Walking down the lawns of the cemetery on that scorching hot Labor-day afternoon felt all wrong and it was because of that, that I knew it was the right thing to do.
I was just a witness, an onlooker wondering inside just what I was going to observe. I had so many reservations but kept them to myself, he was keen to be there, to get it done – jockeying in the car making light conversation, playing hard to get, but under the shallow shield there was a layer of fear and determination in his eyes, a thin veil of perspiration on his upper lip. Nevertheless, he didn’t smoke.
“I feel like this is a new beginning” he’d said.
He carried the plant with pride and when we arrived at the tombstone I sat to one side and watched for a moment as he dug a shallow hole with his bare hands. Those hands that from the first had meant so much, those same hands which had so timidly started this love affair without words in June of 2007, had ended it with crushing force barely a year later.
Those big hands with tobacco stained fingers: strong working hands, rough hands that had handled life and daily matters of living but which in conversation were articulate and soft. Those hands dug the hole with proud determination and then, in that oxymoronic way, tenderly placed the pretty pink plant in it, tamping down the soil with care, with love. Then he stroked the headstone as he kneeled and silently mouthing the name as he traced the familiar letters “John Christopher … Non Noubis Solum”
I had been there before. Same place, same heat, different day; Memorial Day 2008 when the place had been overrun with buses and cars, families and soldiers, laughter and tears, flowers, pomp and ceremony. Today the place was empty and the wind chased through the grey sea of headstones, tickling the green grass and shaking tree fronds. It felt refreshing there today – like we had stumbled into it without a warning and caught the Cemetery off guard: rejoicing, not mourning; laughing, not weeping; living, not dying. It felt good. Maybe there was a beginning in the making.
In the wild wooded area at the bottom of the hill everything was ripe in late summer bloom – small willows, dogwoods, peppers, bushes and tall grasses bending and swaying to the tune of the capricious wind. Yet in the center of all that life and abundance stood death, stark, naked and blackened the dead tree’s angular limbs jutted outwards and upwards, cutting sharp lines through the softness of the neighboring fronds. The topmost branch stood higher than any other and on it sat the crow. A single black crow.
The silence was broken as he started to pray, his voice catching on the simple but heartfelt words. I closed my eyes and allowed the sensations to waft over me, joining his words with my own internal prayer. The wind blew gently, caressing and playing, darting and stopping adding a dimension of God’s presence all round.
He prayed for forgiveness, he prayed for restoration, he prayed for love and for growth. He poured out resentments and gave them to God and as he turned over his life to Him thus ending 50 years of discord. As he paused and breathed deeply the peaceful silence was broken by the harsh staccato “Caw! Caw! Caw!” of that single black crow.
He prayed now for life, for endurance and faith. He prayed for his family, his father, his mother and sisters. He prayed for his children, their children and friends. He prayed and acknowledged that the family curse was done. Done. Finished. He prayed for a new beginning and paused once more. Again the silence was broken by a chilling “Caw! Caw! Caw!” of that single black crow.
He cried and continued to pray with a new rhythm in his voice, no longer broken but tear-filled and proud. Now he welcomed his new life and voiced his new resolve. As he finished the last words of that last prayer, overhead that single black crow fled, flapping, frantic, then vanishing into the distance with a mournful final wail.
I looked up and followed the last of its flight – I knew now why I was there. I was the witness to God’s presence, I was the testimony that it was done.
“Did you hear that?” I asked.
“Hear what? I was waiting for the canon boom,” he said looking around, his soft brown eyes damp with tears, expecting what had confirmed his first prayers on that Memorial Day afternoon.
I was able to testify. A new beginning had been forged. Yeah – I knew why I was there, it was done.
God’s will was done.