Hi all! Last time you heard from me, I was off to Colorado to try heading down an icy mountain on a coupla personalized foot sleighs. The good news: I made it down with all appendages still attached and functioning properly. Yay! The bad news: Upon our return home, life got a little hectic. Boo!
Thank goodness my fellow LifeRinger, the brilliant Mahala, wrote and offered me the following wonderful piece to post, a response to Oliver Sacks’s moving and profound Op-Ed in the New York Times (link attached at the end) on facing his recently diagnosed terminal cancer.
– Bobbi C.
Carving My Gravestone
Samburu National Reserve, Kenya
Somehow, in spite of having completed two intensive outpatient programs and hours upon hours of conversations with therapists, I have managed to avoid the morbid-sounding exercise of writing my own obituary. But carving my gravestone? I’ve been chiseling away at that one for years.
When I was in the sixth and seventh grades, every week I would walk through an old cemetery, reading the gravestones and making up little stories. It’s not as ghoulish as it sounds: my Girl Scout troop met on Thursdays in a church near my school. The church was old, and so was the cemetery that surrounded it. The church, a white building that was not nearly as wide as it was tall, stood at the top of a slight hill. The church steeple, pointing ever-skyward, was the commanding feature of the building itself. It remains so to this day.
To enter the building, you have no choice but to walk through the oldest part of the cemetery, on what must be the path of an old carriage lane … a long lane that would have allowed a horse-drawn carriage to approach the front doors of the church, its passengers to disembark (unless of course the horse-drawn carriage was a hearse, in which case the disembarking would be a different sort of process altogether), and the carriage to continue moving forward past the front doors, making a little turn back downhill, and then to proceed, perhaps clattering a little bit, down the other side through the cemetery to a little field that has been, for many, many years now, a paved parking lot. But in my daydreams, both the parking lot and the carriage lane were unpaved, grassy, and perhaps a bit rutted. Sometimes they were muddy. I share them with you today as they were in my daydreams.
Unpaved, as they were in my imagination, and sometimes muddy, the shoulders of the carriage lanes were distinctly defined by the headstones that flanked them. Each stone monument stood as if at attention, at a sharp ninety degree angle to the earth, its lettering, whether raised in relief or carved into the surface of the stone, clear and legible. That sharpness, those angles, and the bright white of the markers, I thought, would have stood in sharp contrast to the less disciplined grasses, and perhaps the occasional dandelion, that grew between the stones.
Whatever might have been carved on those stones: a name, a date of birth, a date of death, perhaps the name of a spouse or child, perhaps a cause of death (the tiny stone of an infant who died from an unknown illness and the full-sized stone of a soldier who had died on the battlefield already distinguishable by their size) — on many stones, those individual letters and numbers, even whole words and years, had been worn away by the wind and the rain. By the time I was walking through the cemetery, nearly a half-century ago, the stones themselves were becoming weathered. Some were simply chipped or pitted. Others seemed to be disintegrating before my eyes, reminding me of sugar sculptures that had been first nibbled by the wind and then rained upon by the sky, the nibble marks left by the wind becoming rounded and blurred. How a stone had weathered, how chipped it was or broken, how much it tilted at crazy angles by unrelenting tree roots and shifting soils, how many of the few letters and numbers that summed up a life had been partially — or completely — obliterated … It all seemed random, capricious, and sad.
If my life were to be marked by such a stone, even one that would eventually be rendered blank by the wind and the rain, I wondered, what words should I ask to have carved there, when the surface of the stone would be newly polished and I would be newly dead?
Almost fifty years have passed and I’m still not sure. But as I take various measures of my life, it seems important to return to this question. Maybe it’s because I’m traveling far from home and have a kind of physical and mental distance from the daily routines of my life. Maybe it’s because I’m traveling in an area of the world that is breathtakingly beautiful and heartbreakingly fragile. Maybe it’s because of the op-ed piece by neurologist and author Oliver Sacks in the New York Times a couple of days ago, the one titled “My Own Life,” in which he reflects on his diagnosis, at 81, of terminal cancer. It’s a beautiful piece of writing, one that honors both life and the fragility of being. Maybe it’s because I just celebrated the last birthday of my fifth decade. Maybe it’s because I very nearly forfeited it all.
I will likely not have a gravestone. I am wrestling with whether to have my ashes, intact as they may be, scattered in places that have been important to me or whether to donate my remains to science and the study of addiction and recovery (if one can make such choices about how one’s remains are used after death). These are the practical questions of life. The stuff of rational thinking and acting upon one’s decisions.
But how I will be remembered? That will depend on how I choose to make the life choices that are mine still to make. I feel pretty sure that such choices, if I make them carefully, and with as wise and gentle a spirit as I can muster at any given moment, may yet add up to a life lived (albeit with some major detours along the way) as one that may be remembered, however fleetingly, as that of a wise and gentle person.
I hope so.
Here is the link to the extraordinary piece by Oliver Sacks: