Tuesday, June 2, 2015

A Day To Remember

     About a couple weeks ago, I saw Auntie Susan in a dream (for background, see my prior essays In Memoriam: Aunt Susan and Memorial Services for Elders). She was vibrant and healthy again, with her pleasing raspy voice and encouraging and open words and eyes that showed concern only for others. The vision comforted and warmed me even as I wakened and couldn't recall anything more.
     I had been considering whether to take Jaren for his pre-Memorial Day scouting activity of laying leis at Punchbowl Memorial Cemetery (where active duty war veterans and their spouses are interred) and visiting our three relatives there: Auntie Susan, her Korean War veteran husband Uncle Thomas—who predeceased her by three years, and Korean War veteran Uncle Roland, who died in the 1980s in an overseas tragedy. 
     It had been over a year since Auntie Susan had died, and we hadn't yet visited either her or Uncle Thomas's markers, so I felt it was time.
     But there was a scheduling conflict with church on Sunday, so on the following slow Memorial Day morning, we all went and ended up parked a half-mile away (because it would be crowded at the cemetery), coincidentally beside another cemetery—this one upon a steep, ungraded slope covered with two-foot-tall weeds. Its numerous dilapidated head stones—some tottering at odd angles, some weathered and darkened with mold, most with Chinese lettering—had dates of the birth as far back as the 1800s. I noted a few of these to the kids but kept quiet about the sad paucity of flowers or other indications of recent visitors.
     Fifteen minutes later, we ascended the final approach to Punchbowl's entrance past a dozen three-foot-tall flags on seven-foot masts fluttering in the wind. One caught my face and Jaren said, “There's probably a lot of flags inside. 
     “Yup,” I said, “There'll be plenty.”
     “Maybe more than ten.”
     “You'll see,” I said, knowing each of the cemetery's thirty-four thousand markers would be adorned with flag and lei. 
     Bagpipes, one of the most maligned, mocked, and oft-ridiculed instruments around, especially as portrayed in numerous Monty Python sketches and the like, greeted us as we crested the hill and entered the cemetery proper. The instrument was held by a uniformed soldier standing roadside and as he commenced playing, the reedy, deep-pitched drone and high-pitched nasal squeals so unique to the instrument issued forth and I smiled ironically that this instrument had been the one selected to honor the dead on this most somber of occasions. We crossed the street opposite where he stood and I hummed along, picking out low bass and baritone notes, and shortly after we passed within a foot of him, he stopped playing, apparently because he had just been warming up or tuning/testing his instrument.
     At the nearby office we obtained maps to our relatives' sites and took a restroom break prior to walking the hundred yards to Uncle Roland's marker, which required some search even though we'd been there before and had a general idea of its vicinity because there were just so many identical markers! The locator numbers at the top lefts were often obscured by fallen leaves or overgrown grass, so we called out visible ones as we got nearer.  
     Now by saying that locator numbers were obscured, I'm not suggesting slovenliness or lack of maintenance. On the contrary, what Mom told us when we were kids still applies: “The best maintained parks (in Hawaii) are national parks. Next come state parks. The worst are county parks—especially the restrooms.” In addition to being national “park” clean, then, the Punchbowl Cemetery distinguishes itself with its peace and beauty; immaculate lawns, copious trees, and unmarred markers that are relaid level as necessary; and orderliness so apt for one of our state's most dignified final resting sites. Our extended family feels blessed to have our own buried there. 
     Prior to leaving our house, I had our kids choose and bring along a hand-made gift or toy they had lying around, so when we got to Uncle Roland's site Braden placed his beaded gecko toy in the lush grass alongside the lei and standing mini-flag. It was nice to see a vase of flowers there, probably left by Aunt Charlene, his wife, and I said a short prayer. 
     In the distance at the memorial's central plaza a band played a short piece before a small crowd seated beneath an open canopy, and two fighter jets thundered low and slow overhead.
     As we ascended the slope toward the mauka side of the cemetery where the columbarium was, the spot where Aunt Susan's final burial service had been came into view and it began to hit me—even as a cool breeze swept through on its course to the sea and the bagpiper, with quiet, slow dignified steps, belted out a sad, sweet tune—that I yearned to see Aunt Susan yet living. And it overwhelmed me—the gestures, place, time and remembrances that all came together in a sort of earthly perfection of loving heartache, causing me to feel both happy and sad at the same time. Tears blurred by vision and mucus dripped from my nose as I described the ceremony to our kids who hadn't been there due to school. 
     Upon completing our visit at Aunt Susan's and Uncle Thomas's combined marker, where Pene place her gold origami swan and Jaren placed his Lego motorcycle among vases of flowers, Deanne encircled an orchid lei about the plaque, and I said an awkward prayer, we headed back. Over to our left on a grassy slope the bagpiper—handsome and regal—played before a family seated on a tatami mat and upon completion gave a slow measured salute before marching on with slow solemn cadence. 
     I asked Braden if that was the way JROTC taught him to march?  
     He said, “Yeah, kind—of.”
     “Impressive huh?”
     “Yeah”, he said. 
     At our car, the contrast between the two cemeteries couldn't have been starker. I pointed out to the kids that the difference was attributable to Chinese immigrants being considered “less important” by land owners, so they were given junk land in which to bury their dead. But that no one in the eyes of God is less important than anyone else. Unfortunately, that's just the way our current system works. 
     Deanne mentioned that the same held true for my mom's relatives' cemetery in Honokaa (on the road out to Waipio Valley). I agreed and said that that was where Dad had first alerted us to such differences. She asked hadn't most of our closest relatives there been disinterred and re-interred either at Honokaa Hongwangi's or Honolulu Honpa Hongwangi's columbariums? to which I said yes.
     It had been a very meaningful (and for a me, moving) Memorial Day, an experience we won't soon forget.

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