ARONOFF, LEIBMAN, SARKOW, JOSEPH. I pedaled slowly past the headstones lined up in perfect rows, each no more than five feet high, each standing alone, each buffered from its neighbor to the left or right by a strip of grass or a manicured evergreen. Unlike the jam-packed and run-down cemeteries nearer to the city that undoubtedly mirrored the environments of their clientele, this one was, indeed, a memorial park. No gravestones were tipping. No narrow lanes were filled with potholes. No disintegration was readily apparent. The only things missing were picnic tables, although one could certainly improvise if necessary.
EDELMAN, MINSKER, JACOBS, TAUB. I approached a line of cars parked along the median, just past the juncture where the main road split off into two parallel roads. The rear door of the hearse was open, and several men were waiting to remove the plain pine box. I slowed down to watch, but then moved left, sped up and looked away out of respect. I knew that riding through a cemetery on my recumbent bicycle was as respectable as driving through in an SUV, but my flourescent chartreuse jersey seemed out of place juxtaposed against the somber colors of the mourners.
LEFKOWITZ, ORENSTEIN, BECKER, KATZ. I made a left turn where the road ended and rode to section G-85. I didn't need to stop at the office for directions since I had ridden to the cemetery by bicycle almost every year. This was one of my annual physical milestones, like marshaling the Five-Boro bicycle ride in May and getting up and over the Verrazano Bridge, like finishing the Seagull Century ride each October in Maryland, like hefting and maneuvering a 36-foot ladder each December before the first snowfall to clean out leaf-filled gutters, that reassured me that my body was functioning, and still functioning well. And my mother's voice saying "You could kill two birds with one stone" had unwittingly but accurately described such multi-tasking as riding out by bicycle to visit the graves of my parents.
The family headstone, starkly rectangular except for a slightly raised curve on top, was visible from the road. ABRAMS was etched into the headstone in Regular Roman caps and the recesses in the letters were blackened. The only decoration was a stylized Star of David above the name. Although twenty seven years had passed since my father had died, I still remember the day we opted for elegance and simplicity when we ordered that design from the monument company. I got off my bike, and parked it on the narrow paved path.
After I took off my helmet, I hung my damp sweat bands over the back of the seat to dry in the warmth of the early spring day. I stood facing the headstone and waited in vain for words to come, for, as always, I magically expected some sort of transcendental inspiration to occur. So I improvised. I told them briefly about how retired life was so much less stressful and then reflected on how anxious my father had always been, and how it had been his undoing. I told them about my wife, who was working part-time, and the extra time we now found to be together. About our Orthodox daughter, whom my father had never met, who was a New York City teacher, now living on the upper West Side. About our son, a veteran police officer, and his three-year-old son, whom my father would have "eaten up." I remembered a black and white photograph I had taken 30 years earlier. Our son, then his own son's age, was sitting on my father's lap. Both of their smiles were so wide and so free of worry. My father was always attentive and loving to his only grandson, and also to my wife, who thought of him as a father, since hers had died when she was eight.
I also told them about our Wheaton terrier. My inordinately fastidious mother would have probably been repulsed by the dog's between-baths skenkiness, but my father would have gotten a real kick out of his spirit and silliness. At first, I had been speaking out loud, but I soon stopped, suddenly self-conscious, though for no real reason. If there were actually a timeless collective unconscious, or if there were such thing as a soul and that whole construct, then they didn't need me to tell them all these things out loud; they would know everything already. And, of course, I really wouldn't have needed to be out there anyway, but that's another story entirely.
I knelt down and cleared away a few dead leaves and pine needles that had collected on their two footstones. I pulled out weeds that were daring to encroach, but I didn't bother with the dandelions that were sprouting all around. I suddenly became angry when I noticed that the small triangle in the "A" in LOVING FATHER had been chipped away, probably by one of the tractor-drawn lawn mowers that periodically rumbled through. But I quickly squelched my annoyance because it would have served no purpose.
My mother's footstone was more than twenty years newer and it was also somewhat larger than my father's, probably due to the cemetery's latest regulations and restrictions. One rule, posted at the office, warned against leaving pebbles or stones on the headstones and footstones because of possible erosion. Similar edicts and prohibitions that governed the cemetery led to the conformity that started to disgust and nauseate me. I had the same kind of visceral reaction when I visited my mother at her huge, gated condominium community in Florida. I was as much appalled by the crowded, dilapidated and decaying Brooklyn cemetery where my father's parents lay in rest, with its leaning headstones and corroded chains, with its cracked foundations and crumbling slabs, as the monotonous, homogenized, but immaculate cemetery to which I had just ridden. And then I realized that I'd end up spending my eternity there as well.
