Tag Archives: death

If you ever have known anyone who died “too young”

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.

Or 30’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.

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The zig zag trail leads…where?

First you have to see it. Can you see it?

Maybe you can’t go all the way. Maybe the rocks underfoot prove too much for you, even if the saguaro forest at Spur Cross Ranch tempts you.

Beefy, odd, some more masculine than others.

A well placed bench welcomes us. Behind is a mature mesquite, shaggy and fissured.

A plaque on the back of the seat has a few words from

Walking in Beauty, the closing prayer from the Navajo Way blessing ceremony:
In beauty I walk
With beauty before me I walk
With beauty behind me I walk
With beauty above me I walk
With beauty around me I walk
It has become beauty again

The lines are supposed to bring peace and calm, and I’m beginning to feel iit, surrounded by an intense aroma that floats on the hot air, herbal and intoxicating, combined with the smell of horse. So many ride these Cave Creek trails.

My father would always find a bench. I don’t like to walk, he always said. I never understood. You’d find him seated, whether on the side of a trail, say, or on a bench at one end of a museum exhibit even when the greatest Jackson Pollack canvas in the world could be found at the other end. He wouldn’t move.

This trail has ancient rocks that have never moved, hot to the touch.

My mother says it’s strange because when my father hit the tennis court he was a demon, with a killer serve.

I think now he was just at home in his skin. He didn’t need art, or a view from a hiking trail.

Sometimes you find a tableau in the desert. Frozen, totally stationary, looking as if were posed by a mighty hand. My mother found one today.

Sometimes you see a saguaro that took protection as it grew under a larger plant, one quite different from itself.

My father never blinked when I said I wanted to go to grad school for an MFA in poetry. What a useless endeavor! He bankrolled the whole thing, and launched me as a writer.

Am I growing up yet? Like the saguaro, I’m taking a long time to be in my skin. I’m trying to be patient. “Patience is also a form of action,” said Auguste Rodin.

There might be birds here, sometime, if you wait patiently.

Two century plants side by side, one quite dead, one obviously alive.

Sometimes the llve and the dead grasses grow together.

In one of his most acute descriptions, Walt Whitman praised “the beautiful uncut hair of graves.”

Today, down a hill, Cave Creek.

Little more than a trickle now. In another season the rains will come and the creek will rise.

All we can do is observe and be patient.

Wendell Berry writes:

It may be that when we no longer know what to do 
we have come our real work, 

and that when we no longer know which way to go 
we have come to our real journey. 

The mind that is not baffled is not employed. 

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Not a long trail today, but one just the right length.

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Does it make you think of your own mortality?

asked my brother as we scaled Pinnacle Peak in the late afternoon, among throngs of pleasure-hikers and trail-runners who didn’t seem to have a care about possibly spraining their ankles in the grit.

He didn’t mean the cactus, which had an interesting appearance.

Some of the saguaros appeared charred, girdled, as if they had been torched by lightning.

Peter was referring to our visit to the Valley of the Sun, to sit by our father’s hospice bed as he faded in and out, in and out. He had always been a rock, along with our mother.

Well, no, I said, I’ve mostly thought of my mortality when I’ve struggled with my writing and wondered how many books the future would be generous enough to offer me. We climbed among the ocotillos and the globe mallows, the wolfberry and the bedstraw, wondering where the sun-basking chuckwallas went in winter.

Jojoba had berries.

We saw no flowers beside from the penstemon. It’s winter, a cold snap.

You’ve got to think about how much they’ve given you over the years, Peter said, referencing our parents. How much they’ve stood by you.

Pinnacle Peak Park can be a nurturing place.

We saw a metal guard snugged around a young crucifiction plant  to coax it to maturity. Even so young it was all slim green spines, but the higher ups had decided that that level of protection wasn’t enough.

A cactus wren had built her nest on a palo verde branch, and we admired her handiwork as we made our way down.

By the water fountains, a dish of water to help thirsty bees along.

Wayne opened the window at the visitor center to answer my question about the blackened saguaros.

He didn’t know the name of the disease they had had. Only that it had started a long time ago and that it was a normal part of the life cycle. When they get old, he said, it’s natural to die. Other ones grow in their place.

Or maybe I’m putting my own words in his mouth.


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I’m not much for views.

I’d rather look up to the peaks than down to the valleys. So I’m fortunate that any number of stupendous trails wind around the base of the mountains at Brown’s Ranch in Phoenix.

Desert vistas abound at this former cattle ranch, which dates back to 1917.

But first you must pay attention. A warning.

I find I like the living desert, with features like this fishhook cactus.

But I equally like everything that is dead or dying.

It’s like the memento mori of the Renaissance, artwork that has ancient roots. Latin for “remember that you will have to die.” Or as I would put it, embrace death and you will live. In some accounts of ye olde Rome, a companion or public slave would stand behind some triumphant general during a procession to remind him from time to time of his own mortality or prompt him to “look behind”.

Especially meaningful to me as I watch my father wend his way toward the end. And I would like to see a death-whisperer behind some of our more insensitive politicians today.

The saguaros here are ginormous, as they say. I think the largest ones I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot.

Carnegiea gigantean counts itself a member of the cactus family, not a tree (but you knew that) and takes up to 75 years to develop a side arm. It only grows about one inch per year. This one’s a small fry.

The arms are grown to increase the plant’s reproductive capacity, bearing more flowers and fruit.

Near Scottsdale, one known as the Grand One is 46 feet tall, measured by a representative of the National Register of Big Trees in 2005 (though, note, not a tree!), burned in the Cave Creek Complex fire and might not have  survived if not for treatment of bacterial infections and the creation of waddles, small structures made of straw that help channel streams of water towards the thirsty saguaro. I think some of the specimens I’ve seen today could reach grand status one day.

Their skeletons are amazing.

We were standing underneath a palo verde, a tree whose name translates to “green stick”, remarking upon its stature and probable age, when we heard bird noises and looked up to see a pair of Harris’s hawks tearing apart a mouse. They noticed us and fled the nest, of course, and we saw the unmistakable white color at the base of their tails.

Harris’s hawks are only one of two hawk species that hunt in pairs, like wolves. I was glad not to be descended upon!

A morning in the desert is like any morning in the desert and no other morning, all at once. It’ll weary your legs as it restores your spirit, hawks or no hawks. But they were pretty superb.


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