The living sleep for their time, the dead sleep for their time.
— Walt Whitman
My high-school sweetheart and her roommate are expecting me in Room 139 of the hotel where we are staying for our class reunion. The door is ajar. I tap twice, walk in, and say, “Wait a minute. What’s that smell? I know that smell!”
Forty years later I still remember the name of her perfume: White Shoulders.
These days, at gatherings of my peers, the atmosphere no longer crackles with the static of youthful libidos. We strive to project a facade of dignity, the only edge we have over younger generations. But my first true love wearing White Shoulders — that is totally unfair. You know that growl Roy Orbison makes in “Oh, Pretty Woman”? Rrrrraaoooow. That’s appropriate here. Mercy.
I believe in destiny as a sort of cause-and-effect in reverse: not This happened because that happened, but This happened so that could happen. I had to break up with my high-school sweetheart in eleventh grade for the sake of her future happy marriage and four darling kids and successful life. It’s the only explanation I have for my decision. I was destiny’s patsy. Fortune’s fool.
Or maybe I was just an idiot. There’s always that possibility. I can hear my mother say, Ya think? And then she laughs. This old girlfriend would have laughed with her. My mother adored her and wanted nothing more than for our innocent romance to endure. Sorry, Mom.
When I see the girlfriend now, I feel only happiness at her success, love without regret, and a whiff of the giddy merriment she and my mother shared. Sure, I might, for the sake of a story, try to pin my subsequent failures in life on the original sin of this baffling breakup, but it wouldn’t be true.
Commitment-phobic — I’ll take that rap. My defense is this: what the gods have in store for me necessitates bachelorhood. It may be a self-serving conceit, a convenient excuse, or it may be the simplest explanation: What is, is. Let x = x. No judgment. No cause. No effect. Just this. Which shreds my destiny theory.
Who ponders this stuff anyway? I’m not even stoned.
Here I am in Room 139, surfing waves of emotion, riptides of memory, breakers of White Shoulders, and headed for a wipeout on shoals of metaphor. Of all the emotions that have resurfaced during this fortieth-high-school-reunion weekend, these are the most disorienting. Or maybe reorienting. A chapter of my life is distilled in her fragrance. Certain songs recall a bygone time and place, but not as immediately as a smell. The nose never forgets.
Tonight is the second night of our revels. My cheeks hurt from smiling. Everyone shines. Our facades of dignity melt like the ice in our glasses. Clusters of merrymakers shift and blend. I sneak up on my sweetheart for a sniff, then, re-disoriented, wobble off to another vortex of laughter. After five hours I start to fade, and I slip away without saying goodbye. I hope no one notices.
I’m not actually staying in the hotel. I’m sleeping in my van, which is parked in a large lot behind it. It’s not the Coconino Plateau or the banks of the Niobrara, but for a suburban parking lot in Detroit, it’s not bad. And I am also saving about $250. For a wandering sadhu that’s a lot of papadum.
As I doze off, I think how strange a time adolescence is. We are half formed, unfocused. At eighteen I had yet to discover the two pillars of my future: poetry and Zen meditation. I had no clue who I was or who I would become. Yet the bonds we make in that transitional period are indestructible, like family. After graduation we scatter to the four winds, still unfinished, but we come back together every ten years to find out how we are the same and how we have changed. Joe got a promotion. Jane has retired. Jack is out of rehab. Jill still likes her wine. Jake is single again. John is still a clown. Everyone has aged, but the core of our identities seems fixed.
Each time, of course, our numbers are diminished. And I can’t help but wonder: Who’s next? And when? Who will drop dead in the gutter or at the gym? Who will lose a husband or a wife? Dreadful, unnecessary thoughts to have as I’m falling happily asleep. Better to drift off on memories of White Shoulders. They, apparently, last forever.
After a pretty-good sleep and some not-bad coffee with the other bleary-eyed early birds, including that old girlfriend, I am back on the road. A Sunday morning. I could go anywhere. The late, great Michigan writer and gastronomic enthusiast Jim Harrison often praised Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, so I head that way until my GPS announces, “You have arrived.” I order a turkey Reuben, find a table, and settle in.
