Walking in graveyards

Being a parent means confronting the question of what to do with all the time.

It’s most acute on weekdays after school. I pick my son up at lunchtime but mummy is usually not home until mid-evening. The hours can stretch long before me, daunting and empty.

Homework fills some of the gap. My son also has the wonderful ability to invent his own games which temporarily distract him.

There’s also the option of just dropping him in front of the TV or iPad and knowing that he will be able to pass several contented hours. But my instinct tells me that this is lazy and should be controlled rather than encouraged.

Being an only child also means that there is no brother or sister for him to play and fight with. When he gets bored in the afternoon he always comes looking for me. Unlike mine, his reserves of energy seem to be limitless.

So I try to be organised and creative, always having a physical task on the agenda. We go to the playground on a couple of afternoons, maybe one day a treat in a cafe or a trip to the lake to feed the ducks. Sometimes I try to get him involved if I’m creating something in the kitchen or take him for a ride on his bike.

And some days we just go for a walk and have a little chat.

It’s a fine Autumn afternoon. The wind is blowing the red and brown leaves across the road like a blizzard. We’ve already been to the park and now we’re strolling. It’s a gentle and aimless walk, filled with his questions about the world.

We walk into the grounds of the large church in the centre of the village. It’s not a spiritual gesture but my boy loves to run on the large strip of grass in front of the dark, imposing steeple.

We play races for a bit, bringing a tut of disapproval from the elderly couple leaving the church. I’m a little chastened but my boy is wonderfully unaware and is gaily throwing leaves into the air.

I ask him if he wants to see inside the church but he prefers to stay in the open air so we follow the path which goes around the side of the building.

Then we meander down the steep little path which takes us into the graveyard.

We haven’t decided to come here, there were no words exchanged. We’ve just ended up here, almost by accident, like one of those autumn leaves being blown randomly in the breeze.

My son knows what a graveyard is. Once, when he was quite a bit younger, he told me he was looking forward to me dying because he liked to visit graveyards. He understands a little of the concept but hasn’t quite worked it all out. Just like his daddy.

It’s an old-fashioned graveyard. The type that you often see beside ancient churches with lumpy ground and crumbling crosses and gravestones haphazardly laid out. There’s no logic or order in evidence. The site is from a time before it had occurred to anyone that they might run out of burial space someday and turned interment into a professional and organised business.

We walk along the narrow paths and pass some marble plates which have Biblical quotations etched on them. My son asks me what they say so I read the verses. He knows a little about Jesus from what he’s learnt in school.

Then he starts to ask about the gravestones. Some are large and shiny, with golden letters chipped into the black stone. Some are so old and worn by the years that it is impossible to read the inscriptions. Some have a lot of information, like the one about the man killed in the helicopter crash. Others just have a name and a date.

But my son goes round them all in turn, pausing briefly at each one and asking me what it says.

Fresh and brightly coloured flowers have been laid at some of the plots while others are overgrown and neglected. Several of the older headstones have fallen over.

There’s a little wooden bench at the back of the graveyard. I gingerly sit on it and when I’m satisfied it will take my weight I allow my son to move next to me. I’ve brought him a packet of crisps and he munches happily while he begins to pepper me with more questions.

He asks me what happens to people when they die. He asks me if God is the biggest man in the world. He asks me why some of the graves have little children in them rather than old people. He asks me why people have to die.

None of these are questions that I know how to answer and I don’t try. I just give neutral responses and tell him there are lots of things we don’t understand and that lots of people believe different things.

He’s momentarily confused because in his world his father should have a simple answer to all of his queries. But it passes soon enough and I pull him closer to me on the bench. I tell him that this is a place where people come to remember those that they loved. After a moment he tells me that he likes the graveyard.

Then it is silent. Silent apart from the sound of his little teeth crunching. Some of the crisps fall lightly onto his school trousers but he doesn’t notice.

We sit like that quietly for some time. There’s a beautiful unspoken intimacy that I can’t bear to break with words. A closeness that I want to last forever. A fear that once it’s gone I may never be able to find it again.

The wind is getting up again. My son hands me the empty crisp packet and I wipe crumbs off his fingers. Then I tell him that we’d better go and get mummy’s dinner ready and we walk out of the graveyard, his little hand inside mine.

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