Candles on the Grave


by Kent Nerburn

It is near evening. The shadows are lengthening. The golden refracted light of day's end covers the world in a peaceful, radiant glow.

            I am driving home, past the cemetery that sits in the middle of our town. Occasionally, when I drive by, a group of mourners will be standing around an open grave, and I feel that soft shudder of sadness that comes from brushing against a deep grief I cannot share.

            Other times there will be bare-armed workers with shovels and front end loaders digging in the earth. Usually I look away. It is a strange sensation to be so near to death's immediacy, yet so far from its raw emotions.

            But today something unusual catches my eye a glint, a metallic flash, like a signal from a mirror. It seems a violation an unseemly bit of transience amid the timeless granite headstones and restful, quiet greenery.

            I drive around again, slowing at the point where the glint first caught my eye. It is still there, the same flash of movement, like light shimmering on sunlit waters.

            Curious, I stop the car and step out. I'm not comfortable doing this, as I know no one in this cemetery. So I enter with a certain sense of apology, like a person walking into a house where he doesn't belong.

            The glint of light continues, now joined by others. There is a rhythm to it all, a hurdy-gurdy lilt, floating on the currents of the wind. I walk closer. Banners, pinwheels, all manner of ribbons and tracery, float and dance on a small piece of ground. As I approach, I see that they are centered on a single grave.

            As I get closer still, I see that the grave is covered with a hodgepodge of small toys figures from fast food meals, miniature race cars, tiny trucks. Then, the photo a framed school picture set upon the grave as if on a living room shelf. A young boy, maybe seven, maybe ten, smiling out at me, guileless, winning, full of hope.

            A shudder runs through me. I think of my son, only ten himself, and retreat, filled with shame, to my car.

            The next day, as I drive by again, I try to avert my eyes. There is a knowledge here I don't want, a truth too horrible to absorb. Though my heart breaks at the tragedy of the small grave, it breaks at a distance, once removed from the immediacy of my own life. And that is how I wish it to stay.

            But I can't help myself. The horror and fascination mingle, and like the sight of a fresh wound, I cannot keep my eyes away.

            There it is again, the glint, the flash, the multi-colored motion. Even in the fading light it sings and dances against the somber stillness of the stones. But this time there is something more. On the grave, barely visible, I see a shadow. It is a woman, sitting, rocking gently. In her lap she holds a children's book. She is reading aloud to the grave.

            My heart explodes. All around me cars are passing. People are hurrying home, planning supper, listening to traffic reports, running stoplights. What does this have to do with them, with me?

            The voices of daily obligations swirl around me, garbled and grotesque. Stop at the grocery store. Don't forget the dry cleaning. Do the tires need rotating? Did Nick finish his homework?

            But the voices sound flat and distant, like echoes from another world. All that is real to me is that silent shadow rocking in the distance. And that shadow no longer cares if her boy finishes his homework. She no longer cares about supper, about tires, about anything at all. She is sitting among the toys that once littered her living room floor, reading a children's book to a grave. I want to approach her, to try to console her, to tell her that I stand in silent witness to her sorrow. But what would that matter? I am from the land of the living. She wanders in the fields of the dead.

            My spirit arches, out of control. What kind of world is this that takes a child from its mother? What sort of God condones these tragedies, then asks us to make sense of them? There is no rationale or justification. To say that this is part of some divine plan, unfolding before us and through us toward an unknowable wisdom, is like dry dust to that mother reading to the grave. Does God think us so docile that we should be satisfied with saying, "All people must die. There is a reason beyond our knowing"?

            I have listened to preachers, standing over small coffins, fumbling for words and trying to shape meaning from tragedy. They invoke the unknown, praise the unknowable, speak of better lives, of lessons for the living. But their explanations are all empty, like husks rattling in the wind. When they have finished with their words, the dark truth still remains, and we can do no more than bow our heads before the mystery, and sit in silent grief until the balm of time reduces our pain to a burden we can bear. For such grieving we need no preachers. We need only the patience of the wounded, and such patience is given to the believer and the doubter alike.

            But I am weary of patience. I want more as I look at this woman. I want more for her, and for me. I want God to step out from behind the veil of inscrutability and offer explanation. I want God to give me a reason. I want God to apologize.

            "Why did you take that child from that mother?" I want to ask. "Why do you set her apart for all time from a moment of pure peace in her heart? If I were God, there would be no such crimes against the innocent. Good people would be rewarded. Bad people would be punished or changed. I would not sit at some haughty distance, toying with people like so many insects. We do not deserve this. This is the work of a bully God, and I do not choose to see you as a bully."

            But God is silent, and the silence feels like mockery.

            "Why do you do these things?" I continue. "What possible good can there be in taking a child out of season? Have you not set rules, and placed them in nature, that a child cannot be born before the parent? Then why have you not set rules that say that the child cannot be taken before the parent? Are you so indifferent to the fragile spirit that dwells within us that you cannot see that you have frozen the heart of this mother for all time? If you will not apologize, can you not at least explain?"

            But there is no answer. Only the wind blowing through the gravestones, and the shadow reading silently to the grave.

            The light changes. The cars proceed. I hurry home to open envelopes and place pennies in a jar.

            The next day, again, I drive past. And the day after that. Sometimes the woman is there, sometimes she isn't. The decorations on the grave change, like the toys on the shelf in a child's bedroom. One week there is a large sunflower amidst the profusion of tiny plastic figures. The next there is a collection of stuffed animals.

