“You are dust, and to dust you will return.” Genesis
Some images are striking reminders of death. There are few like seeing your name etched on a gravestone.
In my case it was seeing only part of my name—the one that really counts: the one I share with my father.
Last spring my parents’ gravestone arrived to be placed by the mound of my father’s grave. Not really wanting to look, I braced myself as the boom on the truck swung the block into the air. There it was: CUDDEBACK. All caps in an elegant font, above the Christian names of my parents.
The dates that bookend Dad’s eighty years are inscribed neatly below his name. But there is only the date of birth for Mom, and then a space—empty of everything but foreboding.
As the man put the finishing touches on the cement that holds the marker to its base, I enquired about how the ‘other date’ would be entered for my mother. He answered that they have an etching machine they bring on site, when it comes to that. “But let’s hope that’s not for a good long time,” he politely added.
That is surely a reasonable hope, at least on some level. Yet I wonder how my mother experiences it. I’m not inclined to ask. Her approach might be a little different from the grave worker. After eighty years of life, and the loss of your spouse, do you hope for a ‘good long time?’ Perhaps.
Why might any of us hope for a long life? Isn’t life ultimately a matter of living-together? Life in genuine isolation—from relationships of love—is almost not life at all. So hope for life, it seems, is hope for some kind of living-together.
That day last spring I might as well have seen my own name on a gravestone, accompanied by the first of the dates that will circumscribe my life. Will that other date be in spring, like the beautiful day that my father’s gravestone arrived? Perhaps it will be during a midwinter storm, or a lazy summer day. Will it have been expected, or will it be a matter for alarmed retelling among those that know me?
I think the main question—and one that most significantly hangs in the balance—is whether it will be a day that closes a life truly well-lived in the presence of those for whom and with whom it should be. Will that second date of mine be one of real closure for something reasonably fit to be closed? Or will those who stand around the grave be inclined to think of what could have and should have been?
The answer to this question is fundamentally in my power, though the date itself certainly is not. It is remarkable to consider the contrast: what is in our power, and what is not. That little space on a gravestone points to this contrast. I will try to remember that space.