Visiting Elena

Monday, Kim and I dropped Maggie at school and headed over to the Phoenix for coffee. Our first time back at a familiar place always seems so sad. Elena had never been to the Phoenix and yet we’d brought her there in our conversations. Among our swapping stories of the past day or so over coffee, one or the other of us would share a story or two about the girls.

So there I sit sipping my coffee, listening to Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man in Paris” on the overhead speakers, waiting for Kim to put milk in her coffee with tears quietly streaming. I’ve always been emotional about movies and music and never about real life. Elena’s death was the first real life thing I’ve cried about in years.

Joni sings about being “a free man in paris. I felt unfettered and alive”. She says, “If I had my way I’d just walk through those doors and wander”.

But wander where? I’m not heading down the Champs Elysees anytime soon. What is it I should be doing with my time? And then Kim joins me and I’m shaken out of the daydream I’d fallen into.

Two people stop next to us to talk to each other about their kids. One’s taking Tai Kwon Do the other is taking a break. What is yours going to take next session, mine is taking gymnastics. That sort of thing. Wonderful strangers focused on their children.

Kim and I are in no rush to go. We’ve talked about heading over to the cemetery to visit Elena’s grave. It’s one of the many things that we know will be hard but that have to be done.

And so we sit in the Phoenix sipping our coffee and chatting. I’ve known that the Phoenix is a bird that periodically burns and a new bird emerges from the ashes. The Encyclopedia Mythica adds two details I either never knew or have long forgotten. When the Phoenix senses it’s death is approaching it builds a next of wood that it sets on fire. I don’t know why, but I’d had an image of spontaneous combustion.

The second new fact for me is that the new bird “embalmed the ashes of its predecessor in an egg and […] would deposit the egg on the alter of the sun god.” I’d never much thought of the bird that died as being the predecessor. I’ve always thought of the bird as being reborn and so one was a different incarnation of the other.

Driven by an expiring parking meter, we leave the Phoenix Coffee House and head out to the car. We sit for a moment and discuss whether or not we are ready to visit Elena’s grave. Kim says yes but she’s not going to get out of the car. We’ll just park and look. That sounds right to me too.

We take the left onto Mayfield and then the right into Lake View Cemetery. A series of rights takes us to section 32 and Elena’s grave. It is the fresh mound of dirt next to the tree and the little bench.

I tell Kim I want to walk over to the grave. She wants to come too.

When you visit a gravesite long after someone has died, you walk past headstones until you find the one of the person you are visiting. The headstone is your focal point.

With a fresh grave, there is no headstone. Your attention is on the pile of dirt. You can’t help to be drawn to consider the body beneath.

On top of the mound of dirt, the flowers from the funeral sit withered and faded. They remain beautiful in their week-old state.

Kim and I head back to the car holding hands. Quiet. We’ll be back. Even in winter, it’s just what the man from the cemetery had told us. It’s a beautiful park where they happen to bury people.

As Joni might sing, it’s a good place to go when I “walk through those doors and wander . . . thinking how I’ll feel when I find that very good friend of mine.”

Published in: on March 10, 2006 at 8:17 am  Comments (6)  

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  1. For what it’s worth:
    Last night we were approaching the rush hour in our house- the kids were getting showers/baths, I was elbow deep in a sink full of dishes, the dog needed to go outside, my oldest was having trouble with his homework, and bedtime was fast approaching. My daughter came up to me, asking me to read her a book. I thought of the dishes, the homework, the rush of all that I had to do before bedtime, how flustered I was. Then I thought of you, and I thought of Elena. The dishes could wait. I dried my hands, settled her on the couch, made room for my other son to join us, and read them the book. Thank you, Daniel, for giving me that moment with my kids.
    Elena is still with us, spreading her love of life with total strangers like me. Thank you for sharing her with us, for sharing your family, for teaching me how to be a bit better as a parent, for reminding us all of what really matters. As a parent, I’m facing my worst fears through you, and learning to see what really matters through the clutter. I kiss my kids more, hug them tighter, tell them I love them every time I can. I look at each of them differenly, and cherish the little things that used to annoy me- it’s just them being themselves. You gave me that, you and Elena.
    Thank you.

  2. I can’t think of anything to say that will make you feel any better about this, but know that there are people who are thinking about you and praying for you and your family. My heart breaks for you.

  3. Last night, my wife was out at a school board meeting, and it was my turn to read to my 3 year-old twins. Partially because of this blog, those girls got the reading experience of their lives, as they have for a couple of weeks — ever since you started doing this. The books were “Green Eggs and Ham”, “Cinderella” and “Bernelly and Harriet”. And because of Elena, I read the living fuck out of those books. GHEH was a cliffhanger, full of gradually rising tension and intensity as the repeated insistence from Sam-I-Am gradually tried the narrator’s patience, pushing him to the brink of rage before acquiescence, and discovery created a natural denoument. You wouldn’t believe how much emotion you can put into “I do not like them, Sam-I-Am.” I was SCREAMING. “Cinderalla” was full of sound effects — I went and got a cardboard tube from a roll of paper towels, and made the Magic Mirror sound like James Earl Jones as Darth Vader. And “Bernelly and Harriet” was a social duel between a British matron and a Southern gothic protagonist. As long as I read them stories, I will try very hard to put that kind of creativity and intensity into it. And when I wake up my third kid, who’s seven, I usually just wake her up. This morning I started by whispering into her ear the nicest, most supportive things I could think of: “You are a tall, elegant, beautiful girl, with an incredible mind and beautiful brown eyes … ” and so on. That’s what Elena gave them yesterday.

  4. I didn’t have the nerve to face our cemetery for a few weeks after we buried our son. His funeral flowers were wilted and were a harsh reminder of what we lost. But now his marker is in place, there are new flowers, and a small sense of peace. I know you will find that too.

    I look forward to oneday meeting up with my son, and swapping stories. Such new journeys for all of us. Goodluck on yours.

  5. Kim and Daniel-I visited Elena today. I am a part of the Boulevard community and have been so touched by your words and reflections. I run with three other women-there are 15 children collectively! Two of the women are training for the Boston Marathon and need to seek out as many hills in the area as possible. Today we headed down the hill past the water treatment plant and looped around University Circle. A gritty route but beautiful as urban scapes can often be. The centerpiece of this route was Lake View Cemetary. We entered at the very bottom, right off of Euclid Avenue. This is the second time I have done this run. Last week I commented that the place had always given me the shivers. There is so much going on in such a still and timeless space. This week it was different. From your blog I knew where we could find Elena. We didn’t take any different route but I felt certain we would find our way to section 32. Sure enough, there was the tree with the bench. The four of us walked over and stood with her. We were silent with our own thoughts for a while. It was sunny and definitely a spring morning. I loved the fact that she is near an open space with trees embracing her. Last Saturday we saw a fox not to far from her spot. Elena is not alone.

  6. When my mother died the day after Labor Day 2002, I knew I’d have to go to the cemetery, and keep on going. She was so practical; she’d already purchased sites near my home and my parents’. Telling myself that she really wasn’t under that pile of dirt didn’t work. The main thing I couldn’t stand was the brown shriveled flowers and plants. I dragged them all to the crummy wire “trash can.” I haven’t been able to post to your blog till now. Thank you, and God bless you all.


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