The Caretaker Of Broken Dreams..
“We’ve buried dreams, laid them deep into the earth behind us. Said our goodbyes at the grave, yet everything reminds us. God knows we ache, but he asks us to go on… how do we go on?”
I’d been wandering through the same leaves, the same graves… struggling to remember exactly where he was. It had been years since I’d placed my hands on the earth that held what remained of a brother I never got the chance to know.
The caretaker must have seen my wandering. He gently approached me and asked who I was looking for. I couldn’t help but notice the kindness in his eyes… his voice. He didn’t ask me what grave I was looking for, he asked me who I was looking for. I told him my brother’s name and he gently led me over to his grave… mere feet away from where I was standing. And isn’t that the thing… so often when we feel utterly lost, we’re closer than we know to finding what we need?
I traced his name with my fingers, brushed leaves off his grave. Funny how we want to tend and take care of things for people we love who are gone. I think sometimes these small, tender acts simply remind us of what once existed, remind us of what’s been lost.
I never used to visit the cemetery. When they put up a memorial for children who’d died in a local park and my brother’s name was etched into the stone, I didn’t want to attend the ceremony. Who wants to feel the weight of that loss again and again? For many years, I’d it pushed down, held it at bay, the pain and grief of loss. I thought that maybe if I held it down, swallowed it deep, maybe I could avoid the crushing ache of it.
And for many years… that worked. Or it worked as well as it can when your body is holding onto an aching sadness. Because the thing is, you don’t just lose a person, you lose the way it feels like your life should have gone. You lose what you thought would be your life. And you can only hold that for so long until it comes busting out.
25 years after losing my first brother, I lost the only other brother I’d known. And his loss was sudden, traumatic, and crushing. What was the last thing I said to him? Did he know how deeply I loved him? Was there something, anything I could have done to save him? That loss sent me reeling, and yet I quietly pushed it down. How do you put words to grief that shakes the foundation of what you thought you knew?
Three weeks after losing him, two surgeons took out my womb, and my hope for carrying more children ended more abruptly than I was ready for.
Although, who is ever really ready to bury a dream?
And in the months that followed, it felt like I dug a grave of loss so deep I’d never climb out.
I buried a brother, then the dream for more babies, a job I loved, a place I loved, a marriage, the life I’d known for the last decade of my life. All buried in quick succession. And in burying those dreams you bury other things. You bury relationships, spaces, and places that you once fit, things you used to be sure of, your sense of worth and belonging.
And again, I pushed it down, held it at bay… Until I couldn’t anymore. One morning several months later, I woke up and the tears came and wouldn’t stop. They bubbled over until my body trembled at the weight of what they meant. I was fully feeling the loss. And they’ve been coming ever since.
And at first that scared me. I felt ashamed. Was I falling apart? Was I weak? Why couldn’t I keep it together? Why couldn’t I just put my chin up and move on? Life is hard for everyone, and my trauma is small in comparison to other people’s. So why was it a struggle just to get out of bed and face the day?
The caretaker told me there was someone with the same name as my brother and asked who he was to me. I told him that was my grandfather. I thanked him for helping me find my way and watched him go about the care of a place that holds many buried dreams. My eyes scanned the sea of graves and I wondered… How much care and compassion must he have to know the names on gravestones? My breath caught at the nature of his work. But more than that my eyes welled at his kindness.
I knelt next to the grave, raked my fingers through the ground, rolled up my sleeve and laid the tattooed ashes of one brother alongside the grave of another. And my heart broke at the beauty and devastation of that moment.
It had taken 27 years… but I was fully feeling the loss. I was acknowledging that it mattered. Sometimes we need to say their names. We need to speak about the broken places. We need to dig our hands in the earth where our dreams have been buried. We need to allow grief to be part of our story instead of trying to move forward as if we are the same. Because we aren’t.
I ran into a dear acquaintance at the grocery store recently who looked into my eyes and genuinely asked me how I was. The care and compassion on her face was evident. And as we embraced she said something I will never forget “I’m on your side… no, there are no sides… I’m in your corner.” I looked at her and nodded “No, there are no sides…” I repeated. She told me how she’d read an article recently about how no one brings casseroles to people going through divorce. And she reminded me that it’s okay to gather up your people and weather the storm with them, without explaining where you went. She reminded me that sometimes the places and spaces we so desperately wish were a safe place for our pain, simply aren’t. And that maybe the beauty in all of this is that we can be a safe place for someone else walking a similar road someday. Because there is nothing quite as healing as knowing you aren’t alone.
So how do we go on…? How do we put one foot in front of the other in this life that now feels new and unfamiliar? How do we make sense of the loss, acknowledge it, feel it, and yet still move forward? How do we live it and not lose ourselves in it? My deeply insightful answer is this: I don’t know. I don’t know how to do this well. Maybe none of us do. There is no manual for this. No one can tell you how to bury dreams and carry loss well. We just find our way, wrack our hands through the dirt that carries our loss, and attempt to wrap our arms around people walking a similar road… letting them know they aren’t alone.
And cemetery caretakers and women in grocery stores may just be balm to our wounds, if we let them. What I find deeply beautiful about pain… is the way it brings out compassion.
So might I say something? Today, be the cemetery caretaker and help someone who is a little lost find their way…. Be the woman in the grocery store and stand in someone’s corner without needing to know the story. Be the balm to someone’s wounds. Err on the side of compassion and write the note, send the flowers, make the casserole, pay for the coffee of the person behind you, wrap your arms around someone. Give them the balm of your kindness, help them find their way. Or, kneel next to them in the dirt, ask them how they really are, and trace the pain of their losses. It’s what will help them go on.
Death, loss, divorce, the estranged family member, illness, childlessness, financial crisis… the list goes on. We’ve all buried dreams. We’ve all racked our hands in some kind of dirt and whispered “this wasn’t how it was supposed to go.”
I sat there for awhile, arm stretched out, brother next to brother, fingers etching a grave, hands feeling the dirt. And then I looked up to see the caretaker tenderly digging in the earth. I don’t know why. I do know it felt an awful lot like love watching a man carefully shovel dirt and tending to loss in such a profoundly intimate way. Maybe we could all learn a thing or two from the caretaker who spends his days carrying losses and helping people find their way.