you probably get a hitch in your chest around old graveyards, places where mysteries exist as to cause of death but not the carved-in-stone age of the person buried. Thinking about it, I drive to work along all the tangled metropolitan-area highways before dawn, the tips of the tree branches brushing the tarnished gray skies. Thinking about a burial place I visited recently. The Community Church of Yorktown cemetery wraps itself softly around the historic structure dating to 1848.
Situated on Baptist Church Road in Yorkville Heights, the place originally belonged to a Baptist congregation, serving a community known as Huntersville, which largely disappeared when the New Croton Dam sunk much of the area under water after its completion in 1906.
In a beautiful spot on a country road, the burial ground has dozens of pre-revolutionary graves. It’s a site that can’t help but make you wonder about the people who have come before, all the ones who used a big old key in the church’s big old front door.
This morning, as I crest the hill on the highway, a strip of orange flame appears on the horizon. Sailors take warning. At the cemetery, I poked around among the stones. So many appeared to have died too young.
Either really, really young. Babies.
Or many in their 20’s.
It seemed as though if you just survived your 30’s you might get all the way to your 80’s.
This is why I like to go to do tree work in Queens, nice and early: the horizon glows, salmon, blush pink, cotton candy pink, all the tired descriptors for the endlessly new phenomenon of dawn. We don’t have words adequate to describe sunrise. Or death, for that matter. All you can do is experience it. I drive beneath the chain of lights glimmering on the Whitestone spans. The pink ribbon of sky dazzles beyond the burning red taillights, and then, finally, over the site I’m bound for, a thicket of red brick housing development buildings.
Everyone has someone they know who died too young. Or probably more than one. For me first, a boy, a friend who was found suddenly dead when we were teenagers. Also, a friend robbed of her life by cancer when our kids were just graduating high school. Or an aunt, a dazzling person, a beauty queen with substance abuse problems, at around the age of 40. Too soon, too soon.
The graves on Baptist Road, haunting. Haunted.
I always find myself wandering off to the edges of a burial ground, as if I’ll find some answers on the outskirts. Every one of us is losing something precious to us, said Haruki Murakami. Lost opportunities, lost possibilities, feelings we can never get back again. That’s part of what it means to be alive.
Answers about what? The people here? Death? Life?
Anyway, it’s the ones on the fringes, the unmaintained, I like the best. And I always love it when stones nudge up against trees. The person who carved one of these monuments in all probability personally knew the person buried beneath it.
Today thinking about my New York grandmother—she died in her 80’s and had a good life but still I felt she went too early, just as I was getting to appreciate her as an adult. So it’s not only a question of age. There was an older woman I worked with, helping her write a book when I was just learning to write books. I sure cried when she died, and it felt too soon, though she was already a grandmother. I felt broken.
By total coincidence, as I drive into Queens a song comes on the radio called Hollywood Forever Cemetery by pop god Father John Misty: But someone’s got to help me dig/Someone’s got to help me dig. Always good to go do tree protection. Doesn’t it sound grand: tree protection? It’s something of a privilege to help save trees in New York City. Today, a London plane standing obstinately in the area designated by some city official as the proper place for a new pedestrian ramp. The soft-hearted field engineer wants a tree consultant to weigh in. Well, no, the excavation would in fact damage the roots and hurt the tree. Danger averted. We’re both relieved. And rather proud.
I wonder what Nat, my teenage friend who loved nature, would think about saving this London plane. Or my pal Debbie. Or my grandmother. What if the people you lost too soon could come back for a bit to have a cup of coffee with you, say, what would that be like? You could catch up. Just for a few moments? Or my father, for that matter, now gone not quite a year. He knew I became a late in life arborist, but what would he think of this bright sunrise, these bland brick buildings, their doorways and decorative plantings draped in twinkling holiday lights?
Helen Keller said, What we once enjoyed and deeply loved we can never lose, for all that we love deeply becomes part of us. You don’t need to climb the steps of a church, even a picturesque church, to know what she meant.
The beautiful uncut hair of graves, wrote the immortal Whitman. Sometimes shorn, but still breathtaking.
And that’s something, a way of coping with too soon, too young. Shakespeare recommended: Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break. So though I am not sanguine about death, that works to some extent. The impulse to give sorrow words.
There’s also, for some people, protecting trees. Splendid sawtooth oak on 33rd Avenue agrees, shaking its shaggy branches in a gust of wind.
Too soon? Not me.