When I was nineteen and he was twenty four and we had a several-thousand-dollar hospital bill to pay because we’d just had a baby, he died. After paying thousands of dollars for an expensive casket because my mother-in-law didn’t want her son’s body eaten by bugs, ever (perfectly preserved forever, which isn’t how nature works), I had little money left for a headstone.
This was what I could afford.
I majored in English and had another baby, so money hasn’t exactly grown on trees. Every time I visited Bruce’s grave I apologized for offering such a poor representation of his life. But finally, thirty-eight years later, he’s getting a new headstone. Even though I know he’d tell me to spend my money on something more useful, we can all use a makeover once in a while, and this makeover is overdue.
I’ve spent most of the pandemic writing a memoir about Bruce and how I (finally) learned to integrate grief into my life. (Truth: writing has NOT been without copious tears and consumption of adult beverages. There are days when I might make Hemingway look like a teetotaler.) My inspiration for writing this memoir comes from the Buddha, who didn’t shy away when the demon Mara came to visit him before his enlightenment under the bodhi tree. He said to the demon, “I see you, Mara,” and integrated Mara into his meditation.
Despite the tears and the once-in-a-while distraction of wine, I am doing all I can to welcome Mara, too. To welcome grief and write about it in the most honest way I can. And that’s why Bruce is getting a new headstone. I’m ready, financially, but mostly I’m ready emotionally.
People visit cemeteries for many reasons, and not always because someone has died. Sometimes it’s just for exercise (cemeteries are usually flat or reasonably hilly). Cemeteries can also be calming and educational. You can learn a lot about people from their headstones and see they’re not so different – or that they’re very different – from you. When people pass by Bruce’s new headstone, I want them to learn a little something about the man, not just his name and dates. Bruce was an amazing singer. He was also a dad, a husband, a son, a brother, an uncle and a friend. I can’t write his biography on a 20”x30” stone, but I want to encapsulate – in as few words as possible – the culmination of his twenty-four years on this earth.
This is not an easy task, my friends. And so I ask you: What is your experience in creating a headstone for someone you love? Is there a poem, an etching, a something you needed to include that would speak to the passerby? Something that said, “This person lives here now, but here’s something important I want you to know about them.”
It feels good to make this public, to say it out loud. Maybe now I’ll eat more salads and consume fewer adult beverages. I kid… I eat plenty of salads!
Jasper (MN) friends, the tentative dedication will be on Saturday, September 4. Our daughter, Carlene, and I will be there, and if any of you would like to say something about Bruce and how you knew him, please let me know. This will be a celebration of his life, not like the day he was buried, when it snowed and we were all exhausted from the loss. I can’t say I won’t cry, but that’s OK. You can, too.