Cemetery Small Talk
Updated: Jul 8, 2022
I was up at the cemetery the other day, sitting in the sun and the breeze, enjoying some solo time out of the house on July Fourth afternoon. It’s maybe a quarter-mile from the house, a few acres of grass with a handful of gravestones (including my brother’s) in the northeast corner and a cluster of towering black locusts at the south end. Neatly contained by split rail fencing at the front and barbed wire at the rear, it’s perched on a rise with views of the hollow cutting through the hills to the east.
I take my chair up there often, almost always alone, and never confronting a soul. When I arrived on Monday, the gate was latched shut―the first time I’d seen it that way. I approached to get a look, backed up and repositioned myself: I couldn’t see over the fence rail from the seat of my chair. Instead of standing up to get a look, I angled the chair and lifted a leg to the mechanism. Doubting my necessity for hilltop cemetery time, I almost gave up when, at first, I couldn’t reach. But then my left shoe found the release and I was in.
I kicked open the gate and drove through. I put my chair in “Indoor” mode (essentially half-speed; at its highest setting it does about 6.5 miles per hour) and moved slowly over the bumpy lawn. I’m never quite sure what the chair can safely do: I’m afraid it’ll tip over, particularly on a side hill. I guess because my core is so weak, the pull of gravity on uneven ground seems more severe. Whether the danger is real or imagined, I always try to drive straight up and down hills. The next time I go, I’ll follow the tire tracks between the bush and the rock outcropping to the crest of the hill.
I was sitting atop the hill, occasionally turning myself in the sun, annoyed at the relative lack of wind and resulting gnats encircling my head, when an Outback slowed and pulled onto the grass, perpendicular to the road. An elderly woman with shortly cropped white hair and what turned out to be her daughter hiked slowly up the incline. I’d noticed a new grave on this visit; they went straight for it.
I was only about ten yards from the headstone and a few moments after they arrived, I turned, said “Hello,” and began to inch toward them. I’m not one for making small talk with strangers, especially since my speaking voice has grown weaker, but I felt unusually peaceful and unafraid.
As we made introductions and chatted about the setting, the new headstone, and the funeral they’d had about a month before (I told them I’d been by that day), two points of interest came up. One was my chair: the old woman said, “Oh, those electric wheelchairs are great,” referring to a friend or family member’s experience. The other was my brother, who I voluntarily brought up (I almost can’t believe it myself) and whose grave we collectively walked to.
I knew that with both items, they had questions that would go unanswered. Well, unless I did something outside of the norms of polite society. As they looked at me in my chair (I’ll spare you the description), they had to wonder why I wasn’t walking like them, an overweight fifty-year-old and her mother. As we stood over his grave, and the daughter said aloud, “Nicholas John,” (choosing not to say “Methot,” for fear of mispronouncing it, I imagine) they must’ve wondered what had taken my brother all the way back in 2003.
I didn’t volunteer information on either occasion, but I think I’d like to in the future. “I have ALS. That’s why I use the chair. I wasn’t always in a wheelchair.” It might be awkward for them to hear, but isn’t knowing the truth worth a little awkwardness? I know I’d have no problem getting the words out. My brother would be different; I don’t know, after all these years, if I could answer their unspoken questions without difficulty. “He was a runner. His heart stopped in the night a couple weeks after running his first marathon.” I’d like to try to climb that fence if I get the chance some time in the future, set aside my momentary fears for something greater.
I don’t know why this stuff should sound so bold; why should we be so afraid of a little reality, of our emotions? I’d like to try to nudge myself a little towards testing my social fears. More broadly, when I pause in those moments of anxiety and my inner desire to avoid confrontation, I’m going to try harder to take the road of least regret.