Finances, Faith, Loss and Grief
Last winter a portion of my family (my sister and her family, my dad and I) took most of the grandchildren to the park on a mild day. We had a lovely time, and the adults worked silently to fill the gap of the missing element. There is no grandmother in any of these photographs. The absence is noticeable.
Later that evening Nathaniel, the five year old, turned to me during a movie with a query. “Hey, you know what?” “What’s that?” I asked. “Well,” said he, “you should move down here and spend time with Papa. Cus, well, I had a helicopter grandma.” I confirmed I was aware of his helicopter grandma (of course I was, she was my mom!) and encouraged him to continue his thoughts. “Well, my helicopter grandma she died. She crashed. And now she’s just burned up bones. You could come down here and be my new grandma. Yeah, you could do that.” Trying not to laugh and cry simultaneously, I promised him that I would be happy to be his replacement grandma.
Palestine Cemetery is located near Quinton, Oklahoma. It is the cemetery in which many of my relatives are buried. I went three times in 2012. The day I shall describe is December 17, 2012. We buried my mother there two months prior.
Many people were present the day of the funeral. In order to not distress the onlookers, and cause them to think I needed mental help, I did not do what I wanted to do at the funeral. I returned to the cemetery accompanied only by my precious dog, who had grieved for me when I left town to deal with preparations and services.
The sun was shining this November day, although not warm, it was not chilly. In my possession was the plastic temporary placard which contained the following words: Joyce Ann Monks Ates: August 17, 1952 – September 10, 2012. There was nothing indicating who lay under that bare mound of rocky clay, and I was determined to change that.
I wended my way through the myriad of turns and curves leading to the cemetery, several miles off the main road. A sense of impending uncertainty grew larger the closer I came to the cemetery. I wasn’t sure I could get out of the car upon arrival. I pulled off the side of the road in the cemetery, near Mom’s grave. I sat in my car and just looked for a long time. I finally summoned the emotional strength to put the palm of my hand on that hot window and pushed the door open.
Leaving my dog in the car so I would not have to be concerned with her whereabouts, I made my way to that naked mound. After confirming I was the only one in the cemetery, or in sight, and that I could hear no vehicles approaching, I did what I wanted to do when the casket was above ground. I stretched out on Mom’s grave, wrapping my arms around the raised earth. That was as close as I could come to holding her one last time. Knowing Mom’s body had been burned up, and then had an autopsy performed on it, I knew the contents of her casket did not reasonable my mommy. But I needed to hold something. I needed to hold her. I wanted to say goodbye without an audience. Mom was like that also, she never wanted anyone to witness her vulnerability.
I laid there with the lumpy earth pressing the side of my face. I dampened the dry clay with my tears, and I talked to her. I told her I hoped I had made her proud, and that I was sorry for having unnecessarily distressed her by dating a black man. I also told her I was proud of her response to that situation, that she had grown as the Christian by deciding to treat him the same as anyone else I would choose to date. I know Mom had some really hard situations to deal with, and to this day I am sorry to have been the cause of some of the stressors. However, I realize that is part of growing up. It is part of being a child, and part of being a mother.
Upon completing that portion of my emotional work, I turned to the physical memorialization. Having forgotten to bring anything with which to dig, I reviewed the contents of my trunk and found the hood prop which no longer resided near the engine. With determination and tears, and armed with a bottle of water with which to soften the earth, I began the arduous task of boring a hole into that hard dry earth. Given my size, the hardness of the ground, and my inadequate tools, it seemed impossible. Nonetheless, I was determined. At great length, I succeeded in creating a muddy hole large enough to insert the placard stand.
I had mixed feelings about this task once I had begun it. On one hand I was honoring my mother by telling the world where she was. On the other hand, I felt a sense of embarrassment or that I was being disrespectful for digging in the ground under which what was left of her body resided.
Having accomplished my task, I decided to read to Mom. She used to read to us for hours upon hours in the evenings. Mom would often ask me to read to her, saying she enjoyed it. There is a concrete bench some 25 feet away. I did not want to be that far from Mom. Surveying the area, I located a large stone. Lugging it to what would have been the head of the casket, had there been a complete body, I sat on the rock and flipped through my English literature book to find something that she would enjoy. I read two or three short passages aloud in the cemetery with not one other warm body present. I happened upon a long poem that dealt with the sorrow of parting using the analogy of a ship sailing away. Mom would have appreciated the reading and the subject matter. Death, dying, and grief were not shied away from in my family. Some may find it morbid that I read to my dead mother about death; she would find it appropriate.
