Guest Blog: Carving My Gravestone by Mahala Kephart

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.

When-it-comes-your-time

 

Carving My Gravestone

February, 2015

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:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/19/opinion/oliver-sacks-on-learning-he-has-terminal-cancer.html

~~

4 Comments

  1. Patrick on March 19, 2015 at 6:55 am

    I wish you had meetings in Chicago. I read up on your site & it is exactly what I think & believe in, but I’m not really into computers or on-line meetings.
    I wanted to share something that I wrote (actually posted on Facebook) September 7th, 2013 & it touched many people, maybe it will touch one of you.

    “It took a long time for me to realize(admit) that alcoholism is a ‘disease’, but it is. I have some experience with the subject so I feel comfortable saying there are several different types, however. Some more dangerous than others, some more functioning than others, some more extroverted or introverted. Like most diseases it is only a matter of time before it beats you or you beat it, but one thing is for certain……..eventually something has got to give. Most can’t beat this on their own or kid themselves that they can, but it’s a fools game & in the end you can’t win.
    It’s a somber morning when you wake up one day, after a few divorces & countless failed relationships, & realize that you have lost most everything that was ever important to you & you can never apologize to everyone or enough to a select few, that slowly watched you kill yourself in your own private war. It sometimes seems easier to cut all ties to avoid people that might care enough to say something that would jeopardize your addiction & take away the one ‘constant’ in your life. It’s a lonely life!
    It seems fun when your the life of the party & making everyone laugh but if you drink 18 fifths of whiskey in 21 days & your health is failing & for the first time your afraid. Afraid because you know it is now quickly killing you & you CAN’T stop! Maybe it’s just hard to care when your life is riddled with pain, disappointment & rejection. Of course that is just an excuse to be a selfish ass towards the few you have not pushed away or those that can’t leave.
    I’m sorry to any & all that I have hurt thru the years. I really am a caring & loving person but I’ve been confused for such a long time that I don’t even remember who I was…… only who I am now.
    There is a tough road ahead or a short one, but the only one that can make a difference is ME, the addict. I put this out there on a public forum because that is how I’ve been for a long time. I gave up being to ashamed to speak out, humility & honesty is the only way I want to roll. Most people either love me or hate me but you never have to wonder how I really feel, I’m emotionally honest to a fault.
    I just want peace in my life, it’s all I ever wanted.
    Sorry once again for my ramblings……… just had something that needed to be said out loud.”

    I wrote this just before I quit drinking for 5 months. I drank the same way since then ( about 11 months). On my 2nd day of sobriety today.



    • Craig W on March 19, 2015 at 9:17 am

      Patrick,

      Thank you for a very thoughtful comment!

      I wonder if you’d be interested in joining the “private” LifeRing Facebook page. It’s “secret” in order to protect people’s privacy, which is very desirable, but it means that people like you don’t even know about it. If you like, I’d be happy to send you an “invitation” to join the group.

      I did all of my recovery work online in an email group and still spend most of my time reading and writing emails. Just as you say about online recovery being not for you, that’s how I feel about Facebook! But an email group is not entirely dissimilar to Facebook — a steady stream of posts about recovery, problems, successes, all from people you come to know. You write well and you might find it comfortable. Again, I could send you an official “invitation” to join if you’d like to try it out.

      We’re very interested in getting meetings started in Chicago and other large cities. As I’m sure you’re aware, 12-step still dominates the whole recovery scene. We’re making headway, but it’s at a much slower pace than any of us would like. We don’t have the money to send an organizer to get things started, so we have to wait for a volunteer to step up. But most people, even if they have heard of us and have the 6 months of continuous sobriety we ask, aren’t willing to take that task on.

      Again, many thanks for your comment, Patrick.

      Craig W.



  2. Dennis Meeks on February 25, 2015 at 5:53 pm

    A beautiful and thoughtful post, Mahala. Thank you for this gift of legacy perspective. As we get older it’s difficult not to consider.

    Thank you , Bobbi, for all you do as our blogmeister.



    • Bobbi C. on February 26, 2015 at 1:17 pm

      I couldn’t agree with you more about Mahala’s piece, Dennis – in recovery it’s beneficial to take life one day at a time, and yet when it’s all said and done you don’t want to have to look back at your life with nothing but sorrow and regret. And thank YOU for being such a supportive and active reader!