A deceased rabbit, a picnic at a cemetery, reincarnation, quarantine, and the ghost of a mother past…
Duncan believes in reincarnation. This is a conclusion he has come to on his own although I suspect it has its earliest roots in an incident that happened when he was just a toddler, not much over a year. We came out one morning to find a dead rabbit on our front lawn. The boys squatted down to examine it.
“Is it all the way dead?” asked Wyatt, a preschooler at the time, around four.
“Yes,” I said.
“That’s very unusual,” he said, trying out a new word.
Duncan, clad only in a diaper and rain boots, said nothing.
We buried the rabbit beneath the maple tree at the end of our driveway, Wyatt brimming with unsentimental curiosity about what would happen to its body next. I talked about decomposition, nourishing the soil, old life begetting new life. Duncan watched for a bit and then wandered away back up the driveway looking for puddles to stomp in.
As we finished up, our new neighbor came out to plant a flowering vine by her mailbox. Wyatt asked for permission to cross the street to talk to her.
“Okay for Wyatt to come say hello?” I called.
“Sure,” she said with a smile and a wave.
Cora lived alone, except for a dog and a cat, and had that special kind of bemused interest in kids that seems to be more prevalent in people without young children of their own. Wyatt eats that stuff up, loving nothing more than having a fresh set of ears to listen to him. He wasted no time on pleasantries.
“Cora, guess what happened? A rabbit got hit by a car and it died on our grass— there was blood on it— and we dug a hole and put it in and covered it up, and now it’s under that tree!”
“Oh,” she said, taken aback, “That’s… I… I’m so sorry. Well, at least he’s in a better place now.”
“What?” Wyatt said, “No, didn’t you hear me? The rabbit’s dead.” She looked at him helplessly, unsure of how to navigate this conversation, but she needn’t have worried because he had it all figured out.
“Yep,” he said, “bad day for the rabbit… good day for the worms.”
Wyatt asked about the rabbit for many weeks to come, so while the actual events of that day may have soon faded in young Duncan’s memory, the story of the rabbit beneath the tree was a subject touched on again and again in his presence. I believe something of this has stuck with him. Now, at age five, he will periodically preface a statement with, “One day, when I’m a bunny,” and by that, he means when he returns to life in the form of a rabbit.
“How do you know you’ll be a bunny?” I asked.
“I don’t,” he said, “but I think so. Might be a bunny, maybe tiger, maybe flowers, but I think: bunny.”
“What were you before you were Duncan?”
“Mommy, how could I know that? I can’t know what ‘Duncan’ was before ‘Duncan’ even existed. There was no brain of me!”
This past spring, the kids came down with Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease. If you are not familiar with it, you should know that it is not nearly as dire as it sounds: it is a common childhood illness caused by a highly contagious virus; symptoms— usually fever, malaise and blisters— can be uncomfortable, but they typically resolve without medical intervention within a week or so. A bad strain of it had been circulating through schools and daycares since mid-winter; in April, Milo, Duncan, and Wyatt finally succumbed one-by-one. I found myself stuck at home with the lot of them for seemingly interminable days on end. We are not homebodies in our family—it is rare for us to spend even one day without an outing of some sort— by day four of our quarantine, we were reaching a point of desperation.
So I took them to the cemetery.
It is an odd choice, I know, but I figured that a large cemetery in the middle of a school day would be an easy place to get space and fresh air without risking exposing other children to the virus.
As we drove through the gates, Wyatt said, “Mommy, I have a bad feeling about this.”
“Why, honey?” I said.
“I’ve got the heebie-jeebies.”
“My have heebie-jeebies, too!” echoed Milo.
“Why?” I asked again.
“Because this place is scary!” said Wyatt.
“Dis pace gary,” confirmed Milo. “Yep.”
“No, it’s not,” said Duncan.
“Yes, it is!” Wyatt said.
“Come on, guys, look out the window. It’s really nice here. Look how green it is! See the hills, the flowers, the fountain…”
“I noticed them already,” said Duncan.
“Good, Dunky,” I said, peeking at him in the review mirror. “Hey, look, Floyd likes it here!”
