Moss and Lichen

I stood over my daughter’s open grave and thought to myself, “It will be okay.”  The calm and peace I felt was so ill placed, but undeniable.  I remember thinking that the peace was welcome, but it was tinged with guilt, because what kind of mother experiences peace in that moment?  Sigh, always with the guilt.

Grief is hard and mysterious and layered and nuanced, knowable and unknowable all at once.  It is the ocean of my feelings about motherhood, swallowing the rivers and tributaries of love and fear and tenderness and fatigue and frustration that are commonplace for all mothers.  Grief overshadows everything, all of it, always.

In the early years after Donna died, in those first seasons of grief, I tended to my girl’s grave like I tended to my living child.  I fussed over it, nurtured it, tried to make a home for what would become my girl’s bones.  I planted bulbs, hoping beautiful things would grow from our sorrow.

Allium and hyacinth and daffodils and astilbes and iris.  There was research and nursery visits and awkward conversations with well intentioned folks in dirt covered smocks who didn’t quite know what to say when I told them I wanted to make a garden for my daughter’s grave.  Nothing worked, nothing grew.  Well, that’s not entirely true.  A few feisty allium grew, but the deer made a meal out of them.

Donna’s grave is marked with a slab of limestone that juts out from the earth and rests atop a small ridge.  It had to be rooted deep into the ground to ensure it would not move or topple.  Whatever was used to keep that stone secure did something to the soil around it.  It’s clay-like now, not like other soil or dirt you use to plant, and it doesn’t take kindly to hosting pretty spring blooms.

We chose a natural cemetery for Donna and it’s about 90 minutes from our home.  It was the only green cemetery in Illinois at the time.  I think there are a few others now.  There was no embalming and no concrete vault.  Sometimes I wonder if she is bones yet.  Donna was four when she died and bones is what she knew of death.  When you die, you become bones.  A green burial in a natural setting made sense for Donna.

After a few years, I gave up on the idea of a garden for Donna.  We bring flowers when we visit and leave pumpkins in the fall.  I choose tulips, generally, as deer like tulips.  They are delicious, apparently.  I try and remember to bring a small rake when we visit so I can clear off dead leaves and debris.

We visited on Easter, which seemed fitting, somehow.  He rises, but Donna won’t.  I was mad at myself for forgetting the rake.  I’ll need to get back soon to clear off the winter.  There were lots of dead oak leaves.  Easter Sunday was chilly this year.  It fell on April Fool’s Day.  Jokes on us, though, as there was snow and ice this morning.

Our youngest boy is four, the age Donna was when she died.  He is all about death and dying right now, his natural curiosity about it in high gear.  He was chatty during our visit, touching the limestone slab and walking around Donna’s grave.  My boys are comfortable in cemeteries, which is what happens when your older sister dies of cancer.

At one point, my sweet boy said, “The next time Donna is alive, I will teach her to practice not dying,” then he meandered away, looking at the graves of others he doesn’t know.  I keep thinking about his words, his naive, unknowing solution to something that makes his parents so very sad.  

In those early days after Donna’s death, we would walk around the woods that surrounded her grave and find rocks.  We collected enough that we were able to make a border.  The rocks are satisfying, weighty pieces of granite with smooth contours that fit in the palm of your hand, a few more are jagged limestones.

When we had work done on the front entrance of our home, I rescued two old pieces of manicured limestone that used to flank our front door.  They are cracked in half and felt like a fitting offering for Donna — bringing her a piece of home.  They now sit at the foot of Donna’s grave, one on each side.  We did with stones what we couldn’t do with plants, making a home for Donna’s bones.

The moss and lichen on Donna's gravestone, 4.1.18.
The moss and lichen on Donna’s gravestone, 4.1.18.

Moss grows on a few of those stones now and in these early days of spring, the moss is greening up.  It’s beautiful, really.  Some of the smaller stones have a lot of moss, others none at all, some just tiny little precious explosions of green no bigger than a thumb tack.  I love moss.  When you Google it, you will learn that moss is a flowerless green plant that lacks roots.  It grows in damp and shaded areas.  It is simultaneously ecologically strong and fragile.  You do nothing, and it grows.  It requires nothing from us humans to do its thing.  It just is.  It is beautiful and soft and delicate, like nature’s blanket, like Donna was.

Lichen, I’ve learned, is not a plant at all, but an organism, a living thing.  It is gray or green and crusty.  A bit like paint flakes.  Like the moss, it has made its way onto Donna’s gravestone with no effort or intention from the humans who love and remember her.  There is more there this spring than there was last fall.  The lichen is less comforting to me than the moss, but it is fascinating.

Walt Whitman wrote in Song of Myself, “The smallest sprout shows there is really no death, and if ever there was it led forward life . . .” Those are the words I think of when I see that moss and that lichen, those living things that cling to my girl’s grave.  “All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, and to die is different from what anyone supposes, and luckier.”

Nothing is as it was before our girl was diagnosed with cancer.  We are a different family, I am a different mother, but here we are, our sorrow existing amongst the moss and the lichen, growing, present, the closest to natural we will ever be.

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