The ethos of Zingerman’s is evident in its sunny decor, its upbeat staff, and its music: Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Neil Young. A woman in heels leans over the Sunday crossword, licks her latte mustache, and casually rubs a bare shin. Another patron talks too loud on her phone, broadcasting the success of her chemo. She’s obnoxious, but I’m happy for her. Sunshine bathes the patio and all within it: kids, dogs, readers, talkers. Sometimes the gods grant us more perfection than we deserve.
Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” comes on, part of the radio soundtrack of my Michigan youth. Twelve days ago in Louisiana, craving a big Southern feast, I found a Cajun-Creole establishment in Natchitoches (pronounced “Nackitish”), the very town where, in 1973, Croce gave his last concert. He was on his Life and Times tour and had just finished his album I Got a Name. He was overbooked and underpaid, battling managers for royalties and time off. He came to a decision: after this tour he would quit showbiz, become a writer, salvage his marriage, stay home with his infant son. He promised all this in a letter to his wife. He mailed the letter. He played the show. With three more gigs to go on the tour, he boarded a chartered plane for Texas. The pilot failed to clear a pecan tree at the end of the runway.
The next day, when the news of his death came out, Croce’s hit song acquired sad significance: “If I could save time in a bottle / The first thing that I’d like to do / Is to save every day / Till eternity passes away / Just to spend them with you.”
After burying him in Pennsylvania, his wife went home to San Diego, and there, in the stack of condolence cards, she found Jim’s letter from Natchitoches. Sometimes the gods twist it, just a little — the blade they’ve plunged into our hearts.
Back in the charmed atmosphere of Zingerman’s, the next song is “American Pie” — about “the day the music died,” when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper were all killed in an Iowa plane crash. I wonder if some savvy DJ knows the connections he or she is making, or if some cosmic Oz twiddles the dials behind the curtain of the visible world. No matter. It’s time to go. I even hear, quite clearly, “See ya, Vince,” but when I look, no one’s there. It must have come through a briefly opened door, real or imagined. I gather my stuff.
If only I knew where I was going.
My slate is clean until tomorrow evening in Columbus, Ohio. I wander Ann Arbor, noting bookstores and cafes for future visits, then point the van vaguely south. On impulse I pull into a quiet town from my youth: a place outside of time, a hamlet of flags, picket fences, and towering hardwoods.
Welcome to Milan, Michigan, the sign says. On the back side, as you’re leaving, it reads, Good people and great memories. But I’m not leaving yet. I don’t know what I’m looking for until I find it at Marble Park, a cemetery like the one in every Midwestern town.
When in doubt, I nap. I often rest among the dead, who are generally quieter than the living. The people who visit the graves assume I’m someone’s grieving husband or son from way out in California (the license plates). No, cemeteries don’t haunt me. I haunt them.
Of a famous graveyard in Paris, Raymond Carver said, “Everyone, it seems, is here.” He meant Maupassant, Sartre, Baudelaire. No one, it seems, is here in Milan — no one famous, anyway. But in another sense everyone is, or will be.
I park the van under a maple tree, sharing the shade with the Hanlons, Peter and Ida, and their son Thomas, who fought in World War I and died shortly after I was born. A bachelor, perhaps; no wife in sight. What was his life like? Did he come home from the war only to spend the rest of his years with his parents? Whoever he was, he’s here now. (“Be here now” — the dead totally get that.)
Outside the shade are headstones for James and Jean Early, born in 1934 and 1935. Their final dates are blank. I wonder: Do they visit their own graves, keep them tidy? How reassuring, I imagine, for this husband and wife: Till death do us part . . . and not even then. Side by side under the sod, their marriage bed.
I eat the rest of my leftover Reuben. A car parks close by, and an old man gets out on unsteady legs. The car is a Mercury: messenger of the gods, chaperone of souls. The man glances at me. My van is stealing his shade. With the measured pace of a ritual, he opens the hatch and extracts gardening tools and potted flowers and a heavy watering can. He gathers it all and totters to a grave. The hunch in his shoulders and his canted gait resemble my father’s.