My father knew that planning for his death - "When I'll be pushing up daisies" was how he put it - was an obligation he could no longer put off. So he bought a six-grave plot early on when the cemetery was offering them at a discount. A good deal for us became a great deal for them. As I looked around, it was hard not to notice that few of the sites were full. In ours, there was room for four more graves. My brother and I have always assumed that they were to be used by his wife and him, and by my wife and me. We'd have MAYER and SCHWARTZ and DAVID as neighbors, another ABRAMS - no relation - two rows ahead, and WITTENSTEIN, WESSELSCHAFT / STEIN and BARKOW behind. But with two rows of three graves, with my father in the center and my mother on his left, I wondered about who was going to be buried next to whom. Later, I joked with my wife that the trick was to end up dying first.
I had brought along a bottle of Gatorade, and decided to toast my parents. On one of her annual visits, my mother once asked me why water wasn't good enough, and I had to go through a spiel about electrolytes and mineral replacement. What she was really saying was that I shouldn't be spending any extra money on sugar water, and what I tried to get across was that I was old enough to make my own decisions. And I added that we saved money by buying by the case at Costco, anyway. Before he died, my father had often taken my side, saying, "Leave him alone, already," though with little effect. I raised my bottle and said, this time aloud, "Here's to y'all. This is for both o' yuz," and I took a sip. I almost heard them laughing in response, and my mother saying, "Oy, that Lloydie," as I downed the rest of the warmed, insipidly-sweet yellow liquid.
The two once-green yews that had straddled the headstone were now sickly and stunted, but they were, indeed, well-pruned and shaped - something to be said for perpetual care. A mature pine tree provided shade and stood its guard above, but I wondered how long it would live. Several nearby trees were filled with glorious pink blossoms. But in the intervening years, the quiet back road behind the fence had become a heavily-traveled thoroughfare. Garbage trucks thundered by on their way to the dump. Tankers and other eighteen-wheelers grinded gears as they accelerated and delivery trucks and passenger cars whooshed by, a constant din, interrupted by small airplanes taking off from and landing at the nearby airport and a piercing fire siren that went off twice while I was there.
Do I really want to be here for all eternity? I wondered. All at once, I wanted to chuck the "for free take, for pay leave alone" mentality with which I grew up. That obnoxious catchphrase had long become an often-repeated self-deprecatory line, a bitter joke sometimes shortened to its initials, FFT, FPLA. But its meaning was clear. The graves were there for the four of us, and they shouldn't go to waste. And, it just might be a familial sin to even consider not being buried there.
BROFMAN, KANOWITZ, GOLDBERG, EISENSTEIN. I imagined their whispered words caressing me, seducing me: "Here's where you belong, among us. Here's where you're gonna be," and then, scolding, "Whether you like it or not." But I wanted to fight back. I wanted to shout at them, "No! Not here! Not me! Not ever!" But I knew they'd refuse to listen.
There is a non-denominational cemetery in Pennsylvania where acrylic headstones can be found alongside the traditional marble and granite ones. There is an enormous variety of gravestones and a myriad of symbols - ornate crosses and interleaved stars, trees of life and porcelainized portraits, letters etched in Regular Roman as well as Arial and script, obelisks and mausoleums, monoliths inscribed with oriental lettering, and modernistically abstract hand-carved stones. Comparing that cemetery, where a "No Hunting" sign also greets the visitor, to the almost indistinguishable gravestones and gravesites at the eternal home of my parents was like comparing the eclecticism of an artist's colony to the tedium and unvariedness of an antiseptically vacuous upscale suburban shopping mall.
Perhaps it was time to go cemetery shopping. But like all of the many other items on my mental "to do" list that weren't quite so crucial, it would be too easy to set that one aside. After all, what does it really matter? Once you're gone, you're gone. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. And then it'll be my turn to push up daisies, or dahlias or dandelions, for that matter. Yet, still, I had to push back the festering thought: Is this all I have to look forward to?
My sweat bands had dried. I put my helmet on, and got back on my bike. I checked the mileage on the odometer, clipped into the pedals, and then started to ride towards the main entrance. A breeze had kicked up and I realized that getting home was going to be a challenge. HERSHBERG, ROSENBAUM, BERNSTEIN, KLEIN, then ALTMAN and DAVIDOFF. Cemetery workers in green jackets, standing around smoking and leaning on their shovels, were the only ones left at the gravesite that I had passed earlier. Although I hadn't been there all that long, the mourners had long departed. And there was no one around when I went to wash my hands.
As I turned onto the four-lane highway and I began concentrating on the traffic, I realized, rationally anyway, that there were far more important things to worry about than the landscaping and ambiance of a cemetery. When the traffic light changed, I rode through the busy intersection and then over the parkway, where I was forced to pay careful attention to cars entering and exiting. But on the long straightaway by the airport, when I began to put my energy into fighting the headwind and my mind started to drift, I still had doubts that nagged at me. And I was filled with an angst that dogged me like a loathsome ice cream truck jingle, like an unwelcome melody that I just couldn't get out of my head.
Rev 9 / May 7, 2004
May, 2004 Copyright © 2004, Lloyd B. Abrams