As I sat on the rock with the wind drying my tears, I glanced around the cemetery. Headstones were everywhere, from small white rectangles lying even with the ground to large headstones with rather elaborate pictures on them. Some of the smaller headstones had been knocked over. The mowing crew apparently consisted of roaming cattle, as the grass was cropped quite short and there were numerous hoof prints throughout the cemetery from a more moist time.
Nearby, juxtaposed diagonally to Mom’s grave is a remarkable tombstone. It belongs to her parents; my grandparents. Grandpa’s side reads: Hardy Monks, Minister, Husband, Father. The verse emblazoned on it was of his own choosing: in heaven the rich and the poor shall eat together. The background picture on the headstone is an etching of a mountain scene with a large two-story church in the foreground. There is a curved pathway leading to the church. On that pathway, walking toward the church, are a mother and father accompanied by three children. There are two girls and one boy. The smallest child, a girl, is skipping on ahead of the others. That child is me.
Grandpa Monks started a church in Buffalo, Wyoming. However, due to age and failing health he had to return to Oklahoma. My mother and father moved us all to Wyoming and took over the church for about two years. Thus, the etching on my grandparents’ headstone is of their baby daughter (my mother) and her family. It is only fitting she should be buried so close to them. Mom always was a daddy’s girl, she is now forever close to him. That pleases me.
Slowly and deliberately, I returned everything to my vehicle, except the sign telling observers who that heaped up earth represented. I left having honored and respected my mother and loving her in a way that would please her. I slowly exited the cemetery, driving underneath the ancient wrought-iron arch which informed viewers that they had reached Palestine. Or at least it’s cemetery. The sensation with which I left that day was one of accomplishment and relief. I learned I could go “see Mom” on my own and be a better person for it.
Left: taking off
Right: safe return
The red and white sticker on the dash of the helicopter reads: “Aviation Allows No Room For Error. FLY TO COME HOME.” That comforted and unsettled me. Really? Like I needed to know aviation leaves no room for error? The last time Dad took anyone to the airport and deposited them in a helicopter, it was my mom. She did not come home – not as she left. She departed the landing site in a body bag. What was left of her did. I wonder if they packed her charred camera and lenses in the same bag. Doubtful, but it would have been fitting.
As the young man in the movie, “Second Hand Lions” said of his two uncles who killed themselves attempting to fly their kit plane upside down through the barn opening and out the other side, “Well, sir, they went out with their boots on.” Those fellows had determined they were not going to sit around and wait to die in their old age. No sir, they would try anything that struck their fancy; you weren’t going to find them in bed shriveled up when they went. My mom went out with her boots on. The phrases, “in a tailspin,” and “crash and burn,” describe her last moments on earth – well, as she met the earth and her simultaneous demise. When I step into a helicopter thirteen months later, the message that greets me is “No error – come home!” I needed no reminder, but appreciated the message being ever present before my pilot’s eyes.
That eight hour drive to reach Houston the day before had some excruciating moments. My stomach started cramping. My mouth tried to throw up. My head started hurting. In response I said, “I’m doing this, if it kills me. Literally. My body is trying to get sick to keep me from going. Well, I’m jolly well going, even if I’m throwing up the whole time. This will not whip me! I will conquer this fear. I will not be subject the control of this terror. I will win!” And so help me, I drove on. I rested reasonably well that night, and woke determined, but unsteady.
Keeping my mouth tense but not gritting my teeth, I attempted to regulate my breathing and prevent it from becoming shallow and rapid. I dressed with trembling hands and eyes bugged open to hold back the moisture that may have tried to develop if left to their own. I joined Dad downstairs in the motel breakfast area and choked down a fairly balanced combination of foods. Protein for strength and endurance, fruit for healthy sugar and quick energy, and half a waffle for the carbs to take the edge off my nerves. Dad kept asking how I was doing and reminding me that I didn’t have to go up, we only lose money – no big deal, it’s okay to change my mind. I repeatedly replied that I was fine, I knew I could back out, but it was okay. I lied every time. I was not okay, but I was going up.
Dad and I loaded up and drove our respective vehicles to the airport twenty minutes away. It was a sprawling operation with many sub parts scattered about the periphery. Another ten minutes of wiggling and stopping found us at the correct office and hanger. A young man with a strong southern drawl greeted us. His name was David. He was seven years younger than me. And he was to be my pilot. I cast Dad a furtive glance. Really? I was about to hand my life over to someone not yet thirty years old? I leaned the back of my head against the brick wall and closed my eyes, forcing myself to breathe slow, while frantically fanning myself despite the moderate temperature in the room.
