First appeared in the The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature
It’s a common thing around here. Family cemeteries in people’s backyards or somewhere on their land. On land that’s been passed down from generation to generation. There are currently laws on the books protecting this sacred land from development. Would you want to build a house here? Word on the street is when folks try to sell, they have to jump through all sorts of hoops.
Something you don’t think about really unless it affects you.
There’s a particular cemetery on a twisting, curving and sparsely traveled country road, where the sky is big and the panorama magnetizing. Back in the day I passed it regularly, when cutting down this backwoods road was a part of my daily routine. I used to look at and wonder about it- cemeteries do that to me. It’s been a while since I’ve been by or thought about it, but for some odd reason this cemetery has come back into my life in a whole new way.
Funny how things happen, no?
Across the street from the cemetery is a little church: Christ Church 1820. That’s what the sign out front says. It’s a white clapboard church topped with a steeple and has green-painted shutters on the windows and a set of tall and ancient, green double doors. It’s quite charming and interesting. Pretty too. It’s surrounded by woods and sits modestly on the side of the road, with a view of the river and mountains beyond. Folks say the church isn’t used much and I’ve never seen a soul there. They say there was talk of turning it into an arts center. I’ve always been curious about the whys and hows of it all.
You might be too right?
We get older it’s true. Some memories never cease and leave wounds and cause strife and make for bad dreams. They’re milestones or rites of passage and permanently mark a place and a time. You know how life goes- you have those kinds of memories too? Yet they can provide inspiration, although at the time you may not know so.
I have a good friend who grew up by this cemetery. If you knew him too, you’d know he’s light-years away from that childhood and place. Many years ago this cemetery was the second part of an important journey for him. At the time it was one of those “defining moments”, and still is. In hindsight so much goodness has come from it, and much to his chagrin.
He discovered his only way to live.
At least that’s how he tells it.
My friend told me that one night in the pouring rain, he was barreling down this road, heading east toward the cemetery and Christ Church. He heard sirens and saw police lights in his rear-view. They were coming after him. Being who he was he punched the car up to eighty miles an hour, and being he grew up by this road, he felt nothing but confident with its turns and bends. My friend kept that car moving and left the police way behind. No more lights.
Then he hit.
His car lost traction on a tight curve and he smashed through a big old line of pine trees, ending up surrounded by tombstones.
He slipped into black.
A helicopter transported my friend to university hospital. When he woke up he didn’t remember anything about the accident, except when he hit. And woke up. He was pretty banged up but the only thing on his mind was “the black”.
My friend says he died then.
Today he thinks of the accident quite often, especially when he’s driving down this road and passes the spot where he hit- the cemetery within view, Christ Church 1820, quiet and alone. As a matter of fact, I just heard this story last night while he and I were goofing around in the gravel parking lot next to Christ Church, when you’re killing time in the best of ways. It was pitch black, except for a flashlight and the big star-filled sky. My friend told me that before his accident he was melancholic and nihilistic about his life. It was all too hard going. But in the years since the black on that night on this road, his interpretation of everything had changed.
It’s great what a couple of beers can do.
But he told me about his journey, and that for him it was the beginning. He knows now with certainty he has a purpose and there’s a reason and meaning to who he is. That the way he saw things before was all wrong. That he’s in his exact right place and time. He knows that his purpose is to be true to his heart and do right. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.
He’s not nihilistic anymore.