I carried a coffin for the first time this year.
Actually, I became somewhat of a coffin carrying expert. I had the honor of pall bearing on three separate occasions when I carried Big Grandpa, Little Grandpa, and Grandpa Tom. There were fourteen years between them, but somehow it happened.
I lost three of the wisest, most influential men in my life in the same year.
Big Grandpa was my dad’s dad; Little Grandpa, my mom’s. Despite being cute grandkids, my brothers and I weren’t the most creative in selecting nicknames for things. Big Grandpa was big, Little Grandpa was little, and my favorite childhood toy was a stuffed brown bear named Brown Bear. We weren’t liars.
I inherited Grandpa Tom. He was the father of my wife’s dad and quickly became a grandfather figure for me. He had an endless supply of stories, jokes, and joy. Physically, he fell somewhere between Big Grandpa and Little Grandpa, but Medium Grandpa just didn’t seem to suit him.
I think of my three grandpas often. It’s almost too easy to conjure a joke or a story or a laugh. I can hear them and even smell them with little effort — Big Grandpa’s woodshop, Little Grandpa’s chewing tobacco, and Grandpa Tom’s aftershave. I picture Big Grandpa in his fishing boat, Little Grandpa tending to his lawn, and Grandpa Tom beaming with a great-grandkid on his knee. Inevitably, a smile will sneak onto my face and I’ll wonder what these three grandpas are up to now.
But then I remember they’re not here.
They’re in the ground.
And they’re never coming back.
I shove snot-filled napkins into empty, plastic syrup containers and hide my bloodshot eyes from tourists filling up the vintage train car diner in which I sit. Children giggle, while adults conspire about what South Dakota sights they might see in the day ahead.
My belly is brimming with coffee, pancakes, and eggs, but I start in on a piece of strawberry rhubarb pie anyway. The gruff, baritone cook croons a rendition of “How Great Thou Art” in the distant kitchen and is accompanied by the rhythmic clanging of his spatula on the griddle.
My head spins.
“Crazy Horse isn’t finished yet, but when he is, he’ll be ten times the size of Mt. Rushmore!”
“You think we’ll see any rattlesnakes?”
“Mama, why is everyone wearing sandals here?”
“How many miles is it to Wall Drug?”
“Eat your breakfast.”
I scribble a few words on the empty page in front of me before pausing to blow my nose again.
The more I live, the more I die.
The more I die, I want to live.
It’s clear to me that I don’t get a say.
After spending the night at the Stroppel Inn and Hot Mineral Bath in Midland, SD, I ventured back toward I-90 and 1880 Town to get some writing done over breakfast. I booked my room at The Healing Hotel, thinking it would be good inspiration for a story or two. I find myself overwhelmed by the great expanse of land instead.
The barrenness of western South Dakota is suffocating. It’s just earth and the elements. Weather and wide open spaces. The big empty. It’s dusty and dirty and feels dangerous. Everything survives or doesn’t. It’s a lonesome place. It takes your breath away.
“I can’t imagine being buried out here” I whisper to myself, snapping out of a trance. I now have the train car to myself. For most folks, this is an eat and run type of place — a gimmick. It’s advertised on plywood billboards for hundreds of miles in both directions, but it’s just a pit stop. There are some interesting historical artifacts, but no faces carved into mountains. They move on.
I find it comforting. Its checkerboard floor and white-aproned serving staff keep it suspended in time in a way. Hungry earth looms outside the window and death dances through my head, but the chrome jukebox shoots timeless melodies through the air. I follow suit and eternalize my thoughts in ink, putting pen to paper once more.
The more I seek, the more I find,
The point is never to arrive
But just to know we’re headed the right way.
I pack up my things and head outside. I throw open the hatch of my Prius and shed my backpack before visiting the restroom and scoping out the gift shop. I press the bellies of a few hundred noisy plush toys and simulate a hurricane in the section of wind chimes. I am a child and it’s fine.
Back at my car, I grab my guitar and set up at a picnic table to pick and sing through the tune I’ve been working on. I can hardly hear myself over the hum of traffic on the interstate. Clouds of dust billow up every few minutes and fill my mouth as I sing. I startle as a tire on a passing pickup truck explodes and decide to call it quits as travelers begin to fill up the tables on both sides of me. Perhaps I will have better focus back at The Healing Hotel.
