the woman but a dynamite lawyer jumped on the story and made a case for her trailer park sob story and how she had children to care for and was under so much mental duress from her abusive marriage and how poor they were etc. etc. She won and never saw a day of jail time. Turns out two years later she ran herself, drunk, into a tree. There wasn’t a lawyer to take her case that time. Word is there was barely anyone there to claim her body. Marcus was supposed to go with Devon to the birthday party but had stayed back with a head cold. Sometimes I think he wishes he would’ve been in the car with him so they could still be together.
One of my closest friends here, Josie, comes on Wednesdays after her spin class. In my time here, she has never missed a Wednesday regardless of weather, her schedule or even if she’s not feeling well. She has twin girls buried here. They were sixteen and star basketball players for Flexton High, already with letters of intent to the University of Notre Dame. There was a freak bus accident while they were on their way to a game an hour away and they had both died. Everyone, actually, had died in that crash. It was a tragedy that rocked the town right to its core. The bus driver had suffered a heart attack and blown through a stop sign where an oncoming semi smashed into the side of the bus splitting it into two. It had made national coverage. I remember when it had happened. I had stopped cutting the potatoes for dinner that night, found my daughter, taken the iPad out of her hands and given her a hug and sobbed. She knew something had happened because she didn’t protest and quietly hugged me back. Josie and I have had many conversations on Wednesdays about our girls. She always asks after my own and we swap stories on those teenage years and how disastrous they were—and how much we miss them.
One of the walking paths bisects another and there’s a water trough and hose here for people to get water if they are planting or need to water their flowers. Behind it are some more prominent graves of some well-known and well-to-do families from town. About twice a year, Duane comes and visits one of the tombstones that is shared between his mom and dad. I helped him get some water when he had brought flowers for his mother’s side and just this past year his father had died. In our visits before his father’s passing, he told me he was estranged from his dad after enduring years of abuse at his hands. The man was a big name in town making the bulk of his money on real estate. He had bought up small homes, abandoned buildings, downtown properties that were all but forgotten and parcels of land here and there. Over time, it turned out he was sitting on some of the hottest properties in the city and had cashed in big time on each and every one of them. But money doesn’t buy happiness and his wife (Duane’s mom) had died of a stroke in her late forties—herself enduring abuse at his alcoholic rages.
Duane had grown up watching his mother suffer only to receive the brunt of that abuse himself once she was gone. After nearly killing Duane one night with his shotgun, his dad had gotten clean. Over the years he tried to apologize and mend his relationship but Duane had told me it was far too late and as far as he was concerned, his dad was dead to him the day they buried his mom. He hadn’t spoken to him in years despite his father’s constant attempts to see him. He had died alone peacefully in his sleep and Duane recently found out that his father had left him everything. He’s struggling with that. In his heart he told me there is guilt over not giving his old man a chance to make peace, but now he hates him all the more for leaving him all the money. He says it’s like a slap in the face trying to buy him off in death. I told him that maybe he could make some good of it by donating the money to charities that fight to stop abuse and set up college funds for his children. He scoffed at my seemingly ignorant response and told me he plans to burn all of it. I think he’s stubborn and likely more like his father than he’d ever want to admit.
The graves span for as far as the eye can see and the people who visit are as unique as each tombstone. Every stone has a story that is as important to those who visit as it was to those buried beneath them. Some stories are happier while some ended in tragedy.
I don’t visit all the graves here. Some I won’t go near. There’s one in particular. This grave is near a willow. It’s set apart and looks lonely out on a plot all alone. The family that visits always brings flowers and says a prayer. There’s a man and a young woman and a teenage boy. They always look sad. The man is handsome but has dark circles under his eyes. The girl is tall and slender but always looks like she’s been crying. The teenage boy looks like every other teenage boy—bored.
They don’t come as often as they had at first, but I see them today. The day is now sunny, though brisk, and I follow the family to the tombstone I won’t visit. They trudge along unaware of me as the leaves crunch under my feet. I stand in the trees far enough away while they visit the grave by the willow. They don’t have flowers today, but seem to be mumbling a prayer. The visit is brief and the man and boy walk back towards the entrance. The man placing a hand on the boy’s shoulders. The boy is now almost as tall as the man. The young woman hangs back. I see her place something on the grave. It looks like it pains her to part with it and she brings her hand to her mouth and shakes, clearly sobbing. She backs away, turns and jogs to catch up with the guys, her blonde ponytail bobbing behind her.
My curiosity peeked, I venture towards the tombstone. I’m nauseous as I approach—this is why I don’t come to this one. I always get lightheaded and feel as if I’m slipping away on the very of blacking out. The tombstone is dark gray, weathered and you can still see where flowers were once planted in front of it but have since died. On top of the stone I see what the girl left. I reach a shaking hand towards it, my breath caught in my throat suffocating me. It’s a watch. The face is shattered.
I’m assaulted with memories. It was Christmas morning. Cinnamon from my favorite candle burning and scents of my famous ham casserole baking fill the air. Robert and the kids had me close my eyes and practically dragged me to sit on the sofa. I had tucked my legs criss-cross style and asked for my favorite blanket because the house was chilly that morning. They handed me a small box and told me I could open my eyes.
When I opened them, I saw the famous blue box. I had squealed and torn it open revealing the most gorgeous watch I had ever laid eyes on. It had a black leather strap and a rose gold colored face and dials. It was cased with round brilliant diamonds.
“Read the back, mama!” Austin had said
I read the engraving: What Time is It? Love, Robert, Jojo & Austin
It was our joke. The joke. I was never, ever, on time and I was constantly asking them for the time, because I was such a disaster and never knew.
Tears well and spill over as the memory fades. I looked down at my wrist, the tan line from the watch still visible. Shaking, I look at the name on the headstone, Morgan Brown. My name.