by Karen Zey
I saw her son’s gravestone for the first time when Nancy texted me a picture. A slab of gray granite gleaming in the spring sunshine, newly planted red and white petunias at the base, the jarring permanence of Danny’s etched name. The interment had been private: just mom, dad, brother and long-time girlfriend. Otherwise, I would have been there. I swallowed hard and immediately texted back: Hope everything went without a glitch. The sun shone down on all of you. Sending hugs.
Nancy and I have been friends since fifth grade. We share life’s joys and torments weekly, usually over a cup of tea, sometimes by text from cancer clinics or cardiac wards. And now cemeteries. Danny had died after a year of countless hospital stays and two failed surgeries. His faulty heart had finally given up while he slept at home in his condo. Nancy’s had shattered when his girlfriend phoned with the news. Dying peacefully in your sleep is a wish for old age, not your adult children.
A flock of out-of-town relatives were coming for the backyard celebration of life. I called her the day before the event. “What can I do besides drop off the sandwiches tomorrow morning?” Six loaves worth of salmon salad cut into crustless triangles sat ready in my fridge. “What are you missing? I’ll do a grocery run.”
“That would be a big help. I don’t know how many will show up.” Danny had a slew of running buddies, work colleagues, old friends. “I think two more cases of sparkling water. Four cantaloupes, a dozen oranges. And some lactose-free cream cheese if you can find it.”
Lactose-free for the niece from Toronto. Planning how to feed the crowd was distracting her from the relentless waves of anguish.
A couple of weeks later, Nancy and I visited Danny’s grave. Just the two of us. I knew the route to Lakeview Cemetery—and how gravesite visits and the weight of grief can squeeze your chest until you can hardly breathe. My first husband and parents are buried there. But it had been years since I’d shed tears over the memorial plaques of my loved ones. My grief had long ago transformed into poignant reminiscence. Nancy was still living the nightmare of her son’s unfinished life throughout her waking hours.
I wanted to make the trip as easy as possible for her, for my friend with post-chemo neuropathy in her feet, who uses a cane on uneven terrain. “Let me drive,” I said.
“No, I’ll drive. Your place is on the way.”
She picked me up with a full box of Kleenex on the console. Off we went to Lakeview, which has no view whatsoever of a body of water. She drove along the highway, just below the speed limit as she usually does, eventually winding our way through the cemetery to the area where Danny was buried. A trek she made every week.
“They haven’t been cleaning the weeds around his spot,” she said, as she opened the car door. “I may need to speak to someone at the office before we leave.”
“Sure, no problem,” I said. This sounded lame, but I didn’t know what else to say. At the live-streamed Zoom funeral in January, the whole family spoke. I had watched online as Nancy leaned on the podium with a pale, drawn face and somehow found the words to say goodbye to her son. Accompanying her today was the least I could do.
Gripping her cane, she led the way to a row of graves and stopped in front of a headstone. There it stood, a surprisingly tall marker, heralding her son’s name and lifespan dates. And below, with date of brith only, her name, and her husband’s engraved in stone. Along with the disquieting familiarity of those three names, the silvery quote read: His Smile Lit Up Our World. My throat tightened. How had she found this luminous line amid the darkness of her pain?
A tangle of weeds and uncut grass encroached on the petunias the family had planted. She bent down and deadheaded a few withered blooms, pinched off some brown leaves. A mechanical whir in the distance caught my attention. “Look, Nancy. Someone’s trimming grass and weeds around graves in the next section.”
She bustled toward the guy with the weed whacker, and he came right over. At his request, we stood to one side for safety, and he swung his machine back and forth around the little rocks, tidying up the edges of the plot. He apologized and said he’d make a note of it for the maintenance crew. She smiled and thanked him, then pulled a water bottle from her overstuffed blue purse and freshened up the flowers.
In a soft, trembly voice, she spoke a few words to her son. We lingered in front of the headstone, crying. When our tears were done, we tucked wet tissues in our pockets and walked around. I found my family’s graves and those of a few others we knew. A principal she had once worked for. An old neighbor of mine.
We meandered back to where she had parked, near the trees stretching tall along the edge of a grassy knoll. The steady warmth of the sun felt good on our faces. We decided on coffee in the village, which for us meant two London Fog teas and blueberry scones on our favorite terrace. Chatting about small, unimportant things, I walked beside her as she carried her terrible sorrow back to the car.