During two of those beautiful Indian Summer days we had a few weeks ago, I spent some time hanging out at Forest Park’s “Other Green Space.”
The space I visited is only a five-minute bicycle- or car-ride from the corner of Madison and Circle, near where I live. After parking my car, I found one of the benches scattered throughout the park-like environment and sat down under the shade of an old cottonwood tree. The sound of traffic was muffled by the many pines, oaks, maples, poplars and cottonwoods on the grounds. A squirrel scampered through the grass and up a tree. Birds sang in the branches. A white butterfly flitted by.
A doe and her fawn checked me out before turning and disappearing in the brush growing along the Desplaines River. A jetliner flying overhead reminded me that I was in the middle of a huge metropolitan area, but the peacefulness of the place reminded me of rural Wisconsin. I sat for an hour in the quiet and didn’t see a soul.
Forest Park’s cemeteries provide acres and acres of beautiful, tranquil, natural, green space to us dwellers of the concrete jungle. For some reason, the cemeteries that I like to wander the most are the small Jewish ones strung out along the river. Many of the tombstones have petrified pictures of a “beloved mother” or “beloved father” buried beneath them. I imagine what their lives were like, what challenges they encountered, what joys they had in life.
I often find myself making up stories that might fit the picture of the Eastern European guy pictured on the tombstone who looks like he just got off the boat, or the rather pretty woman who died at the age of 82 but whose picture was taken when she was in her 20s.
While I was strolling last week, I realized that, in not that many years, I’ll be six feet under like they are, and people will see my name on a slab of granite and wonder what my life was like. That realization, I suspect, is why more of us don’t take advantage of Forest Park’s other green space. Hanging out there makes it impossible to avoid the prospect of one’s own inevitable death.
It’s really too bad that we aren’t more comfortable with death – our own and the eventual deaths of those we love. It’s like the joke about the old couple sitting on a park bench and the wife says to the husband, “If you die before I do, I’ll kill you.”
At Halloween time we make fun of death, and in video games we cause virtual death and destruction, but that doesn’t seem to help us come to terms with the real thing. Our culture encourages us to avoid it. Fewer and fewer people seem to attend Ash Wednesday services each year (“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”) and many of those who do, make sure to wipe the ashes off their forehead before going out in public.
Buddhist monks in Thailand will sometimes do their daily meditation sitting in the temple crematory. They don’t do it to be morbid, but rather to make friends with a reality that everyone will encounter. The third anniversary of my mother’s death was a few days ago. At 99, she was as concerned with death as she was with the color of the pants that the nurse’s aids were wearing each morning.
Near the end of her life, I’d visit my mom twice a month in the Wisconsin nursing home where she lived. We’d spend a lot of time just holding hands. I didn’t enjoy seeing my mother slowly go downhill, but I wouldn’t trade those visits for anything in the world.
In a way, that was my time to meditate in the crematory. Those visits not only allowed me to say goodbye to my mother without any regrets, but they also forced me to come to terms with my own mortality.
If the weather warms up in the next few days, think about making a visit to Forest Park’s other green space. You might see a deer. You’ll certainly see some squirrels hoarding acorns away for the winter. And, who knows, you might get to know death a little better.
Tom Holmes has worked in Forest Park since 1982 as a pastor and as a writer. He is grateful that his children grew up in this town and finds inspiration in the personal relationships he has developed with so many.