A Tale of Then and Now – Parts 1 and 2

Part 1 – It Was A Great Life

The phone rings in the kitchen.

“You’d better answer it Ronnie,” Annie, my wife, says, “It’s probably the funeral home.”

I run from the living room where we’re reading. Through a west facing window, the late afternoon sun catches my eye, temporarily blinding me. I stub my toe on a table leg and stumble into the kitchen where I pick up the phone. God, that hurt! I sometimes get gout in that toe and it’s really susceptible to pain…which is big time right now.

“Hello, this is Ron,” I say, gritting my teeth, panting a little.

“Hi Ron, this is Martin Freeborn from Sorenson’s Funeral Home, returning your call. Sorry it’s taken so long to get back to you. It’s been pretty busy around here the last week or so.”

He sounds perky and cheerful, not at all like the dour, businesslike person I’d been prepared for. The pain in my toe immediately vanishes as I focus my attention. What do you say to a statement like that? He’s talking about dying and death here. In my mind I see dead bodies stacked up in a back room somewhere waiting for whatever’s in store for them. I want to be polite, but congratulating him on a flurry of business is a little out of my comfort zone. I quickly rack my brain, trying to come up with an appropriate comment while also trying to remember if I’d heard or read about anyone around town who has died recently. I come up empty on both counts.

Martin interrupts my thoughts, “Your message said you were interested in a plot up at Lakeview?”

Whew. He lets me off the hook. “Yes,” I say, recovering, “Thank you so much for calling me back.” I hear the formality in my voice. Am I really talking about this? A last resting place? I clear my throat and try to speak normally, “Yeah,” I say.” There that sounds better, “The cemetery just down the highway. Overlooking the lake?”

I can actually hear him grinning, “Yes, Ron, I know it well. It’s the only one in town.”

God, I’m coming across like a complete idiot. I take a deep breath and muddle on, “Do you have any spots up there for…” I was going to stay new tenant, but stop myself. It doesn’t sound right, somehow. “Are there any plots available?” There. That sounds better.

I hear some papers rustling. I imagine Martin checking an ancient, couple hundred years old, map of the cemetery, thin as parchment and folded into sections. He’s carefully opening it up to look over locations for what’s available. (In reality, it’s probably a newspaper he’s putting away. I’m sure all their records are on the computer, but then again, what do I know?) “We have a number of spaces, Ron. Do you have any family buried there? Someone you want to be next to?”

What an odd way of putting it. I’m taken aback. Is this some kind of trick question? Do they only allow people in who have relatives? I didn’t think this conversation was going to be so hard. Or unsettling. “Um, I have a few acquaintances there,” I say (well, two, actually) and proceed to tell him about Annie’s friend for one and her cousin, for the other. I know I’m stretching the facts and, truth be told, I didn’t know either of them very well at all, but I do want a plot there.

“That’s excellent. Do you want a space near them?”

Not really. “No, that’s Ok. Any place will do.” Why am I starting to perspire? I rack my brain and quickly I add, “Maybe up on the hill, overlooking the lake?”

“Excellent choice,” Martin says, “We have lots of spaces up there.” I make a mental note that the correct term is space not plot or spot or location. I, apparently, have a lot to learn when it comes to the correct vernacular regarding cemeteries.

He pauses, waiting, I think, for me to say something. Suddenly I’m at a loss for words. This is really happening. I’m talking to a guy about my final resting place. Do I really want to call it that? Man, so many questions start popping up that all of a sudden that my mind goes totally blank.

After another beat he continues, apparently choosing to ignore the poor soul on the other end of the line, “Well anyway, Ron, why don’t you go up and look around and decide where you want to be. You have been up there before, haven’t you?” he asks, with the emphasis on have. Do I detect the slightest bit of condescension in his voice? Naw…It’s probably just my overactive imagination.

I nod my head for a few moments before I think to answer, “Yeah, sure, lots of times,” then immediately regret my answer. I can picture Martin thinking what a strange man he is talking to right now. One who not only has trouble talking on the phone, but who also enjoys spending his free time wandering around in cemeteries, looking at gravestones and contemplating death. I suddenly wonder if he might alert the local police to me. I’m really perspiring now. Man, why am I so paranoid all of a sudden?

“It’s good you’ve been to it,” he says, allaying my concerns somewhat. “Take a little drive over there, look around and check on few head stones near where you want to be. Call me back with a general location and we’ll get you set all up.”

What an odd way of putting it. “So there’s space available?” I ask, feeling rather smug that I’m now using the correct term.

For the first time during our conversation he chuckles, which, I have to say, given the circumstances, is a little disconcerting. “Yes, we do, Ron. We have lots of spaces,” he pauses and then chuckles again, “Unless, of course,” he adds, “we have a run like this past week.”

Geez!

He quickly quotes me a price and we both hang up. I wipe the sweat from my brow and wish I still smoked and drank. I could use a little of each right now. Maybe a lot.

