I Know a Wall When I See One

by Melissa Mulvihill

I’m stuck on a dead-end road, in a cemetery, texting my mom.

The sun is low and the whole of River Road is glowing a blue hue that permeates the old-growth trees and the headstones and me. I’ve never seen the ether glow bluish before.

My mom and my dad are going to Jack’s visitation tonight, and then the funeral tomorrow night, she writes.

She tells me that she doesn’t know how Great Grandma Snook went to all of those funerals as she got up in years. It just reminds you of what’s coming for you as you age, she adds.  I imagine she typed that last part with a sigh. 

Great Grandma Snook wrote so often about death in her diaries that it seemed like practically everyone she knew died twice. She wrote at least half of those diaries before antibiotics were widely available, before anti-inflammatories, and before MRIs. She grew up at a time when an infected boil could kill a person dead.

Grief was, perhaps, more familiar then. If she wasn’t making creamed corn casserole and ham for the grieving, then she was ironing. I have no concept of how she survived so much grief-stricken ironing because she didn’t say anything about that part in her diaries, but she did go to all of the funerals and she did iron everything. I feel like this is about all anyone can do. 

I type all of this to my mom and add that visitations are barbaric.  Dressing up a dead body for an eternal party is questionable. I think this ritual is a symptom of larger issues in our death-avoidant culture, but I don’t type that.

North Cemetery is the last cemetery on my list to visit on this stretch of River Road. It dates from 1810, was originally part of a family farm, and sits on a steep, grassy slope held back by a thick, cement retaining wall with a wrought iron fence atop it. From the road, there’s no way to see the cemetery at all. The hill is too steep and the thick trees obscure any view.

The suspense has been killing me for weeks as I waited to be driving this way when the late daylight was right.

The stretch of blacktop leading into the cemetery can hardly be called a road. It’s more of a slice through the hill.  The whole cemetery is not even an acre long and only about 80 feet wide where I’m creeping across it. Also, this narrow thing that’s barely a road, leads directly into a wall. Just, right there in front of me, is a stone wall the runs the length of the cemetery, about three feet high, built on grass and some weeds.

I feel like I shouldn’t be here.

I glance all around, including behind me, as if might have missed the exact reason why my car is facing a wall and immediately I feel like I can’t stay and explore. I’m exposed. It’s unsettling sitting here in a graveyard, realizing that I cannot get my Palisade out of here without breaking cemetery protocol.

Maybe the person who designed this wall in this cemetery knew that things become most clear when there’s just nowhere left to go?

Before I back my car over the graves of strangers, I wonder what these people died of.

Did they die with an IV inserted, but not turned on, after they were shoved in an overflow hallway?

Did they die of kidney failure during a post-viral flare?

Did their colon cancer diagnosis come two months too late?

Did they die in childbirth?

Did their hearts quit pumping because of untreated strep throat?

Did a pandemic come and get them?

Or was it that pricker they’d forgotten about, that they chewed at and picked at, and that they thought was exorcised, that they thought they had relinquished but was actually buried deep in their palm?

I’m guessing at least some of them died of the thing that they regarded from a safe distance, hoping it would fade instead of becoming a torment of permanent gnawing.

 I pull things toward me; I push things out. Some things I hope for and some things get lodged in my chest, caught in my heart. I slip away and find this light because I don’t know what else to do and I wonder why the recesses of old life are always the darkest parts or if it’s just a trick of the light. Maybe the darkest parts of life just flow into the deepest recesses of our world and then if people’s hearts and minds just can’t reach in there, or just don’t, it all settles that way like a heavy, old silt.  

As I do a 10-point turn, because I can’t bring myself to pull my car too far towards any of the headstones, I look out over River Road on this west-facing hill, my chest welling up with the pressure of regret that’s so powerful my heart offers up several minutes of PVCs.

This hill is wasted on a cemetery.

A hill holding sentry over such a graceful bend on a valley road, lined with towering, drooping ancient evergreens is much better suited for my Gothic castle, and don’t think it wouldn’t have a drawbridge and a moat filled with alligators and a dungeon and a tower in which I wear loose shirts and leggings all day and shake my fist at the gods, while laboring over a period of not ending, which started just now this very minute and ends in an unpredictable way that makes everything seem just so blue.

We like to make it as if we’re all not in need of exactly the same thing.

Like we’re all not stuck here making funeral food and ironing.

Like we all aren’t scared we’ll end up on a road that dead-ends in a cemetery.

Like any one of us knows what to do about grief.

Like everyone here wasn’t just trying to get home.  

About the author:

Melissa writes creative non-fiction essays and poetry exploring rituals around living and dying and living with progressive illness. She has had essays published this year with Pangyrus Literary Magazine, HerStry, Anti-Heroin Chic Magazine, and Months to Years Literary Magazine. She has a B.A. in psychology from Kenyon College and an M.A. in counseling from John Carroll University. Melissa is retired from homeschooling and from counseling. She lives with her husband, who is an attorney, in northeast Ohio. You can find her essays and poems at melissamulvihill.com.

Header photo by Julia Kadel on Unsplash