Updated: Dec 21, 2022
It’s happened again. I’m shirking my responsibility, trying to avoid it like COVID. I can’t bring myself to visit the cemetery because I know what awaits. The headstone on my son Chad’s gravesite is waiting. And I know it's a mess - because I have experience with it. Over three years of experience with it.
The water from the sprinklers that keeps the grass green and the hallowed ground ever-so- beautiful makes a nasty deal out of polished granite stones. It creates a residue of calcium that looks like powder but behaves like permanent marker. It doesn’t come off easily - and it’s unsightly.
It’s a J O B to clean it up. It takes a firm brush, vinegar, and more vinegar - a whole gallon of vinegar. It also takes a lot of time. Vinegar and soaking and scratching with the brush and repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Sigh. Repeat that too. Sigh and cry.
A friend told me to pray while I wait for the vinegar to break it all down. I don’t. I let myself break down instead. I let myself get agitated, resentful. This isn’t supposed to be my job. What mother ever thought this was part of the plan? Scrub the calcium off your kid's headstone? No, I don’t pray. After many cycles of vinegar, elbow grease, tears, and a more-than-fair portion of wallowing in self-pity, it’s time for the spray. The super-shiny spray polish that’s supposed to be for cars, but someone told me it’s also good for granite. (Is it granite? I thought it was marble when I picked it out. But how would I know? How would I even know to ask? You don't learn about headstone choices in the birthing classes.) The spray polish part of the job takes a lot of time too.
I’ve whined about this before, probably around this time last year. The time of Saints and Souls. I used to celebrate the Day of the Dead as a unique holiday, something I thought was a little quirky and cool. But yesterday I brought all the sugar skull and Dia de los Muertos decorations to the thrift store. The skeleton dressed as a bride means something else to me now. Better off gone. Plus, I'm not of Mexican heritage, and I don't want to dishonor any aspect of that tradition with my past misunderstandings. I didn't know what I didn't know. But now I do - and it's not cool to make light of it in any way.
As for me, the day's meaning has changed from my misguided fascination with a spectacle of skeletons dressed in costume to my very own soulful and bittersweet sorrow, a taste that cannot be described. How could it be any other way? I lost my son. Hello. Hey. Hello! I LOST my son!
I'll carve my own tradition, not with a Dia de los Muertos ofrenda, but with a sacred way of my own. A candle, his photo, a trip to church, a visit to his worldly place of repose, the ground above his body.
When November 2nd arrives, I don’t want to be cleaning the headstone. That has to be DONE already. I have to make it nice-nice for Chad, and for me, so that I don’t feel like a slug when all the people come. All the people with their picnics and their food and their lawn chairs and their canopies and their flowers, So many people. So many devoted family members. So many cars on the pretty roads in the cemetery. So beautiful.
As for me, on my little (but paid-for-with-such-a-high-price) plot of land, it’ll only be me hanging out. Me and Chad’s headstone and his skeleton in a Van's T-shirt and jeans and ball cap six feet under. Oh gosh, his drumsticks are in there too. I don’t want to sit there alone with a grungy headstone. I mean, that would just be so, so pathetic.
And on that day, that day for his soul, that day for All Souls, I don’t want to be pathetic. I don’t want to be carrying the millstone of the headstone around my neck. I don’t want anyone to think I don’t care. (As if anyone would be thinking anything about me and my little camp of one.) But still.
So I have to go. I have to overcome the resentment and get it done. This is part of my life now. It’s called acceptance and they say it’s a process.
It’s actually the ultimate grindstone.
There will be a day though, a day for all the Saints and all the Souls, when none of us will be polishing up cemetery headstones or sitting on camp chairs with family and friends, eating delicious food and telling stories of our beloved dead. We'll be in our real home. With our children, and we'll all be more alive than ever. Because we are all born to die to live.
Sometimes, we have to be reminded of that.
Until that glorious day when we all get to reunite in the place of unknown colors and indescribable beauty, may our beloved departed rest in peace.