We walked, under the big blue cerulean sky, between the wide gap in the row of tall speckled spruces, he carrying a large shovel and a 5-gallon container of water, with a spout, for camping, me carrying two small boxwood plants in their plastic planters, one in each hand, and a small shove. There were no obstructions between the heavens above – an odd and approving observer – and ourselves.
Ahead at ground level as we walked was a couple, she kneeling and her back to us, and he seated on a low stool, face to her. He looked like he was eating oranges or something. I saw the array of pastel colors, flowers, on the ground, fully surrounding her.
But we followed our path, took just a few steps forward then turned to the right, a few more steps, and stopped. We’re here, and put down our tools. Soundless ground.
he pink monument, unfinished on the sides, finished and shiny on the front and back, that was about as high as my waist, marked our work site. I placed the plants on the ground to the right and left, equally measured, moving, adjusting. This looks good. No, a little further out this way and that way, took the plants out of the containers and placed each one in its spot.
He got the shovel and began digging. Just the sound of shovel hitting dirt, moving, pausing, cutting through dirt again. After a moment, he spoke, “Rocks everywhere. It’s really difficult to get the shovel down in here.”
Acknowledging, I then walked away, toward the couple ahead of me. It was pretty quiet, and casual. I stopped about three feet from the woman, who was surrounded by cut flowers. “You’re planting flowers. Are we allowed to do that?”
“It’s your plot, you can plant whatever you want.”
“This tree here?”
The husband said, “We pruned off the lower branches so the lawn mowers can work around it. We’ve been coming here for twenty years.”
“Who was it?”
The wife looked up and said, “Our son. It was an accident.”
I thought to myself, maybe an auto accident.
I said, “Our son too.”
“Was it an accident? An illness?”
“Ben died in a diving accident. Diving into a swimming pool. He did a great 360, then wanted to try more. He was 20. Pre-med, everything. Wanted to do good things with his life.”
“Ours was 26. Just about to graduate from graduate school. Had finished his courses and was just about to begin an internship.”
“We live in California and come once a year.”
“That’s funny. That’s where Sam lived. He grew up there, and went back after college. He was living there when he died, and we had him brought back here.”
“Sam? When Ben’s sister had twins, she named one of the twins Sam.”
Twins. That reminded me. “Phil and I had just returned from a trip to London to greet our new twin grandchildren when we got the telephone call that Sam was dead, and the twins’ mother had to leave her newborns and fly to Boston from London.”
“To go to the funeral, to say goodbye to her brother,” my new friend completed my sentence.
She continued. “I walk around and leave stones on all the graves of the babies when I’m here.”
To have so much room for compassion for others, who will never be able to thank her in return. I turned and pointed on a diagonal, to where would be the third point on a triangle from where Ben lay and where Sam lay. “Another one, right over there, at the end of that row. That row, over there, at the end. Just a few months ago” and I pointed to where she could leave another stone for another baby. Another baby, daughter of friends of ours. “She was 21, maybe 22. An accident.”
She noted the place.
I had to get back to our task and to my husband.
He said, “It’s just full of rocks. This side worse than the other.” I took the empty containers and began filling them with the excavated rocks.
“Their son too. Twenty years ago.”
We shoveled, he with the tall shovel and me with the small hand shovel. I combed my fingers through the cool dirt, collecting the rocks, tried the plants again, then moved them again, adjusting, adjusting. With the head of the large shovel, Phil made a well-cut perimeter, made it even and beautiful. The height of these dwarf Morris boxwoods was just perfect. Perfect for the height of the stone and perfect for Sam. Resting on the top of the monument itself and all around its base, defying the rain, wind, and snow, were so many small stones, smooth, white, pink, yellow, stones that said “peace,” stones that said “love,” seashells, stones that had been brightly painted and whose color had worn off.
I became aware that the woman from the other stone had walked over to us, and I got up and walked toward her.
My husband asked, “Where in California do you live?”
“San Francisco.” Phil loved to talk about San Francisco.
“Where in San Francisco?”
We all exchanged names. The talk went on. Standing close to her now, I said, “He had dental surgery and took too many pills too quickly. He didn’t wake up in the morning.”
“Ben lived for three weeks on life support. Then he took himself off of it.”
“He took himself off of life support?” I realized he had not died instantly, He had survived the dive. “Did he get an infection or something from the dive?”
“Yes. He made the decision.” I can’t imagine a young man making this decision. It could only have been awful for all involved.
I stood up and gave her a hug. We hugged. Then she went back to her husband.
I crouched back down, to continue our work. We took the stones that crowded the top of the stone and arranged them as a perimeter around the plants. Beautiful. I stepped back. Life.
Phil and I took the watering jug and emptied it, feeding the dry thirsty ground.
Then we collected our things, headed for the car, and drove off. We drove to Home Depot, bought some mulch, and drove back by way of this separate ground. The car of our new friends was still parked outside, but we didn’t see them. We carried the mulch back in, placed it gingerly and plentifully around the boxwoods, noticed that it was composed of shredded recycled old tired, stepped back, and approved.
Under the cerulean sky, we shared a new and silent and knowing friendship, bore what learned were the terms of life, and contented ourselves in the new life we had planted.
It occurred to me later that maybe our friends were off marking the graves of the babies with stones.