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The Graveyard Shift

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"Grab me some water, would ya? How are you doing?"

Michael and I had arrived at the graveyard and were moments from exiting his van to visit his chosen burial site.

"How do you think I'm doing?" I asked, holding the water bottle to his lips. I find keeping my hands busy and his mouth occupied with food and drink is an excellent way for me to ease myself into challenging conversations. You have to learn things like this when simple questions like, "Can I ask you a question?" are met with a sincere "Can you handle the answer?" My lame attempts at avoidance don't fool Michael for a second, but the gestures give me comfort and he indulges my little game.

Helping me out, he took an extra long drink, never taking his eyes from me.

"I don't know. Tell me."

"Well, I don't know either."

He accepted that answer because it was true.

"First I want you to listen to this." He indicated that I should play the tape he had cued up on a talk by Wayne Dyer. What he played deserves its own blog post, but for now I can say it set the tone for what was to follow.

Michael led me to his gravesite, which lay at the foot of his mother's. At his request I placed a wreathe for her and then I offered to clean away the evidence of the Canada Goose migration soiling the stone.

(Despite my wiping the marker clean I found when I returned home later that I couldn't, for the life of me, recall seeing any last name on the gravestone. I could remember the years of birth and death. I could recall her first name, her middle initial. Even "Wife, Mom, Grandma" and the engraved image of the cross with two angels kneeling in prayer beside it. My mind, that day, simply would not register "Schwass" carved in granite.)

I sat on the ground he'd reserved for himself the day after 9-11 and then laid back to reflect on the oak branches arching over the site.

"I'll give you some time here." Michael began to make his way to the large statue of Mary, whose outstretched arms embrace this section of the cemetery.

After some moments I sat up and watched as he slowly made his way over the uneven tombstone-peppered earth, trying to minimize the jostling of his aching, November-chilled frame.

As always happens when I am with Michael, I was aware that my time with him occurs on two levels. There's the gross level of the senses, which get bound up with the emotions of the moment and have no apparent end to their creative ways of dealing with them, as evidenced by their blatant refusal to see his last name on the gravestone.

These emotions have tortured me endlessly and have tried many times to make a project out of saving him from his suffering (read: my suffering) and ultimate death (read: my further suffering). But through relentless dedication to learning how to recognize and take responsibility for my emotions and inner turmoil, I've found the second level: an increasing awareness that a calmer part of me is able to take in everything for deeper reflection later. This visit to the graveyard was no exception.

As I watched Michael inching his way to Mary, I was aware of just how much I love his very being. It's very unique for me, what I feel. I can only describe it as kaleidoscopic. I love my husband as a husband and a friend. I love my brother as a brother and friend. I love my nieces and nephews as nieces and nephews. Those all feel clear for me, and the love may be huge but it also has a sense of definition and relationship.

With Michael, I can honestly say that sometimes he feels very much like a son to me. I mean this literally. By contrast, I have been able to see the "little boy" very clearly in my husband many times, but he never feels like he is my son. (Probably makes the shared bed arrangement less complicated, so I'm not weighing one against the other.) Other times Michael feels like a brother. Sometimes he feels like a beloved teacher. Most of all he feels like a childhood friend, even though I was nearly 30 when we met.

Sitting by his mother, I looked out at this son of hers, son of ours, who has grown to be quite an extraordinary man. All the pain of facing the loss of him started to dissipate. It would take another full day and much reflection for the rest of my emotions to catch up, but it is undeniable that my love for him brings me joy, not sadness.

My sadness comes from wanting to extend what we all know is temporary: our earthly connection. The sadness comes from denial and my outright refusal to "love what is" as Byron Katie would say.

I couldn't quite name the shift and the feeling that came over me watching Mike from a distance. But the next day, reading Yogananda's The Divine Romance, I found it encapsulated in his discussion on friendship in the chapter, "How to Cultivate Divine Love."

He states:

"Love cannot be had for the asking; it comes only as a gift from the heart of another. Be certain of your feelings before you say to anyone, "I love you." Once you give your love, it must be forever. Not because you want to be near that person, but because you want perfection for that soul. To wish for perfection for the loved one, and to feel pure joy in thinking of that soul, is divine love; and that is the love of true friendship."

It's a fierce journey to get to this place with another person. It's been hard won between Michael and I, I can assure you. I can also tell you that true friendship is a treasure without price.

May you all have the courage to cultivate such friendship in your own lives and be blessed to find someone equally up to the task. Nurturing one's capacity to give and receive true love, I fully believe, is the only way to fully face the reality of death while conquering our fear.

Actually, I no longer have to believe it. I know it. I returned to the cemetery by myself two days later, to polish the "Schwass" on his mother's gravestone.

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