when your only park is a cemetery . .

Before we moved into our charming 130 year old home in this smallish, American, home-grown town, I knew the cemetery would be something I’d have to come to terms with. If you sit on our front porch  you can see the very far corner of it looking back at you. As someone who has had a great awareness of death and the pains of loss since my dad passed away six years ago and someone who wrestles daily with the fear of losing our youngest because of his medical risks, I gulped when I first saw it, and thought, “well, there’s no running away from it, now.”

 

As soon as we moved our stuff in, we all started to feel the freedom of being here. This town feels rural enough to live a small-town existence, and it gives us the space to relax our shoulders a bit more and breathe a bit deeper as we tend to the yard, update the home and watch the chickens growing. It’s the kind of place where our boys can ride their bikes to the baseball diamond and are back before supper, sweaty and happy. It’s the kind of place that boasts a charming “town square” and a clock tower in the middle of it, just like in Back to the Future. It’s the kind of town with an old cemetery, a home for moss-coated, nearly illegible grave stones of people born in the early 1800’s. Our previous house was right in the middle of the city, and our evening family walks would be through a local city park or busy neighborhood. Our new home and neighborhood can’t offer us the many park options of the city, there’s just the cemetery. It’s the only place close to our house where we can get off of the main roads and have a quiet stroll. So we began frequenting the cemetery for our nightly family walks.

The kids ride their bikes, zion on his strider, and Jeremy and I walk hand in hand – happy to finally be close and focused on our family after a day of work and home diversions. The first time we did it, it felt a bit strange to see so much life and exuberance riding gleefully through a field of corpses. But I am a firm believer in the mystical tension that exists here with us all, and I think the cemetery and our walks through it are a true symbolic display of this mysterious tension. The sun sets and we catch up on each other’s day and watch the boys make one another laugh. We walk by the stones of people who died in their nineties and infants who passed before they were nine days old. We observe couples who had to leave one another, some with several decades between each of their passings. We see how their families chose to remember them in just a few words placed beside their name. We see peony bushes exploding out of the ground above where these bones lay, and wonder out loud about the contrast between life and death, between flowering and decay.

The cemetery has now, strangely, become one of our places. It’s a place where we go most days, where we walk with our houseguests or visiting friends, where we laugh and talk, where we get a little exercise. I hold my breath as I type that, fearing some additional future event of loss and suffering that will land me in that cemetery on my face, unable to go on. I’m dark like that. I play twisted games in my head about the hypothetical pain and guttural despair lurking just around the corner of every beautiful moment. But slowly and daily I am doing the work of walking into that grid of lives lost, that field of planted human “seeds” as the writer N.D. Wilson calls them, and walking out with a renewed sense of perspective and hope mixed in with the fear. Ever so slowly, I am growing in letting these things all exist and hold space together in tension in our lives.

Zion turns five this week. Every birthday of his so far has been a chance to look back at how gift-wrapped his life has been from a wildly creative God, how blessed we are to have shared in these years. And unfortunately for me, every birthday is also a chance to fear what the loss of him would do to us. It’s like a voice in my head telling me, “He’s made it so much father than anyone ever expected, so now this is where all of the beauty and joy ends.” I can try and run from these fears or numb or shame them away.. trust me, I’ve tried. But Zion’s broken body and his radiant self are an ever-present reminder that my life is a life of tensions.. of taking in the beauty and the fear-filled brutality of these days and watching it all be held together in some mysterious contrast by the writer of this story.

These days, I’m learning there’s nothing quite like the presence or threat of death to remind you that you are still surrounded by so. much. life. As much as I want to hate it, fear it, or run from it, the cemetery and our time there is teaching me how to be truly alive, fully human, and how to appreciate the lives of my beloved ones. So while I can’t be thankful for suffering, pain, loss, and the threats they place on our family’s existence, I can be thankful for what the suffering is growing in us –

lives filled with minutes and hours and days.. actually lived.

lives that will someday turn into seeds planted in the ground, then flowering up into something wholly new.

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