In Print Again
It's been a while since I've had a by-line in print! While at the University of Arkansas Little Rock in 2019, one of my essays was chosen to be included with other students' work in a book published by the university. Some of you might recognize the essay as a blog post from 2013 when Eli was in treatment for the first time at St. Jude. The editor did ask me to write a conclusion, so the original text is written before Eli passed away. The book finally arrived today. The essay is below if you would like to read it again.
Aaron met me at the entrance where I was waiting in my car parked beside one of the stone pillars that welcomed visitors. The steady rain was no deterrent for him as he quickly exited the municipal pickup truck he was driving and came to my window. Though he did not smile, he had a pleasant look on his face and approached me with his eyebrows raised, ready and willing to do as I needed.
I rolled the window to a little more than a crack and said, "I'm just so sorry that you had to meet me to do this on a day like today; if I could do it without your help, or on any other day, I gladly would."
He smiled, and two gold teeth right in the front sparkled as he said, "No, ma'am, not at all. I'm glad to do it and would do it any time." And, I didn't doubt him; I could tell that he meant it. But a part of me wanted him to say, "Sorry, ma'am, we can't do this when it's raining. It messes up the landscaping. We will have to reschedule." But, he didn't, and his eyebrows rose as his smile leveled out, waiting for me to speak with instructions.
I didn't really know how to direct him. I was hoping he would take the lead, but I said, "ok, I guess, since it's raining, I will just drive around until I see a spot that seems kind of open and point it out to you somehow, right?"
Tiny raindrops rolled off the bill of his hat as he gave a looping nod and said, "That'll work. I will call it in to Laura and let ya know what she says. If she says it's sold, then just look for another one, and I'll check that one."
This seemed so inefficient and time-consuming; in other words, painful, even without the stinging ambiance of gloomy rain. But, I wasn't offered any alternatives, so I rolled up the window and began creeping the car along the paved grid of Roselawn Cemetery.
Three of our four kids and I had come home to Athens, Alabama, from Memphis, Tennessee, where Eli, our third child and oldest son, was being treated at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital for metastatic medulloblastoma – brain cancer. At seven years old - just four days after a Christmas where he felt too sick to see what Santa brought him - he was diagnosed and whisked away that same day to LaBonheur Children's Hospital in Memphis to resect the original tumor. Sadly, we learned that he had more than half a dozen tumors on his brain and up and down his spine. His spinal fluid was infected, and during surgery, the doctor discovered a "sugar-coating" of disease that had seeped into the gray matter of his brain.
The following months, as a patient of St. Jude, he would endure multiple surgeries, high-dose radiation to his brain and spine, and high-dose systemic chemotherapy; all the while fighting the peripheral effects of the toxic treatment, such as vomiting, debilitating muscular pain, incontinence, cognitive deficits, hearing deficits, and the destruction of his immune system leaving him vulnerable to death by common cold.
It was now summer, and Eli was in the middle of his chemotherapy rounds. His immune system had bottomed out as expected with chemo, so my husband, Vic, stayed with him during quarantine at the hospital. He could work remotely for his job, and he was much better suited for hours and hours of isolated video gaming than I was. Our other kids and I had been staying at a campground cabin for the summer in Horn Lake, Mississippi, a kind of suburb to Memphis, so that we could be a whole family at the times when Eli was able.
But, with him in quarantine, the kids and I came home for a couple of weeks because they had dentist appointments, eye appointments, and some summer activities at home they didn't want to miss. Eli was doing well. Having completed radiation and two of the four chemo courses at this time, he was having some good days - relative to the situation, of course.
A week or so before our brief trip home, I read the blog of a mother whose daughter fights the same brain cancer as Eli. The little girl had been hand-in-hand with death waiting for the door to open when she made an extraordinary turnaround almost literally from one day to the next. The mother wrote in a blog post about the sudden shift. I'm paraphrasing, but she wrote that one day she was picking out the white dress in which her daughter would be buried, and the next day she was picking out a dress for the first day of school. Though the message of her little Lazarus as a whole was positive, my heart fixated on the white dress. During what was thought to be the last precious moments with her child on earth, this wearied young mother had chores. I became terrified. Envisioning now what those moments were for her lead me to thoughts of what it would be like for me. I can only say again that I was terrified.
