Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Thoughts on Mortality

A graveyard rests in a remote corner of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, far from the clusterfuckery of Gatlinburg and the bumper-to-bumper sightseers of Cades Cove. It is the kind that makes you ruminate about the transience of life on Earth, about whether we are wholly insignificant when all is said and done.

Though a sign identifies this small plot as Paynetown Cemetery, there is not even a building here, much less a town. The graveyard is engulfed by the forest and the nearest town is 22 miles away, with a population of only 620.

Most people who come here do so on foot, diverting from the Appalachian Trail and walking a half-mile down a gravel road under a canopy of poplar and oak. That half-mile doesn't even bring you directly here -- instead, it takes you to a footpath that travels straight up a slope and around a bend to the wooded knoll where the graveyard sits. The first time I walked the half-mile, in 2009, I encountered zero people and five bears (a young loner near the beginning followed by a mother with three cubs later on).

Looking at the tombstones, it doesn't take long to figure out that Paynetown Cemetery was an early twentieth century place of interment, for the majority show dates of death that fall between the administrations of William McKinley and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Every adult currently living on this planet was born during the same century that McKinley and Roosevelt occupied the Oval Office, yet Paynetown Cemetery is hidden from the world and known to very few. For me, this intensifies the sensation that we might be wholly insignificant.

Some of those entombed here beneath the soil were children when they perished. Does a single person living today know anything about them? Did they die of pneumonia that went undiagnosed because they lived deep in the country where medical care could not be easily had? Did they die of tetanus because antibiotics were not yet invented?

Most of the people buried here were adults, but the question remains the same: Does anyone today know anything about them? Was this man a carpenter or a writer? Was this one a faithful husband or was he an adulterous lech? Did this woman cook the best venison in the Southern Appalachians, or was she incapable of bringing stew to a boil?

All of these people were God's children. When they walked the earth they were undoubtedly of the greatest importance to someone. But flip a few pages forward in the book of Time, and their existence is all but forgotten. All that remains are context-free names carved into granite; or even into wood, in a few cases. And of course, granite and wood are destined to erode with the passage of time and eventually that erosion will make the carved names disappear.

Then what? Will there be any record, much less any passed-down recollection, of these people's existence on Earth?

*     *     *     *     *

When I think of Paynetown Cemetery, I think of Vu Bach. A child of Vietnamese immigrants, he aced every class he took back when we were students at St. Petersburg High School. Was he valedictorian or salutatorian of our Class of '89, or did he come in third and get neither title? I don't remember and it doesn't matter. Vu was destined for great things, sure to be a success, and everybody knew it and nobody was jealous.

He cemented one Asian stereotype with his academic prowess and defied another with his dry sense of humor. After high school he went on to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

In 1993, my first year out of college, I found myself working with the father of another of my high school classmates, a Filipino immigrant. His daughter was good friends with Vu. I changed jobs by the middle of 1994, but at some point before the change came, he came to me with a worried look and said that Vu had called his daughter and told her he had cancer.

As I recall, the cancer was of the vocal cords, but at the end of the day it does not matter which body part the cancer attacked. All that matters is that the cancer won. A person whose future seemed undeniably bright was barely out of life's starting gate when that brightness got extinguished. A person who never harmed a soul was taken from the world decades before his time, and the memory of him now seems to have vanished into thin air.

*     *     *     *     *

When I think of Paynetown Cemetery, I think of Uncle Emory. He was actually my great uncle, not my uncle, but I have never heard him referred to as anything other than "Uncle Emory."

He was married to my grandfather's sister and lived in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where he earned his living as the proprietor of a gas station. It was either an Exxon or Mobil, I don't remember exactly which, but of course it wouldn't matter today since the companies have merged and become ExxonMobil.

My grandfather was a Baptist preacher and family lore says that when Uncle Emory visited us Florida kin, he kept his gin stashed in his car because he didn't want to create waves with his pious in-law. He would always excuse himself to go out to the car and drink his "Carolina water" because he just couldn't stand the way water in Florida tasted. My grandfather (according to himself) always knew what was up and thought the lie was hilarious.

My living memory of Uncle Emory is succinct and has nothing to do with gin. What I remember is grapes. Muscadine grape vines grew along the chain link fence that surrounded his backyard, and I vividly recall walking with him along that fence and him picking one of the grapes and offering it to me. I remember thinking how cool it was that grapes grew on his fence.

Uncle Emory died of a heart attack while mowing his lawn in the late 1970's, and that grapes-on-the-fence memory is the only firsthand recollection I have of him. His daughter was murdered on New Year's Eve as 1994 turned into 1995. His son still lives, but none of his grandchildren ever met him. I am two generations removed from Uncle Emory and do not know where he is buried. When I die, will anyone remember that he was ever here?

*     *     *     *     *

When I think of Paynetown Cemetery, I think of Aysen Farfar, who was born in Turkey and reared in Michigan and lived much of her adult life in Florida. She was, like her obituary said, "remarkably bright, beautiful, compassionate, and generous to everyone fortunate enough to have been part of her life."

It would be disingenuous -- disrespectfully disingenuous -- for me to call her a friend when I knew her for only one year and only as a co-worker.

I did not realize until after she passed that she had been caring for her mother, a psychiatrist who is stricken with early onset Alzheimer's. But from our daily interactions, I do know that Aysen was thoughtful and selfless and inquisitive.

21 days ago I saw her at work like I always saw her. 20 days ago, relatively early in the workday, my department was called into a room and told that she had passed away overnight. The cause of death turned out to be a pulmonary embolism, one of those silent killers of a condition whose stealth is enough to scare you shitless if you spend more than a few seconds thinking about it.

When the news of Aysen's passing was delivered, it was surreal and people were devastated. We left work early -- before-lunch early -- to eat and drink at a tiki bar on the shore of Tampa Bay while talking about how unpredictable and sometimes crappy life can be.

Today, less than three weeks later, we go about our business like we always have. The wheel in the sky turns like it always has, and the world moves on like it always has.

*     *     *     *     *

When it comes to this topic, I am as guilty as everyone and perhaps guiltier.

I do not mean to imply that I think of the deceased more than thou, for I know I do not. It just so happens that I am in a pensive mood at the moment; and am leaving for the mountains in a few hours, which will bring me into the vicinity of Paynetown Cemetery, so here I am typing away.

One question I have is this: If you buy the "we are insignificant" storyline, does the thought of our insignificance make you feel better or worse about the universe and our place in it? Does it comfort you to think that we are actors in a drama that is far larger than our individual selves, or does that same thought trouble you?

Sometimes the thought comforts me and sometimes it troubles me. All I now for sure is that when you think of mortality, you can't help but be humbled all he way into the fetal position. And sometimes you find that position to be strangely and inexplicably reassuring.

No comments: