Another day. Another assignment from the writers' conference. This one was sparked by a poem by Marie Howe called "What the living do."
What the living do
By Julie Q.
Each year on his birthday, for the first part of his life, Vincent Van Gogh visited the grave of his dead older brother. I picture Vincent—wild-eyed and serious, even as a young child—facing the grave stone and staring long and pointedly at the letters and dates carved into it. I picture him watching his mother cry for the stillborn baby, the baby who shared Vincent’s own first name, shared his birthday, shared his rust-colored hair. Did he see his mother’s coldness towards himself and her tortured grief for the first child as a sign of her preference for the dead over the living? Did he ask the ghost of this first Vincent to walk beside him for all of those 37 years? Did he, as some suggest, paint this dead brother numerous times? Give him what he lacked: adult form and textured presence?
Each year on the Sunday closest to my birthday (which happens to fall near Memorial day) I visit the graves of my two dead brothers. This is what the living do. I help my sisters clean off the headstones with paintbrushes and water collected in a plastic cup from the nearest spigot. My mother brings a pair of gardening shears and trims the grass away from the edges. In the months between our visits, the grass always encroaches. It covers the lips of the stone and must be trimmed and pushed back, like nail cuticles. My father stands next to the boulder, the one the cemetery agreed to roll next to my brother’s grave after a careless driver let a tire stray too far off the gravel roadway and crack the headstone.
When I was younger, I would help more with the tending of my brothers’ graves. Now I have to keep an eye on my own children, remind them to stop running in the cemetery, pull them away from the water, keep them off the road, tell them again the stories about why my brothers died, the one with the backwards heart, the other—the one I remember only as a gush of fluid on the stone entry-way floor and as a tranquil baby in an orange sleeper, resting in a coffin the size of my dollhouse—the other, I was told, who was born too perfect for this world. And I watch my mother—my beautiful mother—who was not cold and who was not crazy except maybe a little crazy to have had so many children and to have not cried every single day for the rest of her life for the loss of these two alone. I watch her. And I marvel. This is what the living do.