There's a cemetery near my house, and it's beautiful. Paved avenues winding up and down the hillside, shaded by pines that rise tall as cathedral spires. A mausoleum like a Greek temple. Fields of scrupulously trimmed grass, sprinkled with gravestones of every imaginable size and shape. Flowerbeds freshly turned, just waiting for the annuals that will bring them to kaleidoscopic life.
I took a walk through the cemetery and breathed in the fragrance of rain-washed earth and new grass. I listened to liquid silver birdsong, watched squirrels spiral up trees and down again, and walked carefully between the graves to visit a cluster of just-wakened snowdrops. The flat green surface of the river, sluggish after the long winter, was beginning to eddy into life. And down the long paved sweep of the cemetery hill, four teen boys were lugeing on their skateboards, full of youth and strength and the folly of spring. One of them fell off, swearing amiably, and rubbed his sore bottom as he tramped back up to the top of the hill to try it again.
My father is eighty-four years old, stooped and thin-haired and leaning on a walker. His leg bends backward at the knee and he has to wear a brace to support it; he has a tremor in his hands that the doctor says is just old age and nothing to worry about, but he cannot stop them shaking. He is largely deaf, and his hearing aids can only do so much, so he has cultivated the art of sitting quietly and with grace in a room full of conversation he cannot follow. He preaches with all the thoughtful wisdom of a life genuinely lived for God, and spends most of his days studying the Bible and talking about it with others—from the pulpit, on the telephone, in letters and e-mails and magazine articles.
As often as the weather and his own good health allow, my father walks through the same cemetery where I walked today. He has a plot there, unmarked but reserved for him and my mother whenever either of them should need it, and when he passes he hails it silently, like an old friend. And today, when I went to help him with a computer problem he was having, I found that he'd been writing up the wording he'd like to put on his gravestone.
"I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep [in death], lest you sorrow as others who have no hope," wrote the apostle Paul. He also wrote, "Death has been swallowed up in victory."
My father is in the autumn of his life, and he is not afraid of the winter. He is only waiting for the spring.