Annie comes in and rubs my shoulder, “How’d it go, big fella?”

I’m grateful for her touch and human contact. “Fine,” I say, “Good. The guy at Sorenson’s wants me to head up to the cemetery and pick out a spot, I mean space.” I clear my throat, “Want to come along?”

Annie averts her eyes for a moment, thinking, and then looks at me with loving concern, “Do you want me to?”

Her mom and dad have passed away within the past year. This whole cemetery and burial plot thing for me is a little close to home for her. I don’t want to drag her up to Lakeview unless she wants to go and I tell her that, “It’s not that big a deal, Annie. I can do it myself.”

She hugs me, “Why don’t you go ahead? Call me when you start home and I’ll make some tea for us to have when you get back.”

I’m so grateful for her. “Sounds good,” I tell her, giving her a tight hug back. Then I grab the keys to my car and head out the door, “I’ll be back in a while.”

Lakeview Cemetery is located a mile outside of town, off highway 112, on the south shore of Long Lake, the lake our town is named after. The cemetery’s been there for nearly a hundred and fifty years. Martin told me there are over three hundred people buried there and room (as he put it) for over a hundred more. “Plenty of space for you, Ron,” he told me, laughing a little, “In fact, more than enough for you to choose from.” (I can’t begin to imagine what his dinner table conversations are like.)

I take a left off the highway at the entrance, drive a hundred feet in and up a slight rise to a roughed out parking area, roll to a stop, turn the key off and get out. I’m the only car there. It’s early October and just after six at night. Since I started thinking about doing this, I’ve kept coming up with reasons not to. Now, I just want to get it over with and not put it off another day. I’m a little wired and force myself to take a minute to try and calm down.

Lakeview is the exact opposite of the pampered cemeteries with trim bushes, pretty gardens and manicured lawns that most cities have. This one is more on the shaggy side, only lightly maintained, with long grass and overgrown shrubs thriving beneath tall, shady trees. It’s definitely not formal at all and, to tell the truth, I like the casual feel to it. The sun is low to the west, casting shadows through the graveyard. The air is cool and crisp and the trees in the area have started to change colors. Looking across the lake I see rolling hills of oaks and maples turning red, yellow and orange with myriads of hues in between. Low sunlight filters through the colorful leaves above me and adds to the mellow feel of the place. All things considered, it’s a beautiful time of year to be checking out burial plots, I mean spaces. I like being outside anyway, and there’s a nice, outdoorsy vibe to the area. I’m calming down and feel myself getting into the mood to look around.

I should be clear here. I’m really not going to be buried at Lakeview. When I’m gone, I’m going to be cremated and want my ashes scattered on Long Lake; I just want a location (space!) for a stone for sort of a memorial marker. What do I mean, sort of? I – want – a – stone – for – a – memorial – marker. There, that’s better; nice and definite. I learning to accept what I’m doing; planning for the end of my life, and I’m starting to get my head wrapped around it. I want something that says that I was here. I was on this earth. I lived and died and now I’m gone, but once I was here. Sound weird? Well maybe…but it makes sense to me and I’ll tell you why: throughout the twenty one years of our marriage, Annie and I have done a lot of family ancestry research. One thing we found was that it helps to track relatives if there’s a burial marker of some sort. That’s why I’m doing this. Since my ashes are going to be scattered, I figured a stone for a memorial was the next best thing. The idea is to leave a foot print behind;  something for later generations to see. I explained all this to Martin while we were talking and I got the distinct impression he could have cared less. In fact, I thought I detected his finger tips tapping away on his desk as I blathered on and on.  When I finished all he asked is how I wanted to pay for everything.

Walking around the cemetery is…how can I put this? Different? Well, of course. Strange? No, that’s really not it. Interesting? Maybe that’s it – but not interesting like watching a special on climate change on PBS is interesting. (At least it is to me.) No, this is like trying to tap into some inner connection between yourself and the land you are walking on. Some would call it getting a feel for the place and that would be as accurate as I could put it. Standing next to my car and looking toward the lake, the land slopes away to the left. There are a lot of headstones there and I walk down and wander around, idly looking at names and dates of births and deaths. Annie’s friend is buried down here. So is her cousin. I check out both their stones. Someone’s left a bouquet of flowers for her friend. Who could have done that? I don’t have a clue. To my right, hidden in a grove of trees near the lake, a group of what looks to be high school kids are sitting on the ground talking quietly. I like the fact that they respect that they are in a cemetery and are being mindful of the dead. Then I catch of whiff of marijuana. Hmm… Well, maybe mindful is not the correct word.

I turn and make my way back up the hill and stroll past my car over to the other half of the cemetery. The ground is nice and level here. My boots are shuffling through tallish grass and fallen leaves, and the swishing sound is relaxing to my state of mind. To my right the highway noise is muted by trees and underbrush, all turning to vibrant fall colors. The burgundy red and blaze orange of the sumac is especially pretty.

I’m feeling calmer, now, wandering around. It’s not so bad being here. In fact the more I walk, the more I feel outside noises and distractions disappearing.  My attention begins to focus on my task – looking for my space. Some of the headstones here are very old, crumbling a little, covered in gray and green lichen, and dating back to the 1870’s. The oldest one Annie and I have found up here is from 1859. The name is illegible and we can just make out the date, but the interesting fact is that the person was buried one year after Minnesota became a state. I think it’s pretty amazing to have a grave here that old.

But that’s not why I said it was interesting being here. I guess what I was trying to get at was that being here really is different. It’s not the way I normally would choose to spend my free time. Thinking about death and a final resting place is not something one does every day. But here I am, doing just that. Interesting, different…you can add weird to that, too, I guess. Anyway, call it what you will, I’m here and I am coping with it just fine. It’s something I want to do.

At the far end of the cemetery to my left and overlooking the lake is an open area. I don’t know why there are no grave stones here, but it’s open and empty and might work for me. I walk over and stand in the middle of the space. It’s about ten feet from some brushy, shrubby overgrowth and a line of tall maple trees that mark the edge of the cemetery. Just beyond the vegetation there’s a steep cliff cut in the hillside leading down to the lake. It’s the highest point around – about forty feet above the shoreline, and seems like a good spot. I turn in a circle a few times, looking around, getting a feel for things. Then I look up – tree tops bend over the space and their branches form a canopy above me. Through them, high in the sky, I can just make out a wavering flock of birds flying, probably geese. There is no wind and the air has the feel of fall to it. Somewhere, someone is burning leaves and the scent fills me with a vivid happy memory of my childhood when Dad and I burned piles of leaves I’d helped him rake. In the underbrush a chickadee calls, then a nuthatch. There is a calm and a peacefulness right here that I haven’t felt anywhere else in my meandering around. I suddenly just know that this is the place I want to be. The connection is strong. It feels perfect.

I sit down and look around, soaking in the atmosphere of the place. Faraway, down to my left I can just make out a burst of laughter from the kids which quickly fades into the growing twilight. An owl hoots on the far side of the lake, it’s haunting voice fading into the stillness. Then nothing. The birds nearby have gone quiet. Silence settles in. The sun has dropped below the horizon and the air is still. It’s so peaceful and quiet…I lay back and look through the woven branches of trees into a sky turning to a soft mauve. I close my eyes and let the stillness take me away.

One thing Martin wanted to know was about my grave stone. (I prefer to call it my memorial stone.)

“Want do you want to put on it?” he asked me.

Well, now that was a good question. What does on put on the stone that will mark their place on earth for eternity…or at least the next one hundred or two hundred years or so. I’d thought about it a lot since I’d first committed to doing this but so far had come up empty. I told him I hadn’t decided and that I’d get back to him on it.

As I lay on my space, (I’m starting to get comfortable thinking about it like that) I start to focus my attention and think; what do I want on my memorial stone? A few days earlier I looked up a site on the internet that listed possible headstone inscriptions. If you want to make yourself nuts in a hurry, check it out. (No, I’m not going to give out the address. It’s easy to find.) Trust me, though, there were pages and pages of them: short ones like, “Dearly Beloved” or ” So Loved.” Longer ones like, “And The Beauty Of The Soul Revealed” or “Our Love Is A Love Always Remembered.” Sayings by famous people, “Death is the key that opens the place of Eternity – Milton” or “We all shine on…- John Lennon.” And, of course, there were religious ones, “Forever to dwell in the House of the Lord” and “I sought the Lord and He heard me and delivered me from all my fears.” And, finally, non-religious ones: “Too Well Loved Ever To Be Forgotten” and “His life was like music, a song written on the wind.”

Actually, I made that last one up, but, trust me, there were a lot of them. Funny ones, sad ones and everything in between. Frankly, it was kind of mind boggling. After I’d looked them over for fifteen minutes (which, believe me, was a lot longer than it sounds), I shut down the computer and went to my file drawer. In it I keep a bunch of old comic books I’d bought at antique stores and on eBay to share with my grandkids. I selected a Looney Tunes and opened it up and read for a while about Bugs Bunny driving Elmer Fudd nuts and Daffy Duck just being Daffy, to clear my head. I have to say, it took a couple of stories of being entertained by their antics before my mind was back to normal.

Putting thoughts of comic books aside, I lay on the fragrant grass in the growing twilight of the early fall evening and let my thoughts wander. I wanted to see what would happen – to see if somehow a saying would come to me, a saying that would make sense; one I could use to mark my place on this earth forever.