I think I have him figured out, this old man: He has never left Milan. For thirty-five years he commuted to River Rouge for a factory job. He retired long ago and lost his wife along the way. He’s here because he’s devoted to her memory and has nothing else to do on a Sunday afternoon. His children and grandkids live upstate in the city. Mostly he’s alone. He never quite got the knack of other people. His wife was his translator, his safe harbor, his anchor. His hours are now a slow trudge against a current. But he’s learning, at this late stage, to let go. Today the current brings him here. He kneels in the dirt of his wife’s grave, speaking in soft tones. I can’t hear, but I imagine he’s saying, “Look what I brought you,” and, “There you go, dear,” and, “That will have to do for now.” For several years he suppressed a desire to say what he couldn’t bear: My God, but I miss you. He didn’t want to worry her.
I arrange the back of the van for my nap. The man regains his feet in stages, brushes the dirt from his knees. He leans a hand on the headstone and tilts the watering can. The backlit shower looks like light pouring from the can. It’s windy now. A row of trees sways like a robed choir. He steps back to appraise his labors and is satisfied. This faithful upkeep of her grave site is all he can do for her now.
The world seems to pause at this moment. There’s a touch of eternity on this ordinary day, even as a tribe of motorcyclists thunders into town, heading down a tunnel of trees along Main Street. The old man hobbles to his car, his load easier now that the can is empty. The flowers sparkle. He glances at me, and I nod, then lay my head on the pillow.
When I wake, the sun is lower. The breeze is gone and the old man with it. I get out to assess his handiwork, and my story collapses. It’s not his wife’s grave. Here lie the Buggys, John and Annie. John died in 1970 (like my father’s father) and Annie in 1988 (like my father’s mother). My new story: the man has come every Sunday for twenty-eight years to tend his parents’ grave. It is immaculate. If he’s a bachelor, childless, maybe he’s wondering who will keep his grave. But more likely he is married, and the love of his life is home shelling the garden’s first peas. When he comes in, she’ll say, How are your parents? It’s a joke they share.
We spin our fables from such slim threads. Reality must include our fictions. We know no other way. I slide the van door shut, pat my pocket for the keys as I prepare to leave. And suddenly I know where I am. I’m in the happiest place of all: the middle of a story. Not only that, I see where I’m going.
Refreshed from the nap, I settle into the rhythm of the road and review my weekend, searching for clues: the reunion, my sweetheart, Zingerman’s, the old man with the watering can. I’m in the middle of a story. I don’t have an ending yet. That’s up ahead.
Welcome to Ohio, the sign reads. So much to Discover!
A dark cloud angles across northern Ohio. I follow it south and east. At sunset the cloud catches fire, like a burning building with beams, trusses, vaults of every shade and hue. My side-view mirrors blaze with light.
I pass an odd bus painted a dull primer black with blood-red lettering that says, Hemlockworld.com. I look it up later. Hemlock is a heavy-metal band from Las Vegas with songs such as “Kill Your Children” and “Born Dead.” They’re famous for a mosh-pit gimmick called the “Wall of Death.” Their singer sounds like Satan retching. It’s nothing like the music I’ve been listening to, my mother’s favorites: Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, “Chattanooga Choo Choo.” It’s not the Andrews Sisters.
The twilight turns blue-black, and the shadows on country roads waver in my headlights. The speed limit drops each time I pass through a small town. Finally here’s the Main Street I know. My father could narrate every house and building I pass: Here’s his grandmother’s house, across from the school. Here’s his best friend Dickie Bishop’s place, and his first girlfriend Dorothea Hook’s. Here are the post office and the Baptist church and the corner store that sold dry goods and soda pop. And here is 30 West Main. From her porch my grandmother had a commanding view of town. She knew whose sons marauded about in cars, whose daughters paraded by in self-conscious pairs. Here my cousin and I blew smoke rings from upstairs windows. A clock ticked in the parlor, as if counting down the days of “parlors,” which were numbered. Framed photos covered tabletops and walls. As a child I felt the eyes of the dead watching me.
My grandmother came to visit us in Michigan once. She was four years a widow at that point. I slept on the couch so she could have my room. I heard doors opening and closing. I heard murmuring voices, tears. My mother met me on the stairs. “Your grandmother is missing your grandfather,” she said.
“After all this time?” I said.
What did I know, sixteen years old?