My weakness during Eli's fight so far has been manageable, but if this were me sitting at his deathbed, I would be a useless shell. I would be crushed inside, rendering me void of emotional, mental, and physical strength. I would be empty. How atrociously wicked of cancer that this mother need be concerned with such? What super strength did she process that she be able to plan her child's funeral during those last intensely focused moments at her daughter's bedside? I would have no cognitive function. I would not be able to focus on anything but watching his chest rise and fall, wondering if that breath was the last. However, neither would I want anyone but me to plan his memorial service. The final public recognition and record of his soul existing on earth must have my hand and heart in it.
I was troubled by this peek into the possible future but was grateful for the unintentional forewarning. Vic and I are both planners, always considering the practical. So it made sense that we should prepare for such an event while I was emotionally stable. I could approach the chore as just that, a chore, checking boxes. I do love to checking boxes. It may seem like I was giving up or had lost faith to plan for Eli's death, but the contrary couldn't be more true. It just made common, mature sense to prepare for any kind of event that may require focused attention, planning, and funding. On the flip side, we are also saving for his college. Plus, with Vic working less and making less money, we needed to know how much money to save from donated coiffeurs to pay for such an event.
So, with an aching dread in my heart, I secured a babysitter and made an appointment at Limestone Chapel Funeral Home.
I had only been to Limestone Chapel one other time for a visitation and didn't really remember much. I trotted up to the entrance trying to lessen the effects of the rain on my hair, and the door gave a soft chime as I entered. The foyer was deafeningly quiet and crisp. A man greeted me and alerted the funeral director, Mr. Blythe, to my arrival. I only had time for one cleansing sigh before he came out of his office. Now that I was in the building, I felt confident in our decision to do this, and I was ready to get down to business.
He led me to a plain white door that looked like a closet door, but when he opened it and I stepped inside, my breath left me. Behind the subtle door was a chasmic room in which I suddenly felt small and lost. Despite the airiness, the room was heavy, and I began to smother under its weight. My hands become clammy and my mouth dry as Mr. Blythe stepped in from behind me and gently gestured toward a chair that sat at a small conference table immediately upon entering. I took the seat that was offered and shook off the initial shock of seeing the casket-lined walls, miniature models of vaults, and rows of urns.
Mr. Blythe spoke softly as he patiently schooled me on caskets, vaults, the cemetery business, and funeral services. He then talked me through details of pre-arranging a funeral. We made a rough cost estimate of a casket for Eli, depending on his age and height at the time of his passing. I told him that if Eli lived to be 12, it would be a significant milestone statistically.
It wasn't until then that he revealed he knew Eli, or he knew Eli's story. He said his grandkids went to our school, and they prayed for him every day. His voice trailed off, and he began to straighten the papers in front of him. He cleared his throat and lifted his head to look me in the eye, and softly said, "Mrs. Williams, let me just say, before we get back to business, that I am honored to have you here in our parlor today. And, everyone here follows Eli's journey and has come to love him and your family for the strength and graciousness you all display. We can't begin…" His voice cracked and trailed off again, and he concentrated on straightening the papers in front of him. Gathering them in his hands, he tapped them on the edges and said, "Well, we are here to serve you in any way and every way that you need. Let's stretch our legs a moment and look at some models that we have here in the showroom."
I was slow rising from the table. I didn't realize how tense I had been sitting there listening, so my muscles had stove up a bit. We strolled from one casket to the next round the showroom, with Mr. Blythe pointing out the differences of the materials, the finishes, the linens. The caskets seemed so cold no matter how cozy the interior was made to be. Then on to see the urn examples along the walls. Shiny vases of various shapes, sizes, and materials, ornately trimmed or plain, lined the shelves, including a single hand-hewn wood box from a Mennonite craftsman who lived in a nearby community.
Through it all, I was clear-headed and maintained my composure, although I did have to remind myself to do so a few times. There was only once when I thought I might drop the reigns. Mr. Blythe said that we could put anything we wanted in the casket, and he gave the example of a man that loved fishing, so his wife put a lure in his hand. So, my mind took off on its own, envisioning a little blue Hot Wheels Mustang lying loosely in Eli's fingers. I almost didn't come back from that one and struggle with writing it even now.
We completed the funeral checklist, then Mr. Blythe helped guide me in the direction of purchasing plots. He, of course, was familiar with the cemeteries in the area and spoke highly of the municipal cemetery for price and upkeep. Next, Mr. Blythe gave me a planning packet to fill out so that if the time came, the details would be outlined and on file. With this completed packet, he could set the wheels in motion for Eli's funeral arrangements without bothering anyone at that time - which was my original motivation for the task.
When we were done, he gave me a Limestone Chapel umbrella and led me in his car to the Athens Cemetery Department.
