This picture is of my father, back from basic training, and just before leaving for his tour in Germany. He was a bright young man who chose to give up the last couple of months of high school (and possible jail time for a teenage prank he and some buddies took a bit too far), to serve his country. He was immensely proud of his time in the Army but did not speak about it when I was a kid (maybe he did, and I just wasn’t listening). But as his time on earth grew shorter, he loved sharing his stories and identifying the uniformed men standing beside him in black and white pictures.
Today is Memorial Day, a day originally declared to remember those American men and women who have died in military service to their country. History tells us that it began (in practice) on July 4, 1864, in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, by a group of women (as most all good ideas are). The first “official” Memorial Day was in 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery.
To the chagrin of some but as a matter of convenience to others, Memorial Day has become a day when we think about all those who have passed, not just those who died in service, not even just veterans. A trip to the cemetery to decorate the graves of loved ones is a traditional end of May event for some families. While Daddy did not die in service, and Mom did not serve at all, we drove out to the cemetery and decorated their graves and those of my brother and nephew. I don’t always do this. In fact, I rarely do. I have two blessed aunts (Daddy’s sisters) who see this has their duty, but they couldn’t this year. Daddy died a year ago tomorrow (June 1, 2020) and it felt important this time. My brother built a flagpole and we erected it there in his honor. It felt good to do this, and not the least bit morbid.
As we stood there on the soggy cemetery grounds, the conversation moved to my older brother, Gene, who died several years ago. I remarked that sometimes he speaks to me when I’m walking around in the gully behind my property or near the spot that was once his driveway. My sister said she hears from him from time to time, as well. Now, everyone who knew him and knows me, is aware that Gene and I were not close. I grew up with the idea that he resented my very birth; like he saw me as an intruder and a nuisance and felt that our parents should have stopped when they had him. All my attempts to endear myself to him failed miserably and just served to make his opinion of me even worse. In my strongest memory of him, he is rolling his eyes at me. I mean, we loved each other, but he didn’t like me much. So, when I hear from him, it is not that we had a special connection, but I think he has a special connection to the family land. I only hear from him when I’m there. He always thought I was foolish, and for most of his life I probably was. What I hear him saying are things like, “what the Hell are you doing?” “What fool thing are you up to now?” “Why in the world would you pay someone $600 to remove all those tires? That gully is going to wash out even worse.” “That’s dumb.” Is this just me imposing my brother’s voice onto the one in my head that tells me I’m not good enough? Maybe. Maybe not.
But this conversation at my parents’ graveside, started me thinking about death and what I believe it to be. I know I don’t believe my parents are in those graves, and that is the main reason I do not feel compelled to visit the cemetery regularly. They aren’t there.
Truth is, I don’t believe in death. I don’t believe it is a real thing, not the way we are traditionally taught, anyway. I choose to think of death as just a costume change. Curtain down, scene over, get ready for the next one.
Writer Anne Lamott describes death as a “change of address.” I like that very much. It is a great description. Our loved ones have moved from this life to the next, from the physical to the non-physical, from this dimension to another, from Earth to Heaven.
As evidence of my belief, I have a host of spirit guides that my Creator has gifted me. I hear from Mom and Daddy all the time. My Grandpa Harvie joins Mom and me in the garden, and my Grandma Exie stands beside me at the stove. As I move through my house, I can still sense the presence of my dogs long gone from this world. I have occasionally made wide steps over Bonnet as she lay in the hallway. She is my protector. The gentle woof of Zippy comes to my ears. He is there to remind me to keep my humor. My darling heart dog, Sean, counsels me on many things. He assures me that I am on the right life path, and everything is going to be okay. He is my wise guidepost. I have a Guardian Angel named Cornwell. I don’t know where Cornwell came from, probably somewhere back in my Irish ancestry.
If they are all here for me, how can they be dead?
When Mom was in her final days, she didn’t talk about death. She talked about where she was going. She saw a door she knew she would go through. Mom was concerned about which direction she should turn once she was on the other side. We assured her someone would be there to guide her. She didn’t want to get lost.
In the weeks leading up to June 1, 2020, Daddy was sick and getting sicker. More and more medicines were required to keep his organs functioning. Daddy’s words were about wishing to join Mom, not wishing to die. He was certain that once he took his last breath he would continue to exist, just in another place. While he was looking forward to seeing Mom very much, he was also a little afraid what she was going to say about the way he spent the last two years. When the doctor said, “terminal cancer” he said he was “ready to go,” and he certainly was. He wasted no time.
My belief that death is not real does not conflict with my Christian upbringing, by the way. The Jesus story makes it all obvious to me. His birth, death and resurrection were all just changes of address, or changes of costume. He moved into the body of a baby, grew into an adult, and that body was executed. Then, He moved back into the presence of His Creator. Multiple changes of address, multiple changes of costume. It seems to me that when Jesus revived Lazarus, He was just saying, “You are still needed here, move back in for a while.”
Just like when we are faced with ill-fitting clothes, bad relationships, unrewarding jobs, or unsuitable neighborhoods, we move out of this life and into the next when our bodies can no longer sustain us, or when our Creator decides it is time.
So, on this Memorial Day, my thoughts are not with loved ones who have died, but with those who have simply moved away. I miss them in the physical so much, but I can call them any time I want to. They are not dead, they changed costumes and moved. I will do the same one day.