I live on a street that has a cemetery at the end of it. About a year ago, I drove by the cemetery and there was a funeral taking place. For the first few months after the funeral, there were always people gathering at that particular grave site, either paying respects or just visiting. Every time I drove by on my way to work, there seemed to be people there doing something. Over time, the site has become adorned with candles, flowers, marble benches, and plants. Time has passed. The crowd that once gathered there has dwindled. Recently, for the last few months, only one last mourner, a woman, has been seen there, sitting on the marble bench that is strategically placed facing the head stone. I can only imagine that she can’t let go; that she didn’t get to say all she needed to say to the one that passed; that she is tormented by an early demise of her loved one; or worse, she suffers from some kind of guilt.
One day a few months ago, I drove by and noticed nobody there. I took the opportunity to drive into the cemetery to see who had been buried there. Call it morbid curiosity, but for some reason I had to know. I had done a Facebook update that had stated that the person that was buried there was the daughter of the woman sitting there on the bench every day. I made mention that I would love to stop by and talk to this woman who is obviously grieving. But being a coward, and not knowing what I would say, I would keep driving.
Flash forward to today, October 5.
Today, on my drive back to work from lunch, I drove down the hill as I normally do. As I got to the bottom, I spotted the woman sitting on her bench all alone, as I have seen her do several times. It was a beautiful fall day, a spattering of leaves blowing through the cemetery, some trees with a sparse color of orange, red, and yellow in the distance. A nip was in the air but the sun was shining so bright that the inside of my car was toasty warm.
Normally, when I get to the bottom of that hill, I take a left. Today, I found myself taking a right, pulling into the entrance to the cemetery, on the road heading to where this woman’s van was parked. This was all somehow out of my control. I should have been going to work. But there I was, in the cemetery. As I slowly approached in my car, the woman didn’t look up. We were the only two cars and the only two people in the cemetery. At this point, most people would have turned their car around, talked themselves out of it. But I didn’t.
As I got out of my car, I had no idea what I was going to say to this complete stranger. I had no idea if I was disturbing her solitude; what kind of reaction she would have to a complete stranger approaching her. Some other force was guiding me. It didn’t matter. The thought of her possibly macing me never entered into the equation. Not even the big black dog that was in the car that had leaped out and was sizing me up, deterred me from my mission. Rather, I found the latter to be the perfect ice-breaker.
As I approached I caught a chill from the breeze moving through the vast openness with the only shields blocking the wind being those of marble, knee-high head stones. I shivered a bit while I walked towards her.
Referring to the dog, I said, “Does he bite?” Looking down and wiping tears away from her face with a tissue she held tightly in her hand, she softly said, “No.”
The dog stood at attention watching me. I said, “Is he tied to something?” She nodded. I walked over to the dog and after letting him smell me, he allowed me to pet him. He was mostly black but had the signs of an aging dog. Around his mouth and nose area he was graying. While petting him, the woman still didn’t acknowledge me completely. She appeared to be deep in thought, and not concerned that I was there. She had rosary beads in her hands and I immediately apologized for interrupting. She shook her head indicating that I was not interrupting and that it was ok.
"You keep this up so nicely, I felt compelled to stop and tell you so” I said, getting a glance upfront and personal of the shrine that I had admired from afar. From the street, I couldn’t tell anything about the woman that I had seen there day after day. But now up close, I can tell she is Asian, older, maybe in her 70’s, maybe 4 feet 10 inches tall, wearing a goose down vest. It was obvious that her hair had not been combed at least for today but no telling how long it had been that way because it was short and in disarray as if she just got out of bed. It was after lunch time.
“The rose bushes don’t seem to be growing” she said. Maybe she thought I was a landscaper or grounds person, although I was dressed for work in slacks and a blazer, so I’m not sure what she thought.
“Rose bushes are hard to grow. But this is all very lovely.”