Dad and David discussed the flight plan – something Mom would have had prepared and printed out before she arrived. I listened, breathed, and fanned. Dad showed the David and I a particular junction about five miles from the photo shoot location, and haltingly Dad told us that was the location of Mom’s crash, in the pipe yard next to the service road for the highway. Still I fanned and swallowed, dry eyed, and feeling like I would start buzzing around the room any moment. Dad laid his hand on my back and asked if I was okay. I shrugged his hand off and said, “Don’t. You can’t be nice to me or I’ll loose it. Let me be tough.” He understood, and we did not touch again. We waved a lot, and motioned “I love you” with gestures and arms crossed across the chest.
The moment I put my foot on the frame and lifted myself into the passenger seat, all the theatrics inside me stopped. They knew that I had won. There was no way I would step out; I had crossed the line, I had passed the point of no return. I pulled the harness around my shoulders and the strap across my hips, and felt the cold metal in my hands as I listened to that click and slap of the buckle locking me in. The camera strap rested around my neck, securing it against an untimely demise from several hundred feet. The weight, texture, and monetary value of the equipment impressed itself on my mind. David started the engine and engaged the rotors. I smiled bravely and waved, clicking pictures of Dad standing in the hanger. At the instant we lifted off the ground, nose tilted sharply, Dad and I smiling and waving a bit too exuberantly…that is when it hit me: this is precisely how he saw Mom last – and I wondered how on earth he was able to let me deal with my terror in this manner. It would have been understandable for him to beg me not to go. But he didn’t – he played out the drama with me, pretending we weren’t both well aware of the potential (albeit unlikely) horror that could transpire.
Many were the good times experienced at this creek! The icy water moved rapidly down this shallow, wide creek. I spent untold hours in those very rocks, sometimes playing intentionally, sometimes rescuing my book that I dropped (accidentally) while lying on the swinging bridge suspended above the rushing water. I loved listening to the bubbling, chattering, and general hubub of the water as it made its way elsewhere. Is there a better way to pass an afternoon than reading in the sunshine listening to that glorious sound? I didn’t think so then, and I don’t disagree now.
I slept fully clothed, and many’s the morning I pretended to still be asleep while calculating Mom’s location in the house. When I deemed her far enough from the front door, I would pick up my shoes and book, ease out the front door, closing it ever so gently. Then I would turn and run like mad, never hesitating as my bare feet slapped the edges and points of the rocks they flew across – for I must keep the wind rushing in my ears such that should Mom have called me I could honestly report that I never heard her. To the swinging bridge I would dash, blasting across the smooth wood slats as it swayed beneath me. Attaining the far side, my frantic pace continued until I had run far enough down the creek that the distance and rushing water were certain to drown out even the most bellowing yells of my name. When deemed safe, I would stop and bathe my burning feet in the cold water until the stinging subsided, pulling my cherished book to my lap and celebrating my success as securing a morning alone to experience my own time travel through the pages of cream colored fiber and black font. Oh, those were the days!
Multiple forms of travel fascinate me. I have yet to sail, but that shall soon change. One of my goals for 2014 is to learn to sail before Fall. I regret not having gone out on a schooner in Maine last year during a quick trip there. The Fish Chowder and fresh caught Lobster eaten in the sunshine sitting on the restaurant pier could not be improved upon, though! Cadillac Mountain was a sight to behold…ah, I digress! Sailing ventures yet await.
Can you feel the warmth of the sun combined with the crisp breeze? That photo causes me to breathe deeper and sit up straighter, as I feel my eyes squint against the brightness and my pulse quicken in anticipation. I want to be there. Or I want that to be here. Either way, we should be together, the boat and I.
In preparation for my next trip to Maine, I will be perusing the site below in great detail. The captains restored one of their boats completely, and now provide extended sailing trips to guests, up to six days! Although I enjoy water, I’m not sure about being on it for days on end…but perhaps it would be grand!
Let’s see, for those days on land, pleasant accommodations are in order. Some potential landing places (pun fully intended) are depicted next.
The last trip found me at Thornhedge. The host most graciously returned my late evening phone call and provided arrangements allowing a late check in (read that, 2:00 am check in). Breakfast and conversation were equally wonderful in that the host joined us for breakfast and interacted with everyone. He freely shared recipes and instructions for fabulous yet simple-to-prepare delectable foods.