            On rainy days it all becomes sodden, and seems to sink toward the ground in despair. On bright, windy days, it all glistens and dances and swirls, as if in celebration. Gradually, this tragic shrine is becoming part of my life.

            But still, I feel dishonest, like a man peering in the window on another's grief. I owe the woman who lives with this grief the honor of telling her that I, too, am moved by their tragedy, if only at a distance. The next time I see her, I resolve to stop.

            On the following Tuesday afternoon she is there. She has placed a low white garden fence around the grave's perimeter, and she is spreading a fresh blanket of rich, thick, black dirt over the ground with a rake. All the toys and animals have been moved back against the fence, where they sit, in waiting, like guests at a party.

            I approach cautiously, almost apologetically.

            "Excuse me, " I say. "I don't want to bother you. But sometimes I stop here. Can I ask you about your child?"

            She looks at me and smiles. "They don't care about the graves," she says. "They never pick the weeds." She doesn't stop her raking.

            "Will you tell me about him?" I ask.

            She pulls the rake across the fresh dirt, making sure the new seed she has planted is spread evenly across the ground.

            She glances at me for a moment. "He was a good boy. When we took him to the nursing home to visit his great-grandmother, we walked in the door and his eyes got wide. 'Oh, look at all the grandmas and grandpas I have,' he said." Her raking never stops.

            "He sounds like a special child," I say.

            "He is," she answers.

            I kneel down and look at the photo. His face is winning, full of innocence and hope. She pauses for a moment to watch me watch him.

            "He loved everyone," she says. "One time there was an ant hill in front of the house. I had the broom and was going to sweep it away. He stopped me. 'No, those are my friends,' he said. That's what he told me: 'Those are my friends.'"

            Her memories are specific exact moments, full of detail and life. In each of them, the child speaks.

            "Are these his toys?" I ask, looking around at the audience of stuffed animals and plastic figures. She nods. Tears are beginning to well up in her eyes. She points to a little plastic bug that sits in vigil on the top of the fence. "That bug is because he was my little love bug," she says.

            She picks up a little lantern. Its top is covered with tinfoil to keep the wind out. "I light a candle for him every night, because he was the light of my life," she says.

            The words are coming harder now. She looks around at the expanse of silent stones and quiet greenery. "I wish I could put a candle on every grave," she says, "so all these people would be remembered. There are so many. So many..."

            Her voice trails off. She is moving inside herself, moment by moment. It is time for me to go.

            "Thank you for sharing him with me," I say. It sounds stupid, clumsy. But she does not seem to mind.

            I turn to leave, feeling like an intruder. She stops me with her voice.

            "Do you have a child?" she asks.

            I turn back toward her. "Yes," I answer, almost ashamed. "A boy, ten."

            She pulls the rake gently across the grave. "Hug him," she says. "You go home and hug him."

            I walk back toward my car, full of unfathomable grief and gratitude. Behind me, I can hear the rough scratching of the rake on the earth.

            If there is a challenge in the great tragedies that are visited upon us, it is only this: that if we were not to transcend them, we would descend into a darkness so great that, like a star burning in upon itself, we would implode, taking all with us as we died.

            We cannot let this happen. Even in the face of death and inexplicable tragedy, we must persevere, walking in zombie steps toward some light we cannot see. For from great darknesses either bitterness or mercy grows a bitterness that it had to be so, and that it happened to us, or a mercy for all else in life that reminds us of what we have lost.

            We must choose mercy; it is our only course. Though its cause may be dark, and though we may not sense it at the time, it makes us a vessel of grace. It fills us with unbounded love that pours forth without judgment on all it sees, because it knows that every life, no matter how flawed or humble, is precious beyond measure, and that even the briefest moment of life deserves to be held aloft and offered up to God.

            As I walk away from the grave, I think of that young mother and the burden she carries. For years, and, in some measure, for her entire life, when she sees children at play, she will see only the ghostly echo of her own fallen child. But then, so slowly, that echo will animate her love for those other children in a way that she never would have known had her own child lived to become the vessel to receive all her love.

            Like a priest giving himself to God, or a God giving himself to all humanity, she will give herself to all children, without question or reserve, wherever she meets them in the course of life. Perhaps behind her eyes others will see the dark hurt that will never be erased. But in those eyes they will also see the love that now spills over, unable to be contained, on all children who echo the memory of her fallen child.

            The gift she has received the darkest of gifts is that she no longer gives forgiveness, she now is forgiveness, and no crime that any living child may commit will ever cause her to withdraw her love from that child. And no child, however forlorn, will ever be in her presence again and not feel the overwhelming mother love, flowing, as strong as an ocean current, toward them.

            In her all children's sins have died forever. Through the many sorrowful years remaining in her life, she will become the pure light of mother's love, and in her eyes the rest of us will learn, if only dimly, the value of that which we hold so fragile in our hands.

            Through her grief and sorrow, she will become the perfect forgiveness we long to feel in our own hearts. She has been crucified for all motherhood, and has taken our sins upon her.

            I turn to see her one more time. She is bending down and lighting the lantern. She is whispering, or singing.

            I cross myself an almost involuntary act from my distant past.

            Upon her shoulders is the burden of all loss. But in her heart a candle burns for every child, and in her presence, every child will forever be embraced and welcomed home.

FromCalm Surrender, Walking the Hard Road of Forgiveness, by Kent Nerburn. Copyright 2000 by Kent Nerburn. Excerpted by arrangement with New World Library. $16. Available in local bookstores or call 800-972-6657, ext. 52 or click here.