jr maxwell's gravestone
November One, my thirty-seventh anniversary in the mountains, and fourth anniversary of the passing of friend Jr Maxwell. On this day, Melia Edwards, Jr's cousin, and I get together to visit the grave, have a sip of some liquor and pour a sip on his grave. She said that earlier in the day she had looked out the window and saw a rainbow above the hill the cemetery is on. She felt it important, significant, having to do with Jr on his day. As I turned off the road into the driveway toward the cemetery, I saw a dozen or more buzzards take to the air, flapping and whirling above me on their way into the sky. I am not one to see a buzzard a bad omen. I take a buzzard symbolic of wisdom. Jr remains in my memory the wise man I have found out here in the world, not sheltered by a cardboard box on a sidewalk in Calcutta nor sitting cross-legged in an abandoned Hindu temple. It took three to four years of sitting with him every evening over a drink of good liquor listening to him tell his life in two-hour chapters. As I came to know him better, very early on I had a glimmer of a suspicion that Jr had a great deal of wisdom in him. I paid attention and in the last two or three years of knowing him, sitting at the table with our drams for two hours an evening, I sat and listened the very same as at the feet of the Master. I can't say he became my spiritual master, but I could see very clearly he was given to me by the Master, by God, to learn from, and ultimately to serve as one would serve the Master.
hh the dalai lama
As he went into his time of infirmity in his mid 80s, into his feeble period unto unable to care for himself, even feed himself, I felt I was given this opportunity to care for him as I would the Master himself, God in human form. It's not like I had Jr held up so high as to be a Messiah. Not at all. Not anywhere near. I saw him a soul in God's grace unlike others I have known. He stayed away from church, had little to no respect for preachers. One of his favorite sayings was, Tighter'n a preacher's dick in a calf's ass. He told of a time when he was a boy, probably twelve or before, at the Whitehead Store, he and one or two other boys were standing out front talking, horsing around. A preacher who lived up Spicer Mtn Road stopped by on his horse. He had nothing good to say to the boys, but to give them lectures on their ways. Jr picked up a chestnut burr and, without preacher seeing him, he lifted the horse's tail and placed the burr under the tail on a very tender part of the horse's skin. When he slapped down on the horse's tail up close to the rump, the horse took off running and kicking, the preacher couldn't control it. The horse ran past the turn up Spicer Mtn Road and took the preacher for the ride of his life. Knowing Jr and knowing a few of the men who were boys in Jr's childhood, I can see them rolling on the ground, their stomachs hurting from the laughter.
They were rougher people than we are now. Now, the concern would be for what happened to the preacher. Then, the preacher was on his own. If the horse threw him, all the funnier. But in the time when somebody rode a horse everywhere he went, he knew horse behavior, and it would take more than a horse having a fit