What happened next was unexpected, but actually quite pleasant. Out of the blue, memories of my life started running through my brain like old film on a movie reel. I thought I’d share some with you: the day my youngest brother was born (my first memory), the day my best friend knocked me out with one swing of his brand new #32 Louisville Slugger, warm twilight nights as a youngster playing hide-and-go-seek with friends in my old neighborhood, the scent of a fresh mown lawn, learning to skate and play hockey at the rink down on the corner, Dad falling off a ladder onto the driveway and surviving, my first orange tabby cat, me forgetting Mom’s 33rd birthday when I was seven, summers at the cabin up north, Dad and his friends listening to jazz in our living room, fishing with my uncle, Mom’s portrait on the wall in the dining room painted by her friend, my aunt teaching me how to play solitaire, Mom and Dad having cocktails and listening to Benny Goodman records in the living room, my best friend in our new neighborhood and I building a mini-bike, Mom teaching me how to play cribbage, a friend who died of leukemia, early doo-wop and Motown, failing English in seventh grade, Buddy Holly, the first girl I kissed, Dion and the Belmont’s, my first car (a little red Triumph Tr-3), Friday night football games, the perfume my high school girl friend wore, ‘The Sounds of Silence’, landscape paintings with cows in pastures, getting an A in English in twelfth grade, ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, working at Swant’s Service and Gas Station, Mom and Dad getting divorced, the summer of 1969, the pacific ocean with Dad, stargazing in the Rocky Mountains, my first born child, my second born child, Bruce Springsteen and ‘Darkness On the Edge of Town’, Lake George, leatherwork, Drew Avenue South, the guys in Hop the Train, sandhill cranes on the Platte River, watching the snow fall at night, Christmas lights, the uninhibited laughter of my grandchildren (and seeing them grow), molten orange sunsets, hiking in the desert, bike riding, walking anywhere and anytime, bird watching, the job I held for twenty years, the soft light of dawn, working at two different garden centers, Lake Constance, blues guitar, sobriety, winter night fires by the fireplace, Hayseed Cree, working in the garden, soft rainfall, talking with Mom anytime, Manitobagifts, reading books, my last home (our little bungalow), bluebirds nesting in the front yard, my wife for all these years.

And that’s just the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

I could take each statement and write about it for days, but I don’t want to belabor the point. Suffice it to say that each memory is a thread woven into a rich and colorful tapestry made up of family, friends and events that have enriched my life and made my time here on earth the wonderful journey it’s been. One I wouldn’t trade for anything.

But how to sum it up into a short, all encompassing saying that I can put on my memorial stone? I mean that’s the whole point of this, right? A simple statement that says something about me and about my life; something that people who have known me can look at and nod in agreement (hopefully), and people in some far off future can look at and get a feel for the person who was me. As I write this I’m thinking: Is this too vain? Is this too over the top? I don’t know. I don’t want it to be. I just want to do it. Sort of a ‘leave behind’ marking the end of my life and my time here. It’s been a good life, of that I have no doubt. Why not commemorate somehow?

And then it comes to me. It has been a good life. In fact, it’s been a wonderful life. Wait, that’s already a movie title. That’s Ok, it’s not really what I wanted, anyway.

Restless, I get up and walk through the grass to the edge of the cliff overlooking the lake. I must have lain on my spot for a long time. I’m a little stiff and I swing my arms to loosen up. The water is mirror smooth, and there’s a reflection of a nearly full moon rising in the east  glowing on the lake’s surface. The scent of burning leaves is lingering in the air. The kids down the hill to the left are still there. I hear their  muffled laughter and it makes me smile to hear them happy. I look up and see the stars, stars I’ve watched and felt connected to my entire life. Letting my mind go to be free to play back memories of my life was fun and has left me uplifted. It occurs to me just how happy I am. Like a kid I shuffle around through the fallen leaves, enjoying the feel of them beneath my boots. I feel excited with what my memories have shown me. It’s been better than a good life, it’s been a great one. I walk in a little circle, scattering more leaves, enjoying playing in them. And then it dawns on me. What a perfect saying. I smile to myself and feel a sense of relief (a sure sign it’s the right thing to do.) I decide that I’m not going to worry myself about it anymore. I’ve thought about it long enough. Simple sometimes really is the best. I’ve got my saying for my memorial stone: “It’s Been A Great Life”. Five simple words that say it all.

Finally. What a relief!

Feeling a slightly euphoric, I carefully make my way through the dark cemetery to my car, open the door and sit in the driver’s seat. The interior light is the only light around and I blink as my eyes adjust. I take out my phone. I’m relieved and happy and want to share it with Annie.

“Hey, there. Just wanted to let you know I’m on my way home,” I say, after ringing her up.

“It’s kind of late. I was getting worried. Are you Ok?” she asks.

I try to allay the concern in her voice. “Yeah, I’m good. I’m doing fine.” I check the time. It’s just after 8:30. I’ve been here for over two hours. The interior light has gone out and I sit back and stare into the darkness. A burden has been lifted and I’m feeling both mellow and jubilant, two entirely different feelings that, interestingly, work well together.

She’s quiet for a moment and finally decides to believe me. “I’m glad. You sound good. Calm.”

“I am. I’m really good,” I want to tell her everything, but decide to wait until I get home. “I’m leaving right now. I just wanted you to know I’ve decided on a space and what to put on my stone. I think you’ll like them both.”

“That’s good, Honey, really good. Do you want to tell me now or when you get home?”

“How about if I wait until I get home? There’s a bit of a story that goes along with it,” I tell her. I’m thinking of all those memories.

“Sounds good.” She pauses and then asks, “Not to change the subject, but…” I grin. We’ve been together for a long time. I can picture what’s coming, “Can you do me a really big favor?”

“Absolutely.”

“I’m in the mood for a treat.”

A new shop called The Dairy Store has opened in town specializing in homemade ice cream. We go there a lot. “Let me guess, licorice?”

I can see her smiling on the phone, “You guessed it, Ronnie.”

“A pint of licorice it is.”

“Get something for yourself, too, Ok? Well celebrate.”

She doesn’t have to twist my arm. I can see a pint of salty caramel in my future. “Will do. Anything else?”

“No. Just hurry home, Ok? I’ve missed you.”

I check the car’s clock: 8:42. The ice cream shop is open until 9:00. “I’ll be home soon.”

“See you, Sport.”

“Love you, Babe.”

“Love you, too.”

I start the car, turn on the headlights, pop in a CD, turn around, and inch out to the highway where I put my foot on the brake and stop. It’s pitch dark out and the high beams from the cars coming from both directions temporarily blind me. I blink to clear my vision and wait a minute for a break in the traffic, listening to the music and taping my finger on the steering wheel. After a minute there’s finally an opening. I turn to the right and start shifting through the gears, accelerating down the hill toward town. Low level clouds have moved in and the lights on the buildings reflect a soft glow in the sky. There’s a feeling of calm to the night. Annie’s waiting for me and I’ll be with her in no time. I can’t wait. Those memories start playing in my head again, a lovely movie rolling on and on and on. It really has been a great life, one I wouldn’t trade for anything. And you know what another great thing is? There are lots more memories to be made, of that I’m sure. I’m looking forward to all of them. I shift into top gear and whistle a little under my breath, smiling as I head for home.

Part 2 – There’s More

Talk about the dark side of serendipity. With my visit to the cemetery over, it was time to go home. I was in a super good mood, finally having resolved my memorial issue, knowing my saying, “It was a great life” succinctly summed up what I wanted etched into my stone. It was time to move on. I waited and waited to get onto the highway, watching the cars stream by from both directions, idly wondering where the hell everyone was driving too; probably on their way home from work to family and loved ones, most of them were, I figured. My mind started wandering to tonight with Annie and celebrating my decision, and then to tomorrow with chores in the yard that needed to be done, and then to the next day going to my son’s house to take care of my grandkids… and I pulled it back, forcing myself to focus, eager to get back to my favorite place to be – the home Annie and had shared for so many years.

When a break in the traffic finally appeared, I pulled onto the highway, squinting against the glaring headlights coming at me, and accelerated my little Ford Fiesta down the long decline, shifting through the gears as I built up speed. The city lights of Long Lake shone in the distance, a mile away, reflecting off some low clouds that had moved in. I checked the clock on the dash panel:  8:47. Good, I thought to myself. I had plenty of time to get to store and buy some ice cream: a pint of licorice for Annie (her favorite) and a pint of salty caramel (my favorite) for me. The last thing I did was turn up the volume of the CD in the player. It was a local punk rock band the daughter of a friend played in. He’d given us a sample of a couple of songs they’d be recording next month and I loved them both – listening to them over and over again anytime I drove anywhere. Annie, loved them too. “I’m Still Stuck On You” was playing and I was enjoying his daughter’s lead guitar part – glad, in retrospect, it was the last sound I ever heard. Check that – the second to last sound.

As my speed increased down the hill my car was suddenly flooded from behind with light. My eyes flicked quickly to the review mirror. Way too fast, a huge bank of headlights was speeding at me, approaching full tilt like an out of control, fully loaded semi (which it was.) In a panic I jammed my accelerator to the floor. The engine revved to over six thousand rpm but nothing happened. My car seemed to float. Time went into slow motion. In an instant a wave of intense brightness overtook me, running right up and over me, blinding me and filling the inside of my car with exploding, brilliant light. The last sound I heard, drowning out the song, was a sustained air-horn blasting and blaring, filling my ears with unrelenting noise until my eardrums burst; then a cacophony of metal whining and twisting and crunching along with windows exploding and glass shattering as the huge semi ran right over my car, crushing it and me. Then there was merciful darkness.

A deep, endless void of nothingness.

For a long time.

The next awareness you have is that the darkness starts to swirl and take form, like some scientists think the earth came together back in the dawn of time. Then, out of that inky black night, white and gray clouds take shape, slowly floating and undulating. Then blinking flashes of light start to irregularly pulsate(kind of like heat lightening) before becoming more and more regular, persistent and intense. Eventually, out of the spinning, morphing, flashing ether, shapes begin taking form, irregular at first and indescribable. This goes on and on and on and you have no idea what’s happening. Now clue at all. In reality, though, it’s really a long preparation for what comes next – the next stage.

