It was a holiday and the weather was beautiful. "Let's go for a walk," my husband said.
"Okay," I replied, then added "let's walk in those gardens we always pass by on the way to town."
The gardens we saw from the highway looked lush and beautiful, but we always drove by them on our way somewhere else. Today seemed like a great day to explore them. In the back of my mind I remembered the garden in a town I lived in as a grade schooler. We took our family photos there with the flowers as a backdrop. They were called Memorial Gardens. I was too young to pay much attention to the name of who they were memorializing.
We got into our walking clothes, then got into the car. Coincidentally, this garden was also called Memorial Gardens and I was feeling sentimental as I told my husband on our way there about our family pictures in the days before digital, when we easily posed for at least three rolls of 24 photos to give us a better chance of having a good photo of all five of us.
When we turned into the garden, we saw cars lining the entire road and people milling slowly about. It was a popular destination that day, Memorial Day. Apparently we never saw the headstones as we passed by on our way into town. Also, apparently, the garden of my youth was McCrory Gardens not Memorial Gardens. I was much too young to pay much attention to names. Needless to say, we found another place to walk.
Not that I mind cemeteries. I recall going with my mom and my Grandpa John to my grandmother's grave and planting flowers by her headstone. We'd talk about how one day he would be buried there, next to her. It didn't strike me as unusual for him to be discussing his own burial because it was so matter-of-fact. We usually went to her grave on Memorial Weekend, though my grandpa went more often than that. The cemetery was a long drive from the city and I passed the time in the car by watching the shapes and colors of the farmers' fields merge into one another.
After we tended grandma's grave site, we might stop in the town's cafe for a slunka. That's what grandpa called his coffee. Grandpa usually slurped his slunka from a saucer instead of a cup because he said his slunka cooled off faster that way. I'm not sure why he called it slunka, but I liked saying it, drawing out the long u to make it even longer as Minnesotans tend to do.
Each Memorial Day my mind drifts north, past the farm fields, to the memory of him kneeling by his wife's grave in a small cemetery in the center of the state. I am glad for the glimpse of that tender moment of honoring the memory of a loved one. I want to teach my children to honor those who have gone before them, to teach them about life even as we talk about death.
We took a lot of road trips when I was growing up. If there was a historical marker, we would stop and read it. If there was an old cemetery, sometimes we'd walk through it, looking at the dates on the headstones. I was impressed with the fact that each of these people were maybe not too different than me. Each of them had joys and sorrows and stories. And now each of them were six feet under. As I will be one day. Death is a part of life.
David wrote "Man is like a breath; his days are like a fleeting shadow. (Psalm 144:4)" Sometimes my life doesn't seem like a fleeting shadow when I am in line at the grocery store and I realize too late that the check out lady is s-l-o-w, slow! Or when I come home from a day at work to find dishes in the sink and have to think about starting dinner and getting my kids to their various activities. Life doesn't seem fleeting when I still don't feel at home in this community we moved to five years ago. Or when we are going through intense counselling, fighting to save our marriage.
Jesus' brother, James, in his letter to the Jews who were dispersed abroad wrote, "Now listen, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.' Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, 'If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that.'" Then he says, "Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, sins." (NIV)
Interesting. Not only is life on earth fleeting, but we are not even promised tomorrow. So we need to submit to God and do the good we know to do.
I've been thinking about that a lot lately because we just said good-bye to my sister-in-law who bravely faced cancer that ravaged her whole body. I wish I could have done so many things differently. Visited her more. Called her more. Reached out to her as a sister more.
If I truly understood the brevity of my life, and of those around me, how would I interact with those around me differently? I wonder what would no longer seem an imposition if, like Tim McGraw sang, I lived like I was dying.
So, on Memorial Day I think of those who serve our country and I remember those who have gone before me. I think of death, which makes me think of life. Of how I want to life my life here on earth and how I want to spend eternity.
I think of grandpa, now lying next to grandma. And my in-laws, lying together in a national cemetery not far from my paternal grandparents. I think of the rows upon rows of white headstones, and I'm grateful for those who preserve our freedoms.
And I think of Memorial Gardens and the Memorial Day that we almost had a date in a cemetery.