Duncan’s window was cracked open and our 4-month-old puppy was standing on his lap to better reach the air flowing in. He licked the window and sneezed, his wagging tail hitting Duncan in the face. Duncan and Milo giggled.
“Foyd yike it here!” Milo said. But Wyatt was not to be distracted.
“Mommy, don’t you know? There are skeletons everywhere.”
“Zgeltons?” Milo echoed. “Mommy, dem has zgeltons in here?”
“Don’t worry, guys. They’re way under the ground. You won’t see them.”
Wyatt said, “That doesn’t make me feel better! They’re just down there waiting. What if we get lost here at night and they come up out of the ground?”
“Skeletons are not alive, Wyatt, you know that.”
“Yeah… but I can’t help imagining. Ohhh, no…” he groaned, “now I’ve got the super heebie-jeebies!”
I was not sure whether it was socially acceptable to bring three kids and a puppy to a cemetery for a picnic, so I drove on and on, winding through small hills, looking for an out-of-the-way spot. I knew it was a large cemetery, but I had no idea quite how enormous it was before then. It seemed endless. One road led to another, all of them quiet and empty, no signs indicating where parking was permitted.
Finally, concluding that one spot was just as good as any other, I parked on the side of the road at the bottom of a small hill, let the kids and Floyd out, and began unpacking the picnic supplies. We were surrounded by green and quiet, not another living soul in sight. Exactly what I was hoping for. Then I heard Duncan murmur behind me.
“These people are so beautiful,” he said.
I glanced quickly around, expecting joggers or mourners, perhaps a funeral we had bumbled upon. Seeing no one, I looked back to my redheaded son for explanation. He was looking… up? I followed his gaze to the trees overhead and then back to his upturned face. There he was, just smiling away at the trees rustling in the breeze.
Then it hit me: These people are so beautiful. He meant the trees.
Who is this little person who has come to grace my life? Nothing to do but ruffle his hair, dab the corners of my eyes on my sleeve, and haul the basket up the hill with a lump in my throat.
We had our picnic and then wandered around, picking daisies and looking at headstones. At first the graves were quite old, mostly from the late 1800s, the markers small and flat, overgrown with moss, words fading in the elements over time. Then, rounding the side of the hill, we came upon a terraced section with paved pathways, greeted by a diversity of headstones in fenced family plots. Here, by reading the names and dates of entire family groups, the outline of a life might be told through its losses:
A man who outlived his wife by four decades;
A long-lived couple side-by-side, buried just a season apart;
A family of adult siblings buried in the same plot as their parents, no mention of their own spouses or children— perhaps they never married, or perhaps, in death, their earliest familial ties took precedent over later ones.
Some mentioned the country in which the deceased was born: b. 1872 in Ireland, and I wondered whether their journey across sea and land brought them all they hoped it would.
Some included epitaphs: Not dead but merely sleeping, read several. (“That’s kind of freaky, if you think about it,” said Wyatt.)
One woman brought eight children into the world at the turn of the century and then outlived them all. Three babies died as infants, the others survived the perils of early childhood only to be cut down, one after the other, along with their father, in the flu pandemic of 1918. By 1920, only one child—the sixth born, a daughter—was still alive. Thankfully, this last remaining daughter lived on into adulthood, yet even she preceded her mother in death. It was that woman’s great misfortune to see all the days of all of her many children; she had to find out how each of their stories ended.
At this thought I instinctively scanned for the three little heads belonging to me: there’s Duncan flicking pebbles down the stair, sun glinting golden off his red hair; there’s Milo on his back in a bed of clover, chin tilted to the sky; and here comes curly-headed Wyatt meandering down the path in my direction, Floyd the fluff ball sniffing along at his heels. Did it make it any easier for that other mother to accept her losses to be living at a time in history when death was seemingly always close at hand? High infant and maternal mortality, both World Wars, the 1906 earthquake and fires, the flu pandemic, the Great Depression…
“Mommy, guess what?” Wyatt called out as he approached and then, seeing my face, stopped short, “Wait, why do you look upset?”
“I was just thinking about this woman buried here.”
“That makes you sad?”
“Yes, a little bit,” I admitted.
“Was she your friend?”
“No, she died a long time ago.”
“Oh.” He picked the petals off the head of a daisy, letting them flutter to his feet, and then flicked the head away. “So why are you sad?”
