Each morning I walk outside my home to pick up the Seattle Times. I sometimes have to search for the plastic-wrapped bag holding the latest news, comics, advice columns, editorial comments, and two cross word puzzles just waiting to be solved. Once I have the bag in hand, I look up at the sky. If the moon is out, I enjoy the view of it and if the stars are glimmering, I marvel at the possibilities of life spread out across the universe. I stand there and stare even when it’s cold and rainy. My thoughts drift over both my life and the future.
When our first granddaughter, Talia, was young she would sometimes stay with us a day or two. She and I were early risers and we would drive around while my wife, Peg, slept in. Sometimes we might go out for McDonald’s or Shari’s (she liked their milkshakes) and sometimes we would have a little adventure like climbing down underneath the Narrows Bridge after parking illegally. This one morning when I asked if she was ready to go back to our place, she said she wasn’t ready.
I thought of things we could do and then asked if she would like to see the gravesites of her great-grandmother and great-grandfather. I know, it doesn’t sound like something that would be that much fun, but it does have its own mystique. She said, “Yes.”
Talia had never met Rita and Ike, Peg’s parents. They died in the same week a year before she was born. Peg and I had never visited their graves since the funeral. Rita was Catholic and had a brother who gambled in cards and fought from Italy up to France in World War II before he became a priest. In the family he was always refered to as Uncle Father Frank. Ike was like me, going to church meant there was something important going on.
I was in the hospital room when Ike died. I can still see his dying moments and his military funeral. I can still feel and hear the crack of the rifles of his final salute and the jerk of my body at the sound. I wish I had known Ike better. Peg had even more remorse with her mother.
It took me a few minutes to find the graves. I showed them to Talia and told her a bit about Ike and Rita and we drove back to my home.
This wasn’t my first touch with death. When my grandmother died, I was unable to attend the funeral. Her body was shipped from Tacoma back to Nevada, Missouri (where she had lived and I had been born) to be buried next to her husband Marshall. Peg and our three kids traveled via Amtrak to the funeral. I stayed home and worked.
The thought of people going from a life of living and breathing to one in heaven, nirvana or the release of the soul for a journey elsewhere just doesn’t interest me and is not something I can envision nor believe. The reason these thoughts are running through my brain is a paragraph of information in the November 2021 issue of Smithsonian a magazine my wife subscribes to and one I pour over each time it’s delivered in the mail. The opening line reads: “Written Records are full of beliefs about the afterlife, from reincarnation to resurrection, but they date back only about 5,000 years at most.” “Starting between 100,000 and 130,000 years ago, Homo sapiens living in what is now Israel buried people with items like animal bones, seashells, and ocher pigment, perhaps because they thought the deceased could use those items in the next world. But these relics might simply show that early humans honored and grieved their loved ones — something other primates like chimpanzees have also been shown to do.”
I found the paragraph thought provoking and remembered an article, possibly from “Archaeology” magazine, about Neanderthals approximately 70,000 years ago burying flowers with their dead. Did they believe in an afterlife? After all Neanderthals had culture, art, and various skills. They knew animals and they were well experienced with death and injury. They didn’t cast out the old, infirmed, or people with wounds received from living their rugged life. They protected them. Was this because they expected to see them again after death, or just because they were civilized?
Since showing Talia the gravesite of Peg’s parents, I have seen death come much closer. I’ve lost friends and both of my parents died as well as one of my sisters and Peg’s youngest sister. One day Peg and I will be gone, too. I have no worry about where or if I might be going, but I do fear the loss of my wife and for her the loss of me. Until those days come, I will look up at the moon and stars each morning . . . and wonder.
Thanks to Knate Stahl for his comments about Neanderthals and the references from resource magazines for details on our past and eternal good-byes.