My school system has been working with our Family Connection in partnership to bring Elia Moreno to our community collaborative meetings virtually each month. Elia lives in Texas and works tirelessly with those in poverty to help empower them to effect positive change in their lives. She leads us in discussions about how to make a difference in our rural Georgia community as we strive to be good neighbors.
In our May meeting, there were a lot of tears; Elia’s sister Dee, diagnosed a couple of years ago with cancer, had passed away the day after our previous meeting in April. Elia is known for her powerful words and thoughts (I often jot down quotes as she speaks). In our May meeting, I wrote this: “In the two years leading up to my sister’s death, we made it count. We wore the dress, we bought the shoes, we took the trips. And I’m so glad we did that. We spent time together and had no regrets.” Her words brought to mind the Tim McGraw song Live Like You Were Dying, about the man whose father is faced with a life-threatening illness and gives the message that we should do the things we’ve always wanted to do today – while there is still time.
I recently visited Monroe Memorial Gardens in Forsyth, Georgia, where Ronnie Hammond, lead singer of the Atlanta Rhythm Section (my husband’s favorite band), is buried. On that same day, we visited Rose Hill Cemetery in Macon, Georgia, where the members of the Allman Brothers band are buried. We were both deeply moved by the beauty and peacefulness of these places, but the finality of life, the certain eternity of death in this life and promise of eternal life in heaven, was strongly felt.
As we searched for Ronnie’s grave, we noticed an older gentleman sitting in a folding chair on the far side of the cemetery, next to a grave. When he saw us walking the rows, he asked my husband, “Who are you looking for?”
Briar shared his stories of concerts and interactions with the Atlanta Rhythm Section and his more than half-century fixated fandom with the band and their songs. I watched these two – this older gentleman and my husband – walking side by side toward a grave near the entrance to the cemetery.
Briar spent some time there, reflecting and thinking, considering. What goes through our minds as we pause with graves at our feet is a deeply personal thing, caught as we are in our own blips on the dash at an unknown point between birth and death.
I looked back over and noticed that the gentleman had returned to his chair. “What’s his story?” I asked Briar.
“I don’t know. Let’s go find out,” he said, heading in that direction. I followed.
Turns out that the man has come here every evening for the past 8 years, except when weather or his own illness prevented his coming. “This is my wife, right here,” he explained, pointing at the grave at his feet.
I read the name. Hall. Juanita, born in 1936, had died in 2014. Frederick’s future plot is right beside hers; 1940 was etched in his birth space. Frederick, 82 years old, is in a strange sense, warming his own space pre-burial, as he had been for 8 years already. I wondered how many people on the face of this planet spent this much time next to the place that they would eventually be buried. And what he thought about as he sat.
“I just buried my daughter in the new section a month ago,” he told us, suddenly misty eyed the same way an unexpected rain shower moves in, pointing just beyond where our truck was parked. “It’s not supposed to work like this. We’re not supposed to bury our kids. They’re supposed to bury us.”
I looked at my feet. There was nothing to be said, and any words might take away the power of his feelings. So I stared at the ground.
And I thought a lot about Elia and Dee. Sisters who made a conscious choice to live with joy even in the face of death. Sisters who wore the dress, bought the shoes, and took the trips. Sisters who parted with no regrets, knowing that their time apart would be but a blink of an eye before they are reunited in heaven.
I thought about Frederick and Juanita, and their daughter, and wondered whether there were regrets, whether they’d known ahead of time to wear the clothes, buy the shoes and take the trips as they faced a finish line. I imagine that Frederick’s family was his entire life – folks who sat around the table together every Sunday after working hard all week, folks who celebrated every birthday and Christmas together, steeped in tradition with each new journey around the sun, contentment at its peak in their own living space.
I wondered about the regrets that Ronnie Hammond and his wife Tracey had ever felt. Ronnie’s last days involved surviving a bullet and ending up with heart failure.
And I stopped and took a quick personal inventory. For some of us, avoiding regrets means wearing the dress, buying the shoes, taking the trips and living like every day is our last – to live like we were dying (which, let’s face it – that’s how we are all living; from our first breaths, we inch our way toward death). I have an insatiable desire to travel, explore, see the world and write as I live like I am dying. For others, like my husband, having dinner at home around our table and spending time together, staying close to one’s roots – spending every moment in our own walls, cocooned safely in the familiar places – is how they would choose to live like they’re dying.
Moments in a cemetery have the power like nowhere else to shape the ways we think, to help us forgive, make decisions, and spend our time. After all, it is not our money that is our most valuable resource in this life; it is our time.
I think of Aunt Sook’s words to Buddy in A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote, feeling assured that every one of us will, in fact, leave this world with today in our eyes.
You know what I’ve always thought? I’ve always thought a body would have to be sick and dying before they saw the Lord. And I imagined that when he came it would be like looking at the Baptist window: pretty as colored glass with the sun pouring through, such a shine you don’t know it’s getting dark. And it’s been a comfort: to think of that shine taking away all the spooky feeling. But I’ll wager it never happens. I’ll wager at the very end a body realizes the Lord has already shown Himself…..as for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes. – Capote
Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. James 4:14