Friday, October 10, 2008

Rest in Peace

My father is buried in a small cemetery in northern New Jersey, not far from the house where I grew up. The cemetery is off a busy street, surrounded on three sides by houses, stores, and office buildings. But even though it's not at all isolated, the minute you step through the gates of the cemetery, you are surrounded by quiet. The edges of the cemetery have been planted with trees and bushes, shielding it from view of the houses, and serving as a sound barrier from any street noise. His grave is shaded by a large tree, and the area beyond is dark and grassy.

Whenever I visit my father's grave, I feel like I'm standing alone in a forest. It's a lush sanctuary, and I find myself lingering, not rushing to step back through the gates and into my car.

My father died when I was seven, and he was in and out of the hospital for years before then, so I never really got to know him. Yet, I harbor fond memories of him, and carry pictures of him in my head. When I'm at his graveside, I talk to him a bit, wishing him well, and catch him up on my life. I'm not sure why I do it, but I find it comforting, and I in some way I guess finding that comfort allows me to feel a closeness to him that we never were able to s
hare while he was alive.

Last year my mother passed away. She's buried in a cemetery at the entrance to Jerusalem, overlooking the main highway to Tel Aviv. I can see the cemetery from my terrace- it fills a mountainside, with graves painting the hilltop a soft beige. In recent years, the municipality has been building multi-level parking garage like structures to house the ever increasing numbers of newly departed.

It's a sanctuary of a different sort- there are still remnants of the forest that covered the mountain, and many of the older areas of the cemetery retain that forest feel, but most of the graves are atop hills or flat structures, with no trees to offer shelter from the blazing sun or biting wind. A faint roar of the highway is ever present, and there are always people in the cemetery, driving its twisting roads, in search of or returning from a loved one's grave.

Still, the cemetery offers its own feeling of solitude. Maybe it's the graves stretching on end, or the breathtaking views of the Jerusalem hills... or maybe it's a comfort in numbers that fills the flat, grave-filled expanses with a heavy silence.

The youngest of four children by several years, and the only daughter, I always had a close, intense relationship with my mother. We didn't always get along, but our love was deep, true, and loyal.
I married when I was 18, but my mother was always an integral part of my, my husband's, and my son's life. We opened our home to her without hesitation when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and cared for her for the last five years of her life.

My mom hasn't been gone long, so visits to her grave always make me cry. I miss her, and I find myself stroking her tombstone. I dawdle, not because of a lush sanctuary, but because I still long to hold her in my arms, to caress her hand, and to see her smiling eyes.

My memories of my father are fielded in a soft haze of long-ago. I remember him as a quiet man, his body wracked with pain, love for his children filling his life.

Memories of my mother, however, are filled with a bustling energy that seemed to have no end. My mother taught until she was 85, and recanted stories of her students for years after.

Through no plan, their resting places wound up reflecting their lives:

Visits to my father's grave are filled with quiet, broken only by the sound of birds in the trees, the paths to his graveside are of random stones laid in thick grass. One whispers there, understanding that a raised voice would be unforgivingly out of place.

My mother's grave is out in the open, views far and wide, the rush of sound and energy all around. People talk loudly, and fill the roads and paths. Death here is a part of life, not to be hidden or hushed.

What a wonderful gift, that they each rest in a place that will forever fill us with memories of how they lived their lives, and how they undoubtedly would want to be remembered.

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