Eventually, the first scene comes into view. For me it was my granddaughter’s soccer game. She and her team were dressed in red and black jerseys and shorts and knee high socks and were playing on a lush, green grass field with yellow cones marking the boundaries. I could tell it was fall because the trees in the background were changing colors; the orange and red leaves were brilliant under a bright sun shining warmly in a robin’s egg blue sky. In the scene she looks to be six years old, a year after my car accident and death.

She must have been thinking of me. That’s how the memory recall works. It’s a give and take kind of thing. If she thinks of me I can appear to her in her memory. And the cool thing is that it really is me. Seriously. In the world I left behind, I always thought that my memory was just that – a recall of a loved one, person, place or whatever, and it’s really just an image in your mind. But I’m here to tell you that it’s much, much more than that. I’m out there all of the time (for eternity, actually) existing in a sort of dream like state. You know how sometimes you’re lying in bed half awake and half asleep? That’s how it is where I am now. When you think of me, I can almost materialize there beside you. Almost is the key word here. When you think you feel the presence of a loved one who has passed over (that’s what we say here, passed over) it’s a true fact because we are right there, but in a dimension just outside the reach of you guys. I know it sounds crazy, and you probably think I’m nuts, but it’s true. Believe me. Just read on before you chalk it all up to the ravings of a delusional nutcase.

The next time it happened was when there was a special dinner for my son’s promotion to regional manager for the company where he worked. His wife organized it and his family were all gathered in the dining room of their lovely new home with my granddaughter and grandson along with his wife’s mom and dad, brothers and sisters and their kids – it was a real party. Good food, high spirits, great times and lots of wonderful family camaraderie. The promotion was a very big deal for my son and I got to be right there with him (and his family, too) for the celebration because he was thinking of me at the time, wishing I was there to share it with him. He didn’t know it, but I was there. The way it works is that your thought or memory of me opens a door and lets me in. Because, like I said, I’m there anyway.

Let me tell you, this whole thing took some getting used to. I had no idea what ‘life after death’ would be like and, to be frank, didn’t really plan on anything thing happening at all. One day I’m here and the next day I’m gone was the rather cavalier attitude I took most of my life, and it certainly was the opinion I carried with me the night of my fatal crash. Boy was I ever wrong!

It works the other way too, just not as often because it’s something hard for me to do. (I’m still learning how to do it – it’s pretty complicated.) Sometimes I can interrupt (that’s what I call it) someone’s thoughts and move right in there to be with them. I have to be careful with this. I might want to see a loved one, say my wife, but it might not be convenient for her to see me (say she’s out to lunch with one or all of her sons. Interrupting her might take away from her time being with her boys, so I try to respect that.) The best time to come to her is when she’s home in her favorite chair, working on an embroidery project or doing some quiet reading. Her mind is free and open then. It’s a perfect time for us to be together. Or when she’s relaxing after she’s built a fire in the fireplace like we used to do, that’s a good time, too.

Here’s another example: Once, my son was at a crucial point interacting back and forth with a customer during an important sale, talking to the person, listening and responding to the client’s questions – those kinds of things. Well, I certainly wouldn’t want to interrupt him then, right? He might lose his concentration and miss out on making a sale. It might be better to wait until he’s driving home before I make my appearance. Then we can have time together that’s uninterrupted. (As long as he pays attention to his driving!). An even better time would be when he’s out for a long run by himself on a trail in the park near his home; that would work really well and be way less likely to cause an accident. Like I said, I’m still learning how to do this.

Another thing I’ve learned is that if you don’t use it, you lose it. I should probably explain. Again, I’m around all the time. If you think about me more, then I’m there with you more. It’s pretty simple, really. My wife, my kids, my grandkids and my brothers, even old friends, they’re all right up there on the top of my list of who I’m with the most. Other people, not so much. My best example is an past friend of mine who was planning on seeing me at my (our) fiftieth year high school class reunion. Well, by the time the reunion rolled around I’d been gone from this good earth for a nearly year, so…no Ronnie at the festivities, I’m afraid. As the years have gone by, I’ve haven’t popped up in his memory much, so…Sayonara old friend. Fade to black, as they say.

And this brings up a really good point, one that took me a long time to get a grip on: this afterlife is not linear at all. Not…at…all. Which is really pretty crazy and takes a lot of getting used to. One minute I might be hanging out with my brother as he hikes up to Table Top in the mountains of Arizona and remembers when we did that same hike together in the winter of 2016, and the next moment I’m with my youngest son when he’s remembering us riding our bikes together on a bicycle trip we took down to Le Sueur County when he was ten back in 1984. I can go from a birthday party for my grandson’s tenth birthday, to a walk with my wife around the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in the blink of an eye. I can be with someone in an old memory of us together in the past when I was still alive, or a new future memory when someone is thinking about me after I’ve been gone ‘X’ number of years.

