start taking my son, Avery, to cemeteries in early October. Avery likes cemeteries. When we come across a particularly steep section, he interlaces his fingers with mine, and I wonder how long he will let me hold his hand before he thinks holding his dad’s hand is embarrassing or that Holly and I are embarrassing. Avery tells me he loves me. He says, two hands, daddy, hold Avery’s hands with two hands.
I search for angels in these cemeteries. There are several angels at Mount Auburn Cemetery and three in Concord, Massachusetts near the home where Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women. I find angels and I touch their wings. I like how granite always feels cold. Some of the angels have missing feathers; other angels have scars where pieces have eroded over the years. One angel at Mount Auburn is missing her nose.
I think all angels are women, even the angels who look like they are men. Avery doesn’t know these women are angels. He calls them birds at first, and then after he gets used to cemeteries and the game he thinks we’re playing, he calls these granite angels bird girls. Sometimes he stretches his arms away from his body and moves them up and down, and I watch him and sometimes I have to squint because he is so beautiful.
I search for angels because after the big hole had been blown into my life, I started having these dreams that I was flying, and then my back began feeling like it was about to split open. The pain feels like a growing and breaking apart. I tell my therapist, Judi, that I feel something growing underneath the skin of my back. I tell her that I like to think that the growing is a pair of wings. Judi laughs when I tell her this. She says I’m hardly growing wings. She says I know I’m not growing wings. I tell her I know, but I like to think I am. She suggests I see a dermatologist or my primary care provider about what is causing my back to ache.
ne morning, when it is cold enough to sleep under a down comforter, I wake up in a pool of feathers. The feathers had stretched their way out of the comforter. Emily Dickinson wrote that hope is a thing with feathers. Maybe that’s what I feel growing inside between my spine and the skin of my back. Hope.
I search for angels because they were put in cemeteries to remind us of someone who is missed, and when I find an angel, I touch it, and sometimes Avery spins in circles, and sometimes we spin in circles together and we laugh and we dance. I search for angels and I find them and I read the names and dates of the men and women and sometimes children buried beneath the angels’ outstretched wings, and I wonder who picked out the angels. The leaves start to turn. Avery likes to pile them in front of the tombstones and jump into them. I help him and he tosses them in the air and I toss them in the air and sometimes I toss him in the air and I catch him and he laughs and above us angels smile or simply stare into space, blank. The leaves, when Avery jumps into them, crunch.
Christmas lights are strung on houses before Thanksgiving in the neighborhood where I live. An electronic reindeer moves its head from side to side in front of one house. An inflatable Santa Claus is tied to a fence in front of another house. Avery points to the lights and says, lights, daddy, lights. I ask him to tell me the colors of the lights, and he tells me, and he’s always right.
Avery is tired one afternoon and will not walk. I do not bring his stroller on our cemetery walks. No more walk, he says. Up, daddy, up. In a minute, I say. There’s a bird girl, I say, pointing to the left. Avery walks a few feet and stops. No more, he says. He sits in front a headstone. I sit with him. When he’s willing to walk, we get up. I look at the headstone. I think it says Rabbit, but I look closer and see what I think is R is really an aged and weatherworn B. Babbit. Not rabbit.
I recognize grief. A woman in black, standing at a headstone, flowers in her hand. A man in a grocery store, no list, putting items in his cart that seem like the types of items to put in his grocery cart, a strip of pale skin on his left ring finger where once there was a ring; even Holly, sometimes, when she and I pass our children back and forth. This is not the life she signed on for. My life is not the life I signed on for. But this is life, and it is messy, and doesn’t always go the way we want it to go.
We celebrate life in cemeteries, not death. We mourn, because we are taught to mourn. We buy flowers. We cry. We say he went too soon, or he is in a better place, or the pain got to be too much in the end.
Broken relationships are also places of beginnings and endings. We mourn because we are taught to mourn. We throw out flowers. We say we are better off, or we’ll do better next time. We cry even though we don’t think we’ll cry again. We look for love in places where we don’t think we’ll find it. We wonder if someone had really signed the do-not-resuscitate order.
The weather becomes too cold to continue going to cemeteries with Avery to search for angels, so I stop. I have learned that everyone’s life is a big hoped-for plan with missing pieces that you only glimpse now and then. You can never stop hoping that you’ll run across what fits.