It is a time of caring for cemeteries and graves, taking flowers and other tokens to those tiny pieces of real estate just large enough for a casket and a monument. There is discussion of perpetual care arrangements. Thought is given to perpetual, or at least multi-generational, caring.
Some years I get a suggestion from some reader that I might “write about your father’s grave again” or “write about the wild violets on the grave.”
This year no one made that suggestion. But one person did say, “Wasn’t there a grave at Forest Lawn or a place like that, and you wrote about that?” And a while ago someone wrote telling me he always liked “your Jim Bishop style writing when you felt like it.”
No secret, Jim Bishop was one of my role models, as was Mike Royko. And I have written about a certain grave in the Buffalo area.
An actual mentor, in a different field, was a guy who was No. 2 in the legal department in the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene. We “interfaced” back when I was very active in the New York State Association for Retarded Citizens, Inc., and served on the Legal and Legislative Committee with a bunch of brilliant lawyers, and interacted with the DMH legal department and with bill drafters and some legislators who were friendly to our cause, and some deputy commissioners who were not.
That legal eagle in the DMH, whom I’ll call Two, was very helpful on many occasions. His heart was in the right place. He looked like Dick Gregory and Sammy Davis Jr. and Arthur Ashe, as much as one person can look like three.
Once Two tried to explain to me the legal concept of perpetuity. After laying out the principles in some detail, and putting up with many requests for further clarification, he finally lost his usual manner of speaking, which was cultured and crisp with a hint of Jamaica-British, and dropped into Harlem-esque. “Actually, Martini, there ain’t no per-pa-TOO-ty.”
My dad was spending quite a lot of time in Roswell Park Memorial Institute, off and on. I would go up there from my regular beat, sometimes attending a staff meeting at the Buffalo Courier-Express (I was their Allegany County Bureau), and then spending a day or two up there in Buffalo East, with Dad all day and in a nearby rooming house by night.
While Dad was napping or in treatment I would visit with other patients on the seventh floor, Head and Neck A. Dad went from room to room playing his accordion to those who asked him to, when he was able, and he made many friends in that little “community.”
One was Claude, an African American. He did not know his birth date or age, but he did tell me something about his life as migrant worker and dock worker, and that he could not read or write. He was the most emaciated human being I ever had seen. Skin was tight over his bones and sinews. It was almost impossible to keep IVs in his shrunken veins. He craved candy bars, and music.
He had an old letter from one daughter, but did not know where she was. Its worn envelope bore the last address he knew of. I read and re-read it to him, at his request. Then I wrote letters to her at his dictation, and sent them for him; but they came back every time. Still he wanted to try again.
Friends? “Moved around too much. They was a few, but I s’pose they be dead now.” He would smile a little (smiling was an effort). “I see them LAY-ta, up THEY-a. They ain’t goin’ no place else.”
The respiratory therapist sang ”pop bel canto” like Sammy Cooke, to himself, as he wheeled his cart through the corridors between patients. I asked him to sing to Claude sometimes, and he did. Oddly enough, Claude often requested Stephen Foster songs!
I told my DMH attorney friend about Claude, and how sad it was that he had no one. He could not reach his daughter; she would not know where he was. “Well, he has you,” said Two.
I would call Roswell from home several times a week, checking on the condition of Dad and some other patients, and always asked after Claude. Even when Dad was back home, I checked on Claude.
One day I was told, matter-of-factly, that Claude had “expired.” I asked what would happen if no one claimed the body. “There is a Social Services arrangement,” the information person said. Claude would not be a very useful cadaver.
When I mentioned this to Two, he was unsurprised. “Yes, I am sure that is how it is with many patients there.”
Quite a while later I was at a NYSARC conference in the Buffalo area, and Two was there. During a break he suggested that I take a drive with him, in his state car with Excelsior on the door. “I want you to see something,” he said, mysteriously.
He drove to the most beautiful cemetery I had ever seen, rolling meadows and little groves and patches of flowers and winding paths and some brooks and miniature foot bridges. No monuments, but small, flat markers.
There was one for Claude. An approximate birth date, and the date of his death.
And, in quotation marks, “Gentle voices called.”
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