The best example of this was me traveling with my wife and her sister to England three years after my death. It was a trip Annie and I had spent years putting all the pieces together for, and we were finally at the point where could actually get on an airplane and go. But I was killed before we could pull it off. Fortunately she was able to still fulfill that dream with her sister. They flew to England, landed in London and then took a train through the Cotswold’s where they dined in quaint little pubs, stayed in lovely little cottages and hiked on winding paths through woodlands, fields and hillsides. After twelve glorious days they took another train out to the Cornwall coast and to sightsee and visit the town where a favorite PBS show of ours was filmed. All of it unfolded just like we had planned. They were gone nearly three weeks, had loads of fun, and I was with them almost the whole time. It was a blast. (Thanks, for thinking of me, honey!).

So, even though you may think I’m not there, I am, as long as you take a moment and remember me. When you do, I get to be right there with you and it’s really pretty fun for me. The only negative thing is that the connection isn’t quite what I’d like it to be. I’m there, but I’m not. I see you, I know what is happening, but it’s all like watching a movie with the sound turned off. There are no voices. I can’t hear laughter, or music and anything. I can’t smell fresh air, or hear gulls squawking or birds singing or sandhill cranes calling. It takes some getting used to.

Also, it’s kind of lonely. I see the person who has remembered me, but I can’t touch them or talk to them or have any physical contact. Like I said, I’m just there. Which is good, in and of itself, and way, way better than the alternative, which is endless nothingness. And it’s also a start. I’ve witnessed firsthand others who have learned how to interact between our world in this dimension we’re in and with people in the physical world we left behind. It’s pretty amazing, when you think about it, and hard to explain. But I will tell you something: it’s not like phenomena experienced with people who call themselves ‘spiritualists’ at all. It’s way more complicated than that. But it’s something to aspire to, that’s for sure; something I’m currently working on. In fact, I have to tell you, there’s a lot to this afterlife thing that is still unknown to me that I’m continually learning about. Hopefully, I can keep you posted on my progress.

Another totally unexpected experience is probably one of the most fantastic things of all – I can actually be with my loved ones who have already passed on. I knew people when I was alive in the previous life who believed that this would happen, but I really never did. I was very skeptical and, I guess, had too much of the rational scientist in me. Boy was I ever wrong. I’m here to tell you that it’s true, which is, frankly…what? Amazing? Wonderful? I don’t know. Nothing can adequately describe the experience, really. I certainly can’t find the words. But it’s a fact. I can be with Mom, Dad, my grandparents, my beloved Aunt and Uncle and others –  anyone previously close to me who is now gone. Notice I say ‘Be with’. That’s the key couple of words here. I can’t talk to them, can’t hug them or anything like that, just be with them. But, I’ll tell you, that’s…just…fine…with…me.

A really good example is with my dad. When I was alive, I had wonderful memories of visiting him and walking with him on his favorite ocean beach off the Olympic Peninsula in northwest Washington State. We had only a few years of doing this before he died. I found my first sand dollar walking there with him. Those times were very special to me. When I was alive, I often thought back to when we would sit together in a cove of windswept sand as we talked and talked, something we didn’t do too often when he and Mom were married – back when he lived with me and my brothers in Minnesota. But we sure talked during those times, on that ocean beach, while gulls circled above calling and soaring on the wind, and sandpipers ran along the shore, dodging the waves that crashed nearby. He was relaxed and happy and so was I, and it was times like those I really treasured. After he died and was gone, all I had were those memories, which were good, believe me, and I certainly made the most of them because they were all I had. Now, though, we can get together and walk on that beach and see the ocean and be with each other and it’s fun. I’m never lonely, then. We can’t talk, of course, but being together with him is just as good as it was back when we were both alive. It’s excellent, in fact.

Which brings me to something  else. You may be wondering how people look ‘on the other side’. Would it surprise you if I told you they look exactly like they look in your memory of them? Well, they do. When I’m with my mom, let’s say, riding horses at the ranch in Montana we used to go to on family vacations, Mom is like she was then, happy, healthy and vibrant. Fifty years later, when she’s at the cafe where my brother and I used to play guitars and sing, she’s like she was at that time, older, of course, and grayer, but smiling and still happy. It’s pretty nice, actually, and I’ve learned to appreciate that no matter what the age is of the loved one or friend you are with, the thing is that you are there, together. It’s the most important thing, actually.

I think what I was most happy about, when I figured out how to ‘come back’, if that’s the way to put it, was that I could see how my family and loved ones were doing with their lives – how they were getting on after I was gone. I’ve been able to see my sons grow into fatherhood, find good jobs and become wonderful parents as well as loving husbands and partners. I’ve been able to see my grandkids grow up and become happy and successful in their own unique ways. I’ve been with my brothers as they have lived out their very full lives. I’ve been with my wife for the amazingly creative final chapter of her life and even seen her publish two books: one on having to do with childhood memories of her grandmother called, “Winters On the Prairie,” and another about an unsolved murder that took place on a farm down in Martin County in the 1900’s called, “The Drainage Ditch Murders.” (It was one we were both interested in.) Check them out sometime if you get a chance.

