“For our mother Flora Park in loving memory.” So read, approximately, a small plaque on the backrest of a bench in the SF arboretum. crosses superimposed on garden benches

“Aaw,” I thought, “How nice that she was loved.” And then, “How sad that they lost her.”  For as far as the eye could see, and beyond, there were more benches. Every bench told of death and loss. At the very exit, the system was explained: 
SF arboretum bench tributes

But that afternoon I did not want to think about death, I wanted to think about trees and to celebrate my wedding anniversary. I had to admit, however, that if death does have a place, gardens are it: a place for quiet contemplation. There’s the cycle of life, the changing of the seasons, and depending on your skill as a gardener, just a lot of plant death, period. Our two family cats were laid to rest in gardens. When my father died, my mother and I got a flowering plant and planted it in the back yard where they used to garden together. I’m not sure how that made sense, but it did. I’m drawn to cemeteries on hills with trees. And yet, it seems that in order to carry on with life, we need to be in a bit of denial about death. Bench reminders do not help with that.

Some years ago, when my parents’ mortality was for the first time plainly apparent, I had to marvel at how everyone gets up in the morning, and worries about mundane daily things, or even medium-term life things, when WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE. But I carried on worrying about short-to-medium-term things. One of the best places to do that is work, which tends to be all absorbing, until, I was confronted with these, posted on office walls:

This was a reference to Sheryl Sandberg’s learning on resilience after loss, and maybe sometimes when I looked at those posters, I thought about resilience, but I always thought “Sheryl’s husband died,” with the associated pang of sadness. I had a reservoir of feeling about death, my father having died two days prior to Sheryl’s husband.  I might read “Option B” someday, but I’d have to get over the irony of using “option” in the context of death. Because death is not optional. We have to live with it, and without the people we lost. 

More recently I was in the Stanford arboretum on a guided tree walk, when the next tree of interest was right by the mausoleum.  I don’t think I’ve ever gone to the mausoleum intentionally, but I’ve stumbled upon it a number of times while appreciating the arboretum and the cactus garden within. It’s a monument to what I can only imagine was unbearable loss. The whole university is officially named “Leland Stanford Junior University” after, and established because of the death of, the only son of wealthy businessman/governor of California/senator Leland Stanford. The boy’s death mask is on display at the on-campus Cantor Arts museum, another earlier startling discovery. His body (along with that of his parents) is interred at the mausoleum.

Leland Stanford Junior death mask
More and more people might stumble upon the mausoleum now, with new construction encroaching on the arboretum (Jane Stanford had decreed that no buildings would be built within the borders of the arboretum but neglected to specify its borders). 

I have benefitted from others’ loss, their desire to turn that loss into something meaningful that will commemorate their loved one, whether it is benches to sit on in a beautiful garden, a book on how to build resilience (if I ever read it), or a university that has educated and advanced humankind. The price I pay is knowing of that loss, of having death surfaced to me, uninvited. 

There is no meaning in a particular death except the one we choose to give it. 

 

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