Previous to this I thought it was her daughter that had been buried there. When I had stopped there on the previous occasion, the head stone that I saw indicated a young woman but the date of death had not been inscribed yet. But on today’s impromptu visit, it was clear now that the gravestone had a picture of this woman with her husband which had not been there before.
“Someone very special must be here for you to come here all the time.” I probed.
“Do you mind if I ask, how did he pass?”
In broken English, she replied, “Cancer. He die of Cancer.” She lifted her sunglasses and wiped her eyes again.
“I’m very sorry to hear that.”
The dog, comfortable that I was not going to attack what was now his sole remaining owner, climbed into the open door of the van and lay down on the seat, facing us so he could keep an eye on things.
“M.D. Hmm. He was a doctor? What kind of doctor was he?”
“Did he work locally?”
“Yes, at the Backus Hospital,” she said, although, being a doctor was not his claim to fame. “My husband. He such a good man. He establish a foundation for the poor in the Philippines. His life’s work. All he wanted to do was help the poor people of my country.” Looking at the picture on the gravestone it was clear that he was not Philippino. But she was.
“And now I’m all alone because he is gone.”
“Do you have children?”
“Yes, two daughter. Both live in Boston. Both doctor.”
The marble bench is in two sections that are adjacent to each other, making one long bench. The woman was sitting on one section, leaving the other section empty. There was a chill in the air that wasn’t detectable while in my car. I indicated with my hand a proposal for me to sit. She obliged me with her hand indicating a green light. I couldn’t tell if she wanted me to or if she just didn’t have the energy to stop me so she gave me the go ahead.
Upon sitting, I could see more clearly that there were lit, covered candles surrounding the site. “Who lights all these candles?” I asked.
“I do. I light them. They last 5 day.” A breeze blew by, but sitting down it seemed to be warmer than it was when I was standing. Yet, I still kept rubbing my hands together as if I was freezing, just for something to do.
“It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it? It’s so peaceful and quiet here.”
“Yes. Yes. My husband and I live up the street and we always loved this cemetery. This section of cemetery always so empty. We bought plots before it got too crowded. My husband. He a good man.”
Sitting, I could easily read the other gravestones implanted into the ground. It now made sense that the daughter was not buried there, but only has a plot with her name on it. So does the woman. Inscribed on her plot it reads “Joan R.N.” I thought to myself, how unnerving it must be to sit and look at the spot where you know you are going to end up for all eternity.
“So, you’re a nurse?”
”What do you do now?”
“Retired many years ago. I like to stay home. Cook and keep house for me and my husband. My husband do everything else.” Another tear fell down her cheek and she wiped it away.
“Like what? What did he do that you can’t do?”
“Oh heck, H & R Block can do that for you!”
She lets out a laugh at the boldness of this stranger who is now giving her advice on where to get her taxes done. The laugh gives way to permission to say more.
“He did all paperwork for me. Pay the bills. All I did was cook. Now, no one to cook for.”
“How long were you married?”
The little Philippino woman replied, “47 year.”
I started to tear up. 47 years! Being the cook in my house, I know the importance of creating a good meal and the accolades that follow from putting dinner on the table for the family. I tried to imagine living without that. The depth of emptiness brought on by a house absent of compliments or appreciation for a dinner well executed. The all out effort of having to cook for one and eating the meal by one’s self.
Trying to contain my own unimaginable sorrow, I said, “Maybe you should go back to work, become a nurse again?”
“No. I like staying home. Don’t like having to be in certain spot at certain time.”
“How about volunteering? It does the soul good to get out of the house and be with people.”
“No. Still a commitment to be there and sometime, I don’t want to get out of bed.”
I could relate to that, but not on the same level.
“How long has it been since he passed?”
“Do you think he would want you hanging out in the cemetery every day?”
“No. No. He a good man. He would want me to carry on his foundation work.”
“Then that’s what you should do.”
She nods, but in a patronizing way.
“He can’t continue it. It’s not finished, right? You should continue and do more.”