I couldn’t ask for anything more, and it’s way beyond what I could ever have expected.

Oh, I almost forgot. You’re probably wondering how I could write this if I’m gone from your physical world. I have to say that it’s a really good question, and I wish I had an answer for you. But I don’t. It’s a mystery to me, but I’m glad I can do it, though, aren’t you? I will say that I’m awfully new at this; it’s the first time I’ve attempted connecting like this with the life I left behind. I think it’s worked out pretty well. I might write more in the future. In fact, I’m pretty sure I will, so look for more to come, Ok?

The last thing I want to mention is this: You know that inscription on my memorial stone? That’s how this whole thing started, remember, and I was killed on the way home before I got a chance to tell Annie what I wanted, right? Well, after I was able to come back and be with my loved ones, I was with Annie one day when she went to Lakeview Cemetery. I remember it well. She got a ride from a friend who left her in the parking lot alone so she could have some time to herself. Remember how I had picked out a spot?  Well, talk about mental telepathy or whatever you want to call it, but Annie picked out a spot for my stone right in the same area. Not exactly where I had lain in the grass that October evening and relived my life through my memories, but close enough. She had it engraved and placed in the ground just a few weeks after I died.

On that particular day it was spring and seven months after my death, the day of my birthday, in fact. The sky was bright blue, and there was a nice breeze out of the south. The trees were just starting to bud out and Long Lake was clear of ice. There were still small patches of snow in protected areas but birds were returning from wintering in warmer climates and you could tell a change was on its way; a song sparrow was perched on a branch, joyfully pointing its head to the sun, early wildflowers were blooming blue and white, and a loon floated on the lake, occasionally diving and playing in the fresh, clean water. Winter was over. The day had a look of fresh, new rebirth, just the kind of day Annie would love. And she did. She made her way from the parking area to my stone and paused looking at it, remembering… She lay a bouquet of colorful tulips on the ground, reading the stone as she did. It was then I saw what she had come up with (probably with input from my sons) for the inscription. Remember what I had decided? It was a great life. Well she went in a completely different direction. I read with her, He was a good man. Well, that was sure a wonderful testimonial, don’t you think? It never once dawned on me to use something like that when I was alive. I have to admit, I kind of liked it. It was really quite sweet, all things considered, and thoughtful, too. Thanks, Annie and thanks also to my boys. It works for me.

Oh, Ok, wait a minute… I hate to cut this short, but I’ve got to get going. One of my sons is at a youth hockey game with his boy. The game is about to begin and my son is up in the stands getting ready to watch. He’s thinking of me and that’s all I need to be right there with him. I haven’t watched a hockey game for a long time so thanks for remembering me, buddy. I’m right here beside you.

I have to tell you that this is what I live for now, if that’s the right way to put it – the chance to still be with my family and loved ones and share their lives with them. Remember when I said the more you remember me, the more I’m with you? Well being at the hockey game now is one of those times and this is going to be fun. Could it be better? Sure. I wish I was really right there. I wish I could touch my son and laugh out loud and cheer when my grandson scores a goal, smell the leather of the skates and feel the cold air of the arena. In short, interact with life. But I can’t. I’m there in one sense but not in another. But at least I’m am with him. It’s better than nothing and that’s good enough for me. It really is.

So this is it and I promise I’m going now. When I was alive I never thought much about what happens after a person was gone. I really had no reason to, other than idle speculation mostly for the heck of it. But now I have plenty of time and I’m kind of into it. Figuring out how things work here is a great experience. And I’m still learning. There’s a lot to find out about, I know that for sure. But I do know one thing: there’s a whole other world out here beyond what I used to think of as the physical world. It’s taking me some time to get used to it, to understand it, and, I guess this is the way to put it – to live in it. But, hey, I’ve got eternity (as we say) to figure it out and that’s just fine with me. So remember – when you’re finding yourself missing me, just think of me and don’t worry about a thing. I’ll be there, right beside you. There’s no place I’d rather be. You can bet your life on it. I sure do.

Until next time, then…

I’ll see you around.

 

 

Published by Jim Bates

Here are Jim's publications: Resilience, a collection of twenty-seven short stories, was published through Bridge House Publishing in February of 2021. Periodic Stories, a collection of thirty-one stories, was published in March of 2021 by Impspired. Periodic Stories Volume Two, a collection of twenty-six stories, was published in July 2021 by Impspired. Short Stuff, a collection of thirty-two flash fiction and drabbles, was published July 2021, through Chapeltown Books. Something Better, a dystopian adventure novella, was published in July 2021, by Dark Myth Publications. Dreamers, a collection of thirty-six short stories was published in March 2022, by Clarendon House Publishing. Periodic Stories Volume Three - A Novel was published in May 2022, by Impspired. All of his publications are available on Amazon or through the respective publisher.

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