You can’t traipse very long on this mortal coil before encountering end-of-life truths. A friend in Atlanta, in the Delta Airlines master operations room on 9-11, tells with restrained panache her version of such an encounter. Driving blithely about town one day, she came to a familiar intersection marked by a traffic light (robot). Since her light was green she approached at speed fully intending to cross through. She failed to note that a funeral cortege had arrived and a police car with flashing light was giving priority to a caravan of mourners. As luck would have it, the limousine bearing the coffin had just entered the intersection when our heedless friend arrived. She had once safely brought Delta’s flotilla of aircraft safely back to earth without incident, but the same could not be said about her traipse that day. She T-boned the hearse. Yes, T-boned the hearse. Never has there been such resounding punctuation of a mortal’s passing. Disbelief reigned supreme. She at her haplessness. The police officer at his failure to assure dignified passage at this somber moment. The funeral party at this wild insult to a rite of passage. And the passers-by who were now in possession of a you’ll-never-believe-what-I-saw story.
After citations had been issued, and arrangements made, a tow truck arrived in aid of our friend whose only wish was that she might spontaneously combust or better yet vanish from the earth. Her disabled car was ingloriously cranked up from the rear bumper, but she, humiliated as she was, wanted no human company. Refusing to sit in the cab with the tow-tech as regulations stipulated – she was incapable of small talk – she insisted on riding alone in her own crumpled vehicle, and rolled away looking back on the scene at the mayhem she had triggered. Which, on reflection, might well summarize an end-of-life view from the coffin on the way not to the scrapyard, but to interment.
She gave this hilarious account to a reunion of alumni who had once studied in India at the storied Woodstock School in the Himalayan foothills. It brought to mind a visit we had only just made to a cemetery not far from that campus only months before, a terraced place shaded by giant cedars and pines. We called at the cemetery and soon fell in with the care-taker’s daughter, a student on holiday from her university. She recognized instantly the name we gave and led us zig-zag up through the trees to the top-most rank of graves and pointed to the very marker we had come seeking. It was hidden behind lush undergrowth including some flourishing nettles of which she made short work with a walking stick. Then there was the matter of the stone itself, the inscription loved a little too much by lichens and moss.
There followed the silent gesture that would not be forgotten. Next to the stinging nettle there grew a clutch of deep green dock leaf. She gathered a handful, crushing it in her grip, and then rubbed it on the headstone bringing into clear relief the inscription beneath. We stood wrapped in the murmur of the wind. Our purpose having been accomplished, we expressed our indebtedness and took grateful leave of the keeper’s daughter. It was only when we wandered away that we grasped fully what she had done. Dock leaf is the age-long remedy for the sting of nettles, the juice of its leaves quickly calming fiery welts. But, for us, it was a remedy for wistfulness in remembering a loved one, easing the welts of loss.
And the eternal snows were our consolation.