One of the sweetest tombstones in my little town’s cemetery is inscribed with a facsimile of the valediction the couple beneath the ground used to close their letters: As always, Walt & Mil.
Yesterday, Mil, 91, joined Walt, who was buried there in 1978. They were born three days apart in 1923 and married when they were 19, after which Walt went off to fight in WW II. They had been married more than 36 years when he died at 55.
I don’t know what Walt and Mil’s love was like, what killed him or how she thereafter lived. But people came to her afternoon graveside service to bear witness and say goodbye to an old woman as she was put in the ground beside her forever middle-aged husband. And atop the freshly turned earth this morning were snapdragons and roses, tipped with frost. People still cared about her, still cared about them.
Graveyards are incomplete mysteries; they offer just enough information to make you wonder. Sometimes the tombstones say a lot, as do the mementos left behind. There’s something helpless in such gifts, placed at the lip of an unbridgeable void, as if the dead can reach from the other side and inhale the scent of the flowers, hold the Valentine’s chocolate on their tongues, feel the love of the embodied. But there’s something touching, too, in the faithfulness of remembering.
One of the cemetery’s most striking stones is a towering black marble monument to Charles “Chuck” Shouse with a memorable epitaph: A brave man, he gladdened hearts. Additional inscriptions tell the story of his death from AIDS in 1991: 41 years old. Beloved grandson. Longtime companion of Jefferson M. Carman. On the concrete base, the impressions of pets’ paw prints; on the back, a single line: I will remember you.
A few years ago, after a winter morning’s run, I saw a man gently removing the golden garland that always adorns the ebony stone for the holidays. I wondered, and then asked. And, yes: It was Jeff Carman, 20 years after his partner’s death. He remembered, still.
I remember another couple, women who became my first friends in Colorado Springs some 30 years ago. Pam and Jeanne were newly in love then, and working on restoring a Victorian that became a haven not only for Jeanne’s developmentally disabled half-brother and aging mother, but for friends and strangers alike. They shared a life and raised a son before dying together in a car crash 10 years ago. Sometimes I find a pretty rock at the base of their tombstone, or a tiny replica of a hiking boot, or a peace sign, or a beer cap. They, too, are remembered.
There’s a wonderful line in the 1970 movie I Never Sang for My Father: “Death ends a life. But it does not end a relationship, which struggles on in the survivor’s mind toward some resolution, which it may never find.”
The work of the dead is finished, but ours continues, and sometimes that is a struggle: The hole their disappearance rent in the fabric of our lives becomes smaller and less jagged as the years pass, but it never goes away.
So we go on, doing the work of the living, remembering them until it is our turn to become the ones remembered: Pam and Jeanne, Chuck Shouse, the infinite others whose lives we loved. And, as always, Walt & Mil.