BY KATHY PERUTZ
Last weekend our son picked us up to drive out to our potential graves. It was a cool day, overcast, the kind of day Michael is most comfortable with, being a Brit, and one I welcome in the New York summertime because it clears the air of the usual snot soup and makes walking along the streets possible. It was early for us, 10 in the morning, a time when we’re usually still lounging about the bedroom, maybe doing our laughable exercises or chatting about something we never got around to the previous day, or we’re still sleeping or feigning it (one of us anyway), or listening to Brian Lehrer on NPR and doing the deep breathing.
He and I are on a kind of seesaw, if mortality is a playground. Not a slide, neither of us is going downhill that fast, and not a swing either because neither of us has those highs anymore. He is on oxygen day and night with COPD, and though he has an elegant little carrier with battery attachment that he can take anywhere, it needs to be replaced quite often, and walking tires him out. So generally we stay home. I’ve been in the lead in the mortality competition until this year, even though Michael is seriously older than me, already past his 89th birthday and ordinarily that would give him the edge. But I have the Big C, as we used to call it when John Wayne roamed the screens, 23 years of breast cancer, which turned metastatic a while ago, and also lymphoma as an alternate. When I have chemo I am worn out and liable to onslaughts out of left field, backaches and migraines, “spontaneous” fractures, fainting – a whole panoply, with more assortment than a shady salesman’s wares.
We are lucky, in some ways. Lucky that after nearly 50 years of marriage, of all our fights and rediscoveries of each other, of political crosshairs and cultural misunderstandings, missed cues and betrayals of various kinds, we are still tied to each other, we have each helped the other define her/himself, we have come to a place where our very different lives meet, and for the first time in our long accommodation we share what life we have in the wake of finality.
Last Saturday we rode out to Sleepy Hollow, home of Washington Irving, where a large cemetery holds the remains of many eminent New Yorkers, particularly the rich ones, Rockefeller and Chrysler and Carnegie – oh my!, and Washington Irving too, whose prose I could never properly digest and which, like the driest cakes of Austrian pastry makers, requires a hefty dollop of schlag, of pure whipped cream, to make it go down easier.
We were here, with our son and daughter-in-law, because at a certain point (when we got serious about our Wills), it occurred to me that if I survived Michael I would not know what to do about the funerary arrangements. Nor could I give or leave instructions on what to do with me when I died. My parents were totally secular; his were part of the church, his father a well-known Anglican priest who died when Michael was 2, leaving behind a legacy that caused Michael later to flee England and choose Mao over the Anglican god. My parents had come to America when Hitler annexed Austria, but I didn’t discover that I was Jewish until the first grade teacher told us that if we were Jewish we only had to bring in 6¢, but if we weren’t we had to bring in a dime. I had no idea what this meant, and when I asked my mother if we were, her face took on a look of alarm. But her good friend who’d accompanied her to pick me up after school, a kindly German philosopher, was able to extract the pertinent matter and I was told yes, I was indeed Jewish. The money referred to milk, 2¢ a day. Since there were to be Jewish holidays the following week, Jewish children did not have to pay for the days when they would be absent. To me it was a wonderful turn of events – not only would I be able to drink less milk (which I detested), I could also stay home (though in the event, I didn’t, since the tallest boy in class was a Polish catholic and I adored him.)
Michael and I had no religious affiliations, no family traditions, no particular place where it might be natural for us to end up, either in the form of ashes or in toto corpore. Whenever M and I brought up the topic of our disposal after life, we ended up saying it didn’t matter. But I realized it did, or would, to the survivor of us two, and to our son and to Michael’s other children. Our lawyer for the Wills said it would be a good move to make our wishes known, particularly in Michael’s case, where different offspring (of different mothers) might have differing ideas.
I looked up funeral homes in the neighborhood. Either they were run by people called O’Connor and Murphy, or by Goldstein and Rosenberg, the first with crosses, the second with stars. But a third place, in Greenwich Village, had both, the O’Connors and the Rosenbergs, and I figured that was safe. I searched their site and came upon the term “natural cemetery.” I followed that – and found a new style of burial, greener pastures you might say. In a natural cemetery the body is placed in the earth in a shroud made of linen or cotton or silk, only natural materials. The grass grows over, the wildflowers bloom – and the photographs were gorgeous. I showed Michael, who became enthusiastic to the point of saying, “I can’t wait to be there.”
“I can,” I told him drily, and kissed him. The thought of his dying brings a horde of winged things into my stomach, each one with a barb.
However, we’d stumbled on a possible solution. The most beautiful of these cemeteries are upstate, with acres of woodland and streams and rocks. But that made no sense for us, who live in Manhattan, our son and his family close by, our friends here.
Saturday we toured the grounds with a pretty and capable guide named Christina. She knew her dead, and also the names of trees and other plants. M & I, former birdwatchers, asked about the birds in spring, the little warblers in their bright colors and funny masks flitting through the branches where perhaps a woodpecker is thrumming and below, a Thrasher may be cleaning away the leaves. We passed the slim Pocantico, which runs to the Hudson and we saw the big river at a distance. When we came to the natural part, we got out. Black-eyed Susans, my mother’s favorite, blooming in profusion with the cone flowers flecking the little meadow in touches of orange and deep pink. A small, American meadow, perhaps too wild for Monet’s brush, but nevertheless contained, with a wooden fence and a roughly-hewn bench made of logs.
We chose our plots, one for each, at midpoint between the spreading tree and the fence and the road. We agreed that our heads should face out, beyond the fence to the trees and stream below. And yes, we did want stones (optional). They would be stones found around the area, not quarried. We could have our names on them if we wanted (we did) and perhaps a saying or phrase.
Our son is listening to us ask our questions and make our choices, and he is smiling in a way that makes my love for him almost unbearable. I know he is thinking ahead, of a time or times when he, alone or with his wife, or with his whole family, will come here and talk or maybe just think of us, of each of us, and I know also that he will then think back on this day, when he and his wife were here with us and we were alive and he was taking pictures of us, me clowning around with arms akimbo, M smiling, wearing the tubes that strangely don’t disturb the beautifully sculpted bone structure of his face. He is ruddy, in full health except for his breathing and walking. He is happy. Our son is happy and so is our daughter-in-law. I am happy and M and I lean in for a kiss that will be captured on the silly smart phone and one day be the way our grandchildren and their children will remember us, as we were.
Note to my readers: This blog was published on July 15, 2016 in the Huffington Post, without pictures.