“When Tibor died, the world came to an end. And the world did not come to an end. That is something you learn.” -Maira Kalman
The air does not feel the same at a cemetery as it does at a park or other green space. Whether you have a somber purpose to be there or happen to be walking by on a peripheral sidewalk, the atmosphere is quieter and your mind attentive to where you are. Even if the stones are hundreds of years old, there is no escaping mortality when you can see graves. You not only smell the purposed earth, but you are aware of the possibility of your own return to it.
Yesterday was the third time I visited historic Greenwood Cemetery. The first time was April 30, 2014, when I stood next to my mother and tried to shelter her from the driving rain as my five- year old daughter Susanna’s body was buried in a grave with her paternal grandmother. I do not remember when I swore that I would never again visit this place. It may have been on that day, but more likely was during the following months during which it dawned on me that this unthinkable nightmare had indeed happened. I built my resolve on my belief that Susanna was with me in spirit (which I do believe) but moreover, inwardly, I felt that acknowledging her grave would be like giving up. I refused for my daughter to become a headstone, erasing her and relegating her to the same past as, say, the revolutionary war heroes I studied in my New England elementary school. We visited their resting place to make gravestone rubbings with large black crayons on rice paper.
I remained firm on my avoidance until now, although I agreed on one occasion to join my significant other to visit on Susanna’s birthday in January of 2016. I spent only a moment outside of the car, doubled over in grief and got back in to weep, avoiding the heaviness in the cold air. This strengthened my vow to stay away.
Despite my resolution to never do so, I have come a long way in accepting Susanna’s death. There will never be a moment when I do not wish she could be here, erasing what happened. There will never be a day where I will not wonder what we would be doing together or wonder what kind of spectacular woman she would have become. But I do acknowledge that the person whose body Susanna’s spirit inhabited is gone, just as we all will be when the time comes. I made the decision to go to Greenwood Cemetery because I did not want fear and denial to keep me from any place. I also had begun to wonder if there might indeed be some peace there.
I am not from Brooklyn originally but have made various parts of it my home for nearly twenty years. This is why the one bus and two subway trips were a snap. I needed to make this pilgrimage alone, on foot. My first two hazy visits to Greenwood did not entail me going to Susanna’s spot alone, nor remembering at all how to find it. I had read the map on the internet and knew the section and numbers, but these are not marked. I walked up the sometimes steep, picturesque foothills, feeling some sadness and a hollow drop in my stomach. There are peaceful names like “Lake Road” and “Magnolia Trail”. Remarkably, though, I felt no resistance to being there. Above all, I marveled at the miracle of healing that has happened within me. Grief has changed me permanently, but I believe always in life and purpose and the universe’s ability to heal, especially when you ask for it. Things are not perfect and never will be, but somehow, I have survived.
I followed the map on my phone and found the right section. I could not remember where to look for the grave. For some reason, I remembered standing on a hill at the burial, but this did not make sense. I called S.O. to ask for help, but we sometimes struggle with our language barrier over the phone. I wondered if I would have to go home without having reached Susanna. I wanted some supernatural assistance, which would have seemed fitting. An inner voice, a fluttering red breasted robin. I asked my mother-in law and Susanna for help from beyond. Help arrived in the form of a groundskeeper driving by, who absolutely could help me. I do live in the physical world among the living, after all.
I scouted out some trees that I will inquire about adopting in Susanna’s memory, which was part of this mission. As I left, I thought about the reality of choosing a pink flowering tree, which I am leaning toward. In the years to come, I would need to visit during this season when Susanna left, or I would miss the beautiful but transient blooms. I think I am okay with this. This cemetery is peaceful. Quiet, uncrowded and an acceptable place to grieve and cry and exist in more than one world. I think the first time I was there, in the rain with my mother, I remember standing on top of a hill (there is no hill) because I needed to picture myself detached from the exact spot, elevated and removed. From there, I watched my partner weep right into the rainy grave, but I was not ready to be there. Not yet.
S.O. has returned, at times, to visit Susanna and his mom, on holidays when it feels right to him. We have figured out how to grieve both together and in our own universes. Each time he has brought home loaves of bread baked the way he likes it, airy inside with hard crust, and told us they were from Susanna. I stopped at the bakery and bought some bread. I headed home to my loved ones, including the amazing son who has been able to stay here with me. I continue to be the mother of two children, who has been broken but is still here, here to tell this tale. There is more to life than life. Thank you, Susanna, for coming here for as long as you could. I love you forever.