“Well,” I sighed. “Life is wonderful and it’s also terrible at the same time.”
Wyatt is used to me saying things like this. He seemed to more or less discount the comment entirely, launching instead into what he came over to tell me in the first place.
“Know what I was thinking?”
“What if somebody magicked this place and made it so if you touched a name, that person would come alive again? You could see them. Wouldn’t that be spooky? They’d just be like, walking around in front of you.”
“That’s happening already,” I said absentmindedly, letting my gaze shift to Milo in the clover, wondering whether his lethargy was due to his fever returning.
“What?” Wyatt startled, glancing quickly over his shoulder. “Wait, what do you mean?”
“I mean, just reading these headstones I feel like I can see these people, these families…”
“No, that’s not what I meant, Mommy. I meant in real life,” he said and then, without waiting for a reply, he and Floyd drifted away back up the path. I watched them go: a boy and his dog with no patience for a mother lost in daydreams. There was no one around to see me smile and shake my head. I turned back to the headstone before me as if to a friend, a fellow mother, and placed two fingers on her name: Ruth. Beloved grandmother, read the inscription, your presence was a gift to this world…
I picked Milo up and walked back to our picnic spot to give him his next dose of acetaminophen. He let himself be carried, arms dangling, feverish cheek pressed against my neck. Wyatt, Duncan and Floyd trailed along behind. We sat on the hill for a bit, delaying the trip back home, each of us preoccupied with our own thoughts. It felt good to have the breeze on our faces and the sun on our backs. I gave them water to drink and bananas to eat and made daisy chains for everyone, even Floyd.
Still recovering from their illness, the kids were subdued, sitting side-by side, without wrestling or squabbling or looking for something to climb on or jump off of. It is rare for them to inhabit a space with such quietude. Then again, perhaps the setting had something to do with it. Death is certainly a Big Thought and in a cemetery, an unavoidable one. At last, Duncan spoke up.
“It was very nice of these people to turn into trees for us… Maybe one day I’ll be a tree, too. Probably bunny, but maybe tree.”
“You can’t know that,” said Wyatt. “You can’t know that you’ll be a bunny.”
“I said ‘maybe’.”
“No, you didn’t. You said ‘probably’.”
“Maybe is maybe and you don’t know everything, Wyatt,” Duncan said, flopping back onto the grass, squinting against the sun.
“Duncan… I don’t even know what that’s supposed to mean,” Wyatt said.
“I do,” said Duncan and that was that.
That night I jotted notes from our picnic at the cemetery. I wanted to remember what it felt like, why we went, what the kids said; I did not want to lose the memory of Duncan seeing trees in the cemetery as “people”. Just as the story of the rabbit beneath the tree seems to have stayed with him, shaping his comprehension of the circle of life, I wondered whether a childhood belief of a future as a bunny might sway his adult personality in some subtle way. It is a funny thought. If he were a character in a book we would know, his author letting us in on the overarching themes and symbolisms of his life, but he is a real person and it is hard to see which of the many stories of his youth will leave tell tale rings and which will fall away like leaves.
The children soon recovered from the virus. A few days after our picnic in the cemetery, they were able to go back to school. In the weeks that followed I found my mind turning frequently to Ruth, imagining how she might have felt about it all in the end. Was it worth it? Was the pain and fear, uncertainty and sorrow worth whatever joys her life had held? I like to think that a “beloved grandmother” whose grandchildren saw her as “a gift to the world” had to have made it through the suffering of her life with some spark still intact within her. Yet how could she have? How could anyone sustain the will to endure after such great losses? Her life was so difficult compared to mine with my healthy children and husband and access to modern medicine and technology. Even so, I have had losses of my own; and the longer I live, the more I will have. It is an awful thought to think that in every relationship I’ll ever have, one day one of us will lose the other. The only way to protect against these inevitable tragedies would be to hold the world at arm’s length— don’t get attached, don’t make friends, don’t marry, don’t have kids, don’t care too deeply about anything alive, stay lonely and loveless with nothing to lose. But that’s not for me. If I live my life well enough for long enough it will be inherently replete with loss; any alternative to that would be a loss unto itself.