By Tom Holmes
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. 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 who live in the concrete jungle. For some reason, the cemeteries in which I like wander best are the small Jewish ones strung out along the river. Many of the tombstones have petrified pictures of the “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 twenties.
And I realized that in just a few years, in the blink of an eye really, 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 which everyone will encounter. The third anniversary of my mother’s death was a few days ago. At 99 she worried about death about as much as she was concerned about what color pants the nurses aids would put on her each morning.
I’d visit my mom twice a month where she lived in a nursing home in Wisconsin. For the last few years she was blind and incontinent, but always glad to see me. 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 semi-monthly visits for anything.
In a way, that was my time to meditate in the crematory. Those visits not only allowed me to say good bye to my mother without any regrets, but they also forced me to meet my own death, so to speak, and get on better terms with it.
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 happen to meet your own death and get to know it better.