“He’s not really here, honey. It’s just his bones.” I spoke these words from my own mouth, but I wasn’t sure I believed them. Part of me desperately wanted to believe that his spirit somehow lingered in this place, where flesh becomes fodder for earth dwelling creatures. I parked on the gravel path right in front of his gravestone, as my preschooler pointed excitedly to the cross on the altar at the cemetery center.
“Look, mommy! That’s where Jesus died!” Our recent Easter lessons had paid off, and my young daughter was now intimately familiar with the story of Christ’s death and resurrection. “That’s right, sweetie. But remember, he’s not dead anymore, he’s alive.”
Sadly, I couldn’t say the same for my brother buried beneath the black stone. He did not rise from the grave, no matter how desperately I’d willed it in my dreams. It was a balmy evening, the kind where warmth can be felt in between the moist cool breezes. I’m not sure why I turned south after leaving Bible study, instead of making my way toward home. I’d tried in vain to bring my girls along with me to my weekly meeting, only to leave not even a half hour later with two young girls ready to be home in their beds.
“Let’s go see Eric at the cemetery,” I’d said as I pushed my turn signal indicator up instead of down. I’d never taken my daughters before, but I suddenly felt drawn. “What’s a cemetary? Who are we going to see? Why aren’t we going home? Is there a playground there?” I don’t think I answered any of her questions, I just drove another mile and drove through the entry of our Catholic burial grounds.
“Do you remember me telling you about mommy’s brother, the one who died? Well, this is where he’s buried. This is where his body is.” She did remember. I’ve told her about Eric many times, and she knows her little sister is his namesake. “Yes, I remember mommy, he used to be a part of your family.” It’s so hard for her to understand, that just because he is gone, he is not forgotten. He is still very much a part of our family, but this encounter, or non-encounter at the grave site left me feeling that he really is no longer a part of this world.
I unloaded the girls from the car, and showed them Eric’s headstone, engraved with beautiful sentiments, and covered in the names of loved ones. It really is a spectacular tribute, and makes me truly appreciate my father’s efforts to ensure that my brother’s burial place went well beyond the status quo.
So what did I expect by taking my girls here? Did I really think their uncle would somehow speak to their tiny spirits from the grave and deliver a posthumous message? Yes, I did. Foolishly, I did. And just like children will do, they found joy even in this moment, delighting in colorful flowers at other grave sites, and even dancing on top of neighboring slabs (with their mother cajoling them and pleading with them to stop). It would appear that they felt…nothing. At least, not directly related to my brother’s plot. They were curious, and they lingered for awhile, but they were drawn to something else in the cemetery.
My older daughter found her way there first, and climbed up on the concrete bench directly in front of Christ’s lifeless body in Mary’s grieving arms. How familiar this image must feel to my own mother. A son, his life taken, her heart aching. And yet, she still clings to him, still cradles his body as if he were an infant fresh from the womb, lungs still full of air and…life. Now, both my daughters stood on the bench, each itching to climb higher, right onto this monument of loss and love.
“This is Jesus,” big sister explained to little. “He died, but then he came back, so it’s all okay.” As my toddler started hoisting her leg up for the fifth time in an attempt to scale the statue, I decided it was time to go. “C’mon girls, let’s go say goodbye to Uncle Eric before we leave.” I started walking back to his grave, less than 20 yards away, and turned to make sure my little one was following me.
She scampered down from her post, and just as she was about to step off the concrete altar and onto the spongy ground, she turned around. And out of the mouth of my not-even two-year-old, these sweet words came as she turned her chubby little wrist into a wave. “Bye bye Jesus. I go with my mommy. I see you later!” She ran to me, a burst of happy energy. She had no idea what kind of impact she’d just made. She may not have had a connection with her uncle in that small cemetery, but she’d certainly met someone else there that day. And that’s exactly how my brother would have wanted it.