He walked me to the office and introduced me to Laura, who had access to the database of plots sold. Laura had a paper map of the cemetery but could not tell me what plots were available without me first picking one for her to check. I had never set foot in the cemetery, so I knew nothing of the topography or the arrangement and couldn't choose from just looking at a map of rectangles. Laura was pleasant and helpful within her limitations, but it seemed a backward way to filter my choices of plots (We had decided to take this opportunity to purchase plots for ourselves as well). Nevertheless, she insisted that me choosing a plot then telling her was standard procedure and the only way to know what is available to purchase. She said that she would call Aaron, the groundskeeper, to meet me at the entrance. I could then choose where I liked, tell him, he would call her with the number on the grid, and she would look it up. We would do that over and over until we found an available set — what a painful process. So, with that plan, I thanked Mr. Blythe and headed to Roselawn Cemetery.
Nestled in the southeast quadrant of a major intersection, Roselawn is diagonal to the school where I attended and where my kids attend now. I pass it multiple times daily and have all of my life.
After meeting Aaron at the entrance, I drove around slowly toward an open area in the cemetery and stopped. The rain made the process even more awkward than it already was, but I took the umbrella I was given by Mr. Blythe and got out. I just motioned toward the big empty area. Aaron exited the pickup truck with a laminated diagram in hand that had turned yellow and soft from being rolled and unrolled for many years. He held it up and turned it around and around in his hands to get his bearings, then called Laura. Nope, that's sold. We went a little farther along the path. I got out of the car, motioned toward the open area; Aaron got out with the map. Nope, that's sold. We turned down another pathway and did it again. Nope, that's sold. Another path, nope, that's sold.
Ready and willing to give up, I drove down the backside drive, which runs alongside a narrow city street. I got out and stood at an open area on a slope between the city road and the cemetery drive. I just shrugged my shoulders at Aaron. He got out of his pickup truck and turned the map around and around while he talked to Laura on the phone and then gave me a thumbs-up; finally.
I didn't know what questions to ask about plots. It seemed nice as far as a space to dig big holes. The area was kind of to itself, not lost in the middle of the hundreds of other headstones. It was next to a footpath, and there were some big trees nearby. Across the city street is a thin area of wooded city property that runs alongside a creek with a trail on which I often jog. Did it matter? No. In 100, even 50 years, in infinity years, no, it wouldn't matter. But, I needed something besides it "wasn't sold" on which to base my decision. After all, I might be visiting this place often, mediating here if Eli were to pass, so I wanted to give it its due in the decision-making process.
So, I stood in the middle of the open area, and Aaron walked the perimeter to show me exactly where the boundaries were. He talked about drainage and recent landscaping that had been planted along the road. He spoke of traffic and the shade of the big oak nearby.
So, satisfied and relieved, I said, "Ok, well, hold block 189 for us," and then I told him that I would pay Laura after discussing it with Vic but that he was in Memphis with one of our kids. I gave him an "Eli bracelet" with a quick explanation of the bracelet and thanked him for helping me, especially in the rain. He said thank you for the bracelet and stood motionless for a few seconds looking at it. He lightly shook his head while he looked at it, then looked up quickly at me, then down at the bracelet again. He said he was sorry to hear about Eli.
Then he held that bracelet in his hand and kind of pointed it at me as he looked me in the eyes and said, "I'm gonna hold this block for ya for as long as you want me to. Don't nobody show these plots but me, so I know who's looking at what, and I won't let anybody get these. But you ain't gonna have to use one no time soon, so don't you worry about it or think about it anymore."
He put his head down again and frowned as he slipped the bracelet over his skinned knuckles and said under his breath, "no ma'am, no time soon." Then, he hesitantly gave me a little half hug because he was moved to do so and just couldn't help it. Then, he stepped away quickly and said he would pray for Eli.
The Wood Box
Countless times since that gray day, I've driven along the narrow city street behind what are now our family plots. The landscaping near the back line has matured, and drainage has been rerouted to accommodate bridge construction around the corner. A handful of headstones have popped up around our plots, but the grass covering block 189 remains undisturbed.
After a relapse, Eli passed away at the age of 12, five years after Aaron and I fumbled around in the rain to choose his final resting place. But I couldn't do it. No matter how practical or traditional or even how much planning had gone into picking that plot, I couldn't put him there in the ground until I was there, too.
So, the rustic wooden box made by the Mennonite craftsman from the Limestone Chapel showroom shelf holds Eli's cremains on our mantel for now.