I purchase a jug of water at the fueling station and jet off toward Midland. A mile or two down the road, the agoraphobia sets in again. I notice twisted trees in the ditches. They have few branches and few leaves — just contorted stumps with tangled limbs. They’re sickly and worn and resemble hands in an unsettling way. I imagine the earth reaching out to protect itself from the wind and snow and sun, only to be defeated and fossilized in this gnarly state.
Further along and halfway to my hotel, I crest a hill and spot a church perched on the distant horizon. I’m a sucker for the history tied to these old prairie sanctuaries, so I take the next turn to check it out. It’s further down the road than I thought. I bounce along the gravel trail for nearly four miles.
When I come to the path that will lead me up to the chapel, I wonder if this is the same church I saw from the road. From a distance, the church looked pristine and holy, set on a grassy knoll and kissed with rays of golden sunlight. Up close, it’s austere. Weathered and beaten down. Lonely.
There are no houses within a mile of the place and no trees to protect it from the elements. I can’t decide if the congregation’s defiance is admirable or stupid. A window is broken. The paint is faded and has been stripped in places by the wind. I can’t help but wonder why God would be so merciless toward a place dedicated to the service of him. Then again, the harsh landscape has a way of making a person think outside of himself. Most of the battles fought on these great plains aren’t won or lost by the hands of men. Out here, you take what the good Lord gives you.
In the shadow of the lonely church lies an even lonelier cemetery. I’m not sure why I didn’t expect this, but my stomach sinks at the sight of the graves huddled there beneath the stained glass and spire. I mutter a “you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me” and shift my car into park.
I open the window a crack as if to test the air. In whips the violent wind. When I finally work up the courage to step outside, it rushes past my ears with a deafening swoosh. I tumble down toward the plots and wrestle with the gales the whole way.
When I reach the first stone, I just start chatting. I make small talk with these brothers and sisters and moms and dads and grandparents and friends. I imagine the real live real lives of the folks buried six feet underfoot.
I converse with a World War II soldier who was killed in battle, his body shipped back and returned to his family who laid him to rest on this abandoned hill.
I speak with his mother. She lies a stone away and joined him just four months later. Was it grief? Suicide?
A few steps further, I meet an 8-month-old girl. Her parents planted a tree in her honor and it has grown big and tall and strong — the only prayer they had for their daughter, taken so young.
I picture caravans trudging down these dusty roads. I hear sniffles and see solemn faces. I watch as caskets are carried, cried over, and covered with dirt.
We carry you,
Your skin and bones and blackest suit.
Box made of ash
Will soon be filled with ashes, too.
So is that you,
Or did you float out past the moon?
And may I ask,
If what you thought was true is true?
Earlier, as I was making a mess of the train car, I jotted down and underlined a note in my journal.
Lately, I create out of fear of what I’ll become if I don’t. Forgotten.
But as I approach the final tombstone in the yard, I question the motive behind my creativity. The marker bears perhaps the simplest inscription of any I’ve seen today. It’s unassuming. It has no pictures. It tells no stories. There’s no tree planted in honor of the deceased. Instead, it says, “Frank W. Hockendorf — 1908–1957 — GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN.”
Frank’s loved ones carried him to his final resting place, but they didn’t leave him there. They carry him on.
We carry you.
We bear the name that marks your tomb.
Sons of your sons,
From death to seed to life to bloom.
There’s nothing new
Under the sun we’re just like you.
Blood of your blood,
What’s been will be, what’s done we’ll do.
Death is life’s greatest mystery. No one will live to tell about it. But as a pallbearer for all three of my grandfathers this year, I was able to sneak up behind it in a way. I was spotted, and Old Man Death escaped, but I caught a tiny glimpse of his shadow.
There’s something incredibly spiritual about a group of descendants carrying their ancestor. How is it that the eight sets of lively hands wouldn’t exist without the lifeless man or woman they carry? And how is it that that man or woman is now lifeless, when they walked and talked just days before? How is it that they’re gone and underground and never coming back, yet I see them each day in the mirror — in my earlobes and eyebrows and attitude. When I catch a fish or mow the lawn or bounce a great-grandkid on my knee.
Maybe this is what Big Grandpa meant when he said, “Death isn’t goodbye. It’s goodnight, and I’ll see you in the morning.”
I wonder who will carry me when I am through.
Will he have his mama’s eyes, his daddy’s nose, or look just like you?