We are taught that the Greek philosopher Heraclites said, “You can’t cross the same river twice, because the second time it is a different river, and you are a different man.” I crossed the Washita River twice as I got close to the graveside yesterday. It looked the same both times I crossed it — full of dirt and water — and I didn’t feel much different.
My cousin Gary died. He is the oldest of my Grandma Winters’ grandchildren. I am the youngest. He started the string of births; I ended it. We are a pair of bookends.
There was a time the primary impression I had as I drove through Oklahoma was the density of Baptist churches. This has changed. These days the impression is the density of billboards for casinos and for cannabis. I believe the churches are still there. They will be needed.
Gary passed away in Texas, but was brought to be buried in the family plot with his wife, his mother, and his father. I’ve stood there before, by those graves. It has changed. The number of people present has ebbed. There are fewer of us left. We are farther away. We are older and less able to travel.
It is the same place.
We’ve All Been Here
There were children there. Gary’s grandchildren, his grand nieces and nephews. I’ve been a grandchild standing by a grave. I stood by the grave of my own Grandpa Sam with many of the people there. I stood by his grave with Gary.
I remember Gary’s children in diapers. I was with them in my grandma’s house. The floor had linoleum on it with a pattern of stylized stars. I remember Gary’s daughter toddling along that linoleum-covered floor, talking a couple of steps and falling on her backside, into the padding of the diaper. Then getting up to do it all over again.
She was there by her father’s casket with her own children. They will remember this one day, as I do now, as we all do. We’ve all been there; we will all be there. It is a thing that does not change.
There were people there I grew up with, who I played with all the time, and who now, and for many years, I only see at funerals. If time is cruel, distance is more so. Like rivers born on a mountaintop, we spread out from our sources. We get farther apart, until that final meeting in the ocean, the grave of all water.
The bagpipes played. The rifles saluted. The preacher reminded us of being led by still waters and being in the house of the Lord forever. We were dismissed.
And we lingered around. My brother and I talked with Miguel, the husband of one of our cousins, and told him our family stories, shared with him family secrets. He knew a lot of them already, because he has stood with us by this grave before, many times.
For a few moments, men long-dead were with us again, as we will one day be with them forever. There is one graveside. There is one grave. The river of our life meanders by it. We visit it. It is always there. We are never far from it.
Bobby Winters is assistant dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of mathematics at Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kansas. He blogs at Redneck Math and Okie in Exile. You can find his other articles, including the story of his father’s suicide, here.