Burial at Palo Alto

By Gemma Viridian

It was not a long drive up to the cemetery.

Even though the day was cold, the rental car had grown hot sitting out in the middle of the parking lot, away from the shade of the palm trees. Sun glinted off its pristine, spotless windows, winking at me, offering me an escape from the oppressive silence of the church behind me, its pews full of darkened figures and stifled sadness. But when we leave what is behind us we are always pitched directly into what lies ahead. There was still a burial to attend.

I climbed into the car, breathing in that strange, sterile smell of an unfamiliar vehicle. We were on the highway almost immediately, trees, houses, and businesses flashing past us. There would be no funeral procession here. Private tragedies do not stop California traffic.

I looked out the window and caught sight of the woman in the car next to mine. While ordinarily she might not have even attracted my attention, now she seemed so surreal; a being so implausible she might not actually exist. She had very blonde hair and wore huge sunglasses. She gripped the steering wheel in one hand and held a cigarette in the other, blowing smoke out the open window. I looked at her and I wondered where she was going, and where she had been. I looked and her and wondered if she was looking at me underneath those great big sunglasses, wondering the same thing. And at that moment, I wanted desperately to be that unknown woman, traveling off in some unknown direction to fulfill some unknown destiny. I wanted to escape from the rental car, its engine humming quietly while I felt like screaming at the top of my lungs. But I could not scream and I could not escape, so leaned my head against the window and let the cool glass soothe my burning cheek.

We left the highway and merged onto a quiet country lane that wound its way through the surrounding hills. Hundreds of graves passed by us, slabs of stone forever entombed in the grassy, sun-drenched earth of the little hillside. Beyond them rose a line of high, forested mountains where we used to go camping in the summer, and beyond the mountains stretched the brilliant blue winter sky, full of shifting cloud and endless wind.

We parked in a long line of other cars. Black-clad figures were already making their way across the grass to where the coffin stood, raised above the hole it would soon enter. My high heeled shoes slipped on the damp grass as I emerged from the car, standing up shakily. My hair escaped from the pin that held it off my face and was instantly whipped back with the wind. But somehow I preferred it that way. This place was different from the church behind me; it was less somber, less dark, less constricted. Brightly colored flower arrangements dotted the hillside Yellow and blue pinwheels spun and fluttered in the breeze. Wind chimes tinkled softly somewhere in the distance. The whole place hummed with an energy all its own, despite the huddled masses of the broken hearted that must gather there everyday. A strange golden haze lay over the rolling green hills that surrounded us on all sides, and at that moment, it seemed nothing short of magical.

I looked over at the coffin that held the body of my grandmother as though seeing it for the first time, and I remembered the woman inside. I remembered her quick laugh and her bright, lively eyes. I remembered the hugs she gave me when I was little and that strange pink sweater she used to wear. And for every tombstone that lay on the little hillside in that little corner of paradise, I knew there were thousands of memories just like mine, thousands of stories to tell, thousands of precious moments that would never truly be forgotten. They hung in the air as the golden haze hung over the treetops. They were the breeze that turned the pinwheels and stirred the wind chimes, they were the wind that caressed the earth and ruffled the grass. They were everywhere.

I do not know if there is a heaven or a hell. I have no idea what awaits me at my life's end. But that day I felt with all my being the presence of another world beyond the one I saw with my eyes. And I know that there are thousands of other blonde women all over the world, smoking cigarettes and driving down the highway towards whatever distant future lies ahead. They all have stories to tell, they all have their triumphs and fears and sob stories and embarrassing moments and breakups and makeups and times they laughed so hard they couldn't breathe. And somehow all those moments and memories and reeling, whirling emotions came together that day, at that burial in Palo Alto.

So I stood there with tears streaming down my cheeks as they lowered the coffin into the ground. I would never see my grandmother again. But I left the cemetery knowing that although her body might be six feet underground, she would live on forever in that little corner of paradise, surrounded by rolling green hills and warmed forever by the clear, California sunshine.