The town seemed smaller, a town already so small it could fall off the map, unworthy of a dot at two intersecting highways. Lincoln was born in a wilderness cabin, he liked to say, to console himself for a childhood unobserved and unobservable. When asked where he grew up, he would say: in the Southern Illinois cornfields.
When he first returned home after 22 years, he found few changes. His second visit, 14 years after that, was different. His classmates were entering their 60s now, and in various states of calcification or decay. Neither he nor they could ignore their shared losses.
As a boy, he detached instinctively from the insanities and pains around him. He was from another planet, he sometimes felt, a barren place with a population of one. Only much later, he understood things about his seemingly “normal” classmates. They too were born of sorrows: a house of hoarders discovered at one home; a brutalizing father in another; the urine stained bedsheets of the high school star athlete, the disappearance of the loose girl who became pregnant, the drunken death of one classmate who married the devout Catholic girl, the dairy farm-boy who moved across the country, never to return, the high school bully who ravaged his brain on drugs. For a country school class of forty, the casualty list was long.
His trip out to the cemetery was only a mile or two, but seemed longer. He felt that sense of dread that comes with seeing gravestones. A few bits of data summed up in stone: hard dates of arrival and departure, not much more than a train schedule.
He was the last evidence that his parents had managed to reproduce. He was born just before his mother entered menopause, and his father, then in his forties, a heavy smoker and drinker, still had a few good sperm. He was living proof that every one of us is a miracle, and some of us more than others.
Forty years ago, he had brought a shovel out to this planting of the dead among the corn and beans. It was a bitter winter. His mother had purchased adjacent plots when his father died. All his life, they had slept in different rooms.
He shoveled the snow off his father’s grave site, and worked to level the hard frozen clumps of freshly turned earth. He wanted to give his family respectability, to show that someone cared.
He had not cried for his father. He did not cry at his mother’s funeral either. He remembered a sense of sorrow, shock and numbness. In the forty years since, maybe once or so a decade, he wondered why he had not cried. He wondered if he lacked love and feeling. What kind of son was he?
(c) FXP 3/9/2013