Now here’s my grandmother’s house; and behind it, the library; and beyond that, the Methodist church. Forty years ago my grandmother donated funds for a new church sign, now gone. A newer one, illuminated, names the themes for the week’s sermon: faithfulness and forgiveness. In that church, at nine or ten years old, I squirmed in my Sunday best in a cloud of my grandmother’s perfume. In that church my soldier cousin stood in uniform and spoke fragile vows, his bride’s belly already swelling. In that church my farmer grandfather, in a fine suit, lay among flowers.
I continue past my father’s high school, now a grammar school. Beyond that, I come to a gate: our journey’s end. A sign says, Closed At Dusk, but the gate is open. I turn off the headlights and pass through, letting the moonlight guide me.
The latest in graveyard decor is the solar landscaping light. Several in a row resemble airstrip flares for a ghost who’s lost his way home. I hear crickets and katydids. Lightning bugs blink in the woods. I back my van into a far dark corner, open the rear, and extract two blankets.
Under a nearby maple my people are planted. Everyone is here. My cousin, his battles ended. His parents: my aunt, who taught Sunday school, and my uncle, who farmed and drove a bus. My father’s father and his father’s father, both farmers. And my mother, who’s been here for nearly six years. The scar in the turf in front of her headstone has long since healed. Her death date was blank at her funeral, reflecting our disbelief. It now reads, Sept. 11, 2010. Beside that is another blank for my father.
Facing this stone, I place one blanket on the ground for a seat and drape the other around my shoulders. I fold my legs, rest my hands on my lap with thumb tips touching, and allow the breath to soften as my attention settles into the body. I begin sitting zazen on my mother’s grave.
Is there a Leonard Cohen song for every occasion? No, but for this one there is:
I went down to the place Where I knew she lay waiting Under the marble and the snow
Zen meditation is commonly called “sitting practice,” which would have amused my mother. Why do you need to practice sitting? she might have asked. We do it all the time! To be contrary, I might have said, It’s because we do it all the time that we need to practice. But my practice did not interest her. I once sent her a photo of me from a Zen-center kitchen where I was tenzo (head cook) for a wedding. (She loved everything about weddings.) She liked that I looked happy and that my shirt was tucked in, but she never asked about my practice. Which was fine with me. She had no need to know, and I had no need to explain.
When I got the dreaded news in 2010 that my mother had died, I lit a candle on a makeshift altar and sat before a picture of her. My intent wasn’t to “handle” my emotions. It was to meet the magnitude of her passing with full attention — no escape, no denial, no indulgence in comforting beliefs. And then I wailed in the arms of my girlfriend. That night is both a distant memory and a second ago; an infinite divide and no time at all. If nothing else, sitting meditation teaches me that time is a fluid concept. Six years later here I sit with this quiet conundrum: After all our vivid years, we end up here?
Here, too, is another fragrance that triggers a memory: creeping Charlie, an aromatic ground cover that grew on my grandparents’ farm. The smell transports me to Licking County, Ohio, circa 1970. It grew under a weeping willow there, as it does here under this maple. Its spice recalls things long gone: an older order, a younger country, a family intact, people I loved, and their faith, which was my faith, in a good, simple life. What do you want to be when you grow up? adults would ask. I always had two answers: a baseball player and a farmer. I was so innocent, I didn’t think of them as dreams.
What remains of the woman who gave me life lies just below me. Strange, what we do in our culture: claim a small piece of real estate for that part of us that is decidedly not “us,” that which lasts after our essence passes. And what about that essence? Is it ephemeral? Or a soul that survives? I don’t know.
Some Asian Buddhists make a practice of sitting in charnel grounds, dead bodies all around, to confront life’s impermanence. I suppose this is my Midwestern version of that. What has brought me here? Maybe, subconsciously, the weekend’s collisions between past and present inspired a quest for reconnection, an urge to reckon with the stories that make up my life.
I said, “Mother, I’m frightened The thunder and the lightning I’ll never come through this alone”
Nothing happens as I sit. I receive no lesson, no insight. My mother doesn’t rise up, shedding loam and showering me with blessings. I’m just here, breathing. Perhaps the lesson is an obvious one: time passes. A half-moon inches toward the horizon. An overnight trucker downshifts through town. Crickets croon, a dog barks, a cow lows in the bottoms. Thoughts come and go, blinking on and off like those lightning bugs. Sensations arise. A fullness in the chest gets resolved with a sigh. Most of what “happens” is all in the mind, the ceaseless human habit of making up stories. Teasing reality from our fictions is what Zen practice is about.
