The day my husband died, I gazed out the picture window in his hospice room and the lone tree in the labyrinth arched longingly toward the heavens, naked, before its creator. Gone were the blossoms and seed pods of spring. Gone were the full leaves blown about by the storms of summer, gone was the golden dress it wore when the harvest moon hosted her last ball. The dry leaves were snuggled up against its trunk like a blanket. Creation was waiting for winter. Inside that hospice hospital lay the mirror images of that tree. The once mischievous children who played in the mud on spring days, had become brides and grooms in summer, then moms and dads in autumn and, for the lucky ones, grandmas and grandpas. Now, they lay stripped of their cars and jobs and homes and roles and lifestyles. Now they lay silent, under blankets, bodies arched longingly toward the heavens, souls standing naked before their creator.
When they said my husband could die anytime, that the battle he’d fought so bravely was over, I’d gone to the mortuary. Thank goodness we’d discussed death and dying and burial and funerals on one of those long car trips that are so good for thinking and talking. My husband loved the outdoors. He was happiest in nature. He ran, he cycled, he swam, he camped. If you could do it outdoors, he did it. He wanted to enter the earth as dust, he said that day as we drove a mountain road, and he quoted that scripture passage from Genesis. The one where God kicked Adam out of Eden. From dust you came and to dust you shall return. Thank goodness, we’d had that conversation and I knew what he wanted. He wanted to be cremated and buried in the family plot, in South Carolina, next to his father and then have a big celebration of his life at our church. He was a man of faith, he believed in life after death.
A gaunt, solicitous young man greeted me at the crematorium. He was tall with pasty white skin and bulging eyes and a shaved head as bald as a cue ball. He was young but already very sanctimonious. He ushered me into a small office, with a metal desk and two pale green office chairs. He took out a long, legal sized form, in triplicate (one for me, one for him and one for the government) and murmured to me in hushed tones. “Now then, what kind of casket did you have in mind for your beloved?”
I could hear the sales pitch coming like a freight train in the dark and I wasn’t in the mood so I interrupted and said, “Actually I don’t need a casket – my husband wants to be cremated. All I need from you is the cremation and an urn.”
He checked the box that said, “Cremation,” and patted my hand. And then he put his pen down and he told me the sweetest story about how he’d been a paramedic in the military but given that up so he could do what he always wanted to do: embalm people. And then he assured me that I would want my husband prepared before the cremation so everyone could view his body and remember him the way he was, before he died. And he checked the box next to make up and hair styling.
Now my husband was born and reared in Alabama – roll Tide! His idea of gun control was not having a loaded one on my lap in the car. He was an Eagle Scout, an athlete and man’s man, okay? I knew, I knew my husband wouldn’t want some pasty faced man fluffing his hair and putting pancake makeup and lipstick on him so I grabbed the pen and scratched that out.
At which point, we proceeded to the display room to look at urns. This tour convinced me that the old adage is true: one man’s junk really is another man’s treasure. There was a cheap brass urn that I’m pretty sure was once a tobacco spittoon. There was an urn with a deer head and pine trees but I decided against that one because I didn’t think he’d want to be buried in camo. We walked under the wood cut sign that said, “Yea tho I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” And I found my mind leaping into the scripture for safety. “Lo, thou art with me, they rod and they staff, they comfort me.” And then I saw a pale orange and yellow salt crystal urn. It looked just like the lamp my husband bought me at a craft fair for my birthday the year before. That lamp sits next to my computer and when I turn it on, the glow through the crystal is so warm and lovely. I picked it up and he said, “Now that is not an urn for a woman of your standing, for a Christian woman like yourself. That one is just salt and it will dissolve and spill your beloveds cremains right into the ground.”
Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. “From dust you came,” the Lord God said to Adam, “and to dust you shall return.” And I held onto that urn with all my heart and said “I’ll take it.” And wrote the man a check.
My husband died before the day was out, and we buried him in South Carolina, in the red clay in the graveyard that sits next to the church his family founded before the civil war. A heavy frost sat on the ground and everything was gray. The only color was a bright red cardinal that flew to a bare branch near the open grave and sang to us. I swear to you it said, “believe, believe, believe.” I took the bag of tulips I’d bought for the yard and pushed them into the clay on top of the urn. Planted them in the shape of a heart, squeezing every last one in, and then I laid his ring in the middle. His siblings took turns shoveling the Carolina clay into the grave, we ate a meal at the farmhouse together, we had a celebration of his life and then…
Winter came… with all its “firsts.” My first wedding anniversary without him, our first Christmas without him, my son’s first birthday without him. The waves of grief came one after the other and like storm surge pulling the sand from a beach, there was a little less of us left each time the waves came.
But finally, spring came, My son and I decided to drive to the farm in S. C. just get out of the house for the weekend. And as the highway unfolded before us, the trees arched longingly toward the pale blue heavens, their graceful arms now covered in flowers and seed pods. The green of the wild grass along the road was so bright our eyes could barely take it in. We stopped at the church to visit the grave. Daffodils nodded from their neat lines along the walkway. Soft moss was growing into the cracks around the stone wall and the lusty mating songs of the birds burst in the air. Creation was birthing itself again.
We opened the wrought iron gate to the graveyard and what we saw there, took our breath away. A heart of tulips blooming on his grave. Red ones, pink ones, white ones, yellow ones, orange ones, encircling each other, entwining their leaves one to the other, like a family standing over him in prayer. And the cardinal flew to the branch now covered with fresh new leaves and sang “believe believe believe!”