“You know, this is none of my business, but I drive by here all the time and see you sitting here. Is this what your husband would have wanted you to do?
“No. He would want me to continue his dream of the foundation.”
“Well then?...I see you were doing the rosary when I walked over. So I assume your belief is that he is in heaven, right?
“Oh yes, he in heaven. He a VERY good man.” More tears.
“Then your belief also needs to be that you will see him again in Heaven someday. But your life is not over here yet. There is more for you to do here. And if you don’t mind me saying so, sitting in a cemetery isn't living your life. This is beautiful what you have done here. But you need to live the rest of your life.”
She nods and sniffles. I can tell she feels a little silly when she says,“You would think I be over this by now.”
I tried to let her know that it’s okay by shaking my head no.
“You may never be over this. But I know for sure that you are still here and you need to live your life as God intended.”
A complete stranger and I’m holding mass with her. Had I known I was going to be preaching that day I would have bought a bottle of wine with me and made it official. (Always looking for excuses to drink wine!)
“I know he would have wanted me to carry his dream on.”
“Yes, and that is what you should do.” Noticing the time, I said, “I have to get back to work now.” Sensing my departure, the dog got out of the car and came over to me for a last pet.
“I bet he makes a great companion.”
“Yes.” The woman and I sat on the marble bench petting him together, finding solace in his fur.
“Where do you work?” she asked me.
“Foxwoods” I said, “But I don’t work at the casino, I work for the Tribe.” She told me of the people she knew there that had contributed to her husband’s foundation. I knew some of them and felt that we had connected on some level. That I wasn’t just some stranger and that she had ties to the community I work in.
It was a good time to exit. Whatever my purpose was for stopping there today was complete. I stood up from the bench.
“What your name?” she asked me.
“Sharon.” I hesitated, not knowing if I wanted to give my full name then decided that not giving my name was ridiculous. “Sharon Kane. I live right up the street. For some reason, I needed to stop and talk to you today. I don’t know why but I did and I’ve been meaning to several times. But today I had to. I hope that whatever the reason was becomes clear to you.”
She grabbed my arm and said, “Thank you. Thank you very much for stopping.”
I, in turn, patted her on her sleeveless down jacket and said, “No problem. Now, don’t sit here all day. Go do something you’ve been meaning to do. It’s a beautiful day.”
She nodded politely.
As I walked away, I glanced back at her. Her dog, their dog, her and her husband’s dog, was watching me walking to my car. His tail was wagging and I swear to God he was smiling at me as if to say, “Thank you. She needed that.”
I drove to work wondering why that was important for me to do. I was surprised at how easy it was. Yet how many people drove past her, including myself for a year, never stopping to lend an ear. I may never know why or what impact I had. If any! Or maybe the compelling factor was the fear of becoming like her and hoping that someone would stop and talk to me if I was ever in that same circumstance. The possibilities of my impact range from, possibly saving her life to being just an annoying person that interrupted her. Just like so many other things in life, I may never know the reason or the impact I had. I’m not a social worker; not a bereavement counselor; not particularly religious or spiritual. But I was called upon that day to stop and talk to this woman. It crossed my mind, could it be that I was her angel? Who knows. But I stopped and I’d like to think I helped her. I’m glad I did it.
My Kaneclusion is this. As much as I'm pretty certain I don't have wings on my back, we all have the power to help each other. It is now two weeks later after stopping that day and I have not seen Joan, the Philippino nurse, wife of the radiologist, pursuer of Philippino philanthropy, sitting on the bench in the morning. As I drive to work, I like to think she’s home, brushing her hair, and getting ready for the day that awaits her.
Click here to read the article, "After a Death, the Pain That Doesn’t Go Away" and other articles that pertain to grieving. If you know someone that is grieving, or if you are grieving and need help, you may want to read this article. Courtesy of The New York Times, September 2009, and Thank you to K. McEvoy for posting it on Facebook.