I thought of walking round and round a space
Utterly empty, utterly a source
Where the decked chestnut tree had lost its place
In our front hedge above the wallflowers.
My husband always knew he would be the first to go. Far better that way, he used to say, because it meant that he wouldn’t have to miss me. A private man, he also insisted that death was a private business. When the time came, he wanted to die alone, just to sleep on. There was to be no fuss, no funeral, no flurry of condolences, not even a goodbye if he could help it. Maybe he was afraid I wouldn’t know what to do or say; maybe he thought it would be easier if he just disappeared into nothingness without ceremony. He would have been wrong.
Like a catechism, I know what to do and say. It is part of the culture that formed me, and I am bound to it. Friends from back home agree that it is sewn tidily in our DNA – we know to mark the time of death, to stop the clocks and cover the mirrors, to draw down the blinds and close the curtains; we know what to say and do when led silently into a bedroom where the deceased has been “laid out”; we know how to pay our respects in private and in public, how to offer condolences over china cups of tea balanced on saucers bearing digestive biscuits; we know when to shake hands, when to whisper and weep or when to throw our heads back in laughter over a bit of craic about a life lived in full.
Without these tiny rituals in the days following Ken’s death, I raged internally and selfishly. Only because he expected me to accept and respect his wishes – and because I had promised – I complied. Against my will, I privatized my mourning and got lost in the ever-widening distance between the desert southwest of these United States and a blacksmith’s forge on the side of the road in rural South Derry. I wanted what I couldn’t have. I wanted to visit a grave and bring flowers, perhaps freesias because he loved their scent. I wanted the bits and pieces of a public goodbye. I wanted to fill the air with his favorite music. I knew he wanted none of it. No ceremony. No punctuation mark. Just an empty space.
In November 2013, a few days before he died, I visited the graveyard in Bellaghy where Seamus Heaney is buried. And today, on the second anniversary of our poet’s death, my recollection of that visit is fresh – the mound of Derry soil not yet settled under a sycamore tree, no marker other than a makeshift sign at the entrance to the car park, two plants, a bouquet, and a handwritten thank you note. The sycamore leaves scattered on the dirt and wet from the rain, the clouds hanging heavy and low, I remember thinking that as a final resting place, a naturalist like my husband would maybe consider it.
Unsure what Heaney would think of it, local grave-digger, P.J. Rea, honored to tend to the job and moved by the number of people who visit to pay their respects, considers the unasked question:
I don’t know what Seamus would have made of it but I think he might be pleased enough.
I think so too.
So when I returned to Bellaghy this summer, I visited the grave again. This time, a simple wooden cross stood in the dirt. This time, I was a widow, changed and contemplative, convinced that cosmic strings keep us connected. This time, I wondered about the spiritual space in which both men might move. Where are they? Are they afraid?
In Stepping Stones, Heaney tells Dennis O’Driscoll that he did not fear death the way he had done as a boy.
It’s more grief than fear, grief at having to leave ‘what thou lovest well’ and whom thou lovest well.
So when people tell me my husband is in a better place now, I can’t help but rail against them. What place could be better than here with his daughter, the girl he loved so much and so well? What place could be better than in our dining room to light eighteen candles on her birthday cake or at the Motor Vehicle Department when she nailed the parallel parking and got her license, or in the audience to cheer her on and whistle as she strode across the stage to receive her high school diploma, or when she earned her first paycheck? How could any place be better than a ring-side seat at the milestones yet to come? Is there a more desolate space than his empty seat at the table?
It has been one year, nine months, and fourteen days since Ken died, and my growing preoccupation is with wanting to know where he is. Where is he? Some days, it feels as though he just went missing. Where is he? It is a confounding, gnawing question. It is unrelenting, different from the madness that accompanied the early urgent grip of grief, the all-consuming quest to fix the unfixable, stop time, close distance, find the right word, and do the right thing. Doing the right thing – as Ken had requested – felt wrong.
He did not want to be buried in the ground. He wanted to be cremated, and he wanted his ashes – all of them – strewn on a piece of ground in the desert, at the base of Black Mountain, where his childhood home had once stood. It represented his beginning. It was his first place.
We obliged. My parents, far from their Castledawson home, our daughter, and a close friend did as Ken asked, each of us taking turns to empty the bag that contained the cremated remains of this man who had loved me? That bag probably weighed no more than five pounds. I recall fixating on this detail and wondering about Ken’s soul and the weight of it and its whereabouts. Where was it? Where was Ken? Where is Ken?
About a month ago, my daughter and I returned to the spot where we had spread his ashes, assuming it would be unchanged, frozen in time. Instead, “his” tree had been cut down and the area around it chained off for commercial development. An empty space – for now. Heartsick, I wept for him, for my naturalist, even though the rational part of me knew and knows that not for one moment would he have expected his desert space to remain unspoiled. He had grown resigned to the price of urban progress. Still, I was resentful again, angry that there was no grave for us to visit, no headstone to adorn with fresh flowers on his birthday, or on the anniversaries of the day we met or the day we married, the day our girl was born, or the day of his death.
Then with the right words at the right time – again – came Heaney and the epitaph from The Gravel Walks inscribed on the new headstone in place for today, the second anniversary of his death. The girl with her head in the clouds should never have doubted the man who kept her feet on the ground too. Not for a second.
Ken, you are neither here nor there. You are everywhere, and that is reason enough for “keeping going.”
You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And find the heart unlatched and blow it open.
So walk on air against your better judgement
Establishing yourself somewhere in between
Those solid batches mixed with grey cement
And a tune called The Gravel Walks that conjures green