My mother, the Apostle of Normal, would surely have marveled at my behavior: What the devil are you doing? Why are you sitting in a cemetery in the dark? We do not do these things. Why aren’t you home in bed? Her credo was simple: Don’t be a weirdo.
Fate was both kind and unkind to my mother. On the one hand, a stable, Depression-proof childhood in a storybook town. On the other, a brother killed in war at twenty-one, a father dead at sixty-one (cancer), a mother at eighty-one after years of dementia. Misfortunes, yes, but common ones. There were also lifelong friendships, a marriage of sixty years, four darling children — she often said she wouldn’t trade any of it.
Yet friction was inevitable. I was, by nature, a challenge for her. Go to India? Why would you do that? Backpack alone in the Grand Canyon? What about snakes? Abandon your home and teaching career to move to San Francisco? Zen? What’s Zen? Hitchhike down the coast to Los Angeles? Good Lord. I chafed against her fears, her taboos. Rarely, as a child, did I openly rebel — that was my brother’s role. I was an undercover shape-shifter, my real face hidden behind the mask of the Good Boy. Of course, a mother sees through all that. But she never encouraged the “real” me, at times an intensely unhappy boy, to surface. Smile was her mantra. Act happy.
Then I left home. My life was my own. I can’t say I yearned for my mother while she lived. We had weekly long-distance telephone calls, and I went home almost every year. We never lost our essential bond.
Only after she was gone did I calculate the significance of this simple fact: she never once failed me. Her faithfulness was unwavering — not one missed meal, not one moment of indifference or neglect, not one indication she was ever less than delighted to hear my voice on the phone or see my face at the door. She taught me by example how to forgive ingratitude. And she did nothing herself to warrant forgiveness. After I lost her, any lingering childhood grievance felt absurd in grief’s piercing light.
Here’s what I’ve come to understand: Our frictions were born of our differences, not our failures. My liberal values to her conservative. My recklessness to her caution. It’s no tragedy, merely the ancient tug-of-war between a mother’s fears and a son’s need for independence. If you must blame anything, blame a mother’s love.
She said, “I’ll be with you My shawl wrapped around you My hand on your head when you go”
I don’t think of all this as I’m sitting on my mother. In fact, I am not thinking much of anything. I am at ease, breathing in the smells, the darkness. A firefly floats by, blinking its inscrutable Morse code. The crickets, the creeping Charlie, the cow. What century am I in? This could be any June evening dating back to my great-great-grandfather’s day. Surely John Mowrey, who arrived here on foot from Virginia, knew such nights, this peace, this half-moon over a field of corn.
I hold all of it — the memories, the moment, the sweetness of sad loss — suspended in unknowability, beyond words, but with gratitude and fondness.
And the night came on It was very calm I wanted the night to go on and on But she said, “Go back, go back to the world.”
I hear voices.
It’s two boys on the bike path. They could be me and my cousin forty or fifty years ago, except this path wasn’t here then. We’d have been walking in the corn. They don’t see me here, an actual head in this row of headstones. I could scare them half to death, but I don’t. I sit still as their voices fade.
Anyway, maybe I’ve had enough. My knees are complaining. I stretch, regain my feet in stages, brush grass from my pants. I sat down before midnight. Now I’m rising after midnight, another page flipped on our calendar of days, another click of the eternal wheel. I walk back to the van. It’s been quite a day, beginning with coffee with my first true love and ending with my mother under a maple. “And of these one and all I weave the song of myself.” Walt Whitman.
One last look before I lie down. The half-moon hangs from the maple’s lowest branch. I lay my head on the pillow. And here I hear a voice quite clearly: Why are you sleeping in a graveyard? We do not sleep in graveyards. Stop this foolishness. Find yourself a nice girl. Settle down. Be normal.
Good night, Mom.
“Night Comes On” by Leonard Cohen. Copyright © 1984 by Leonard Cohen, used by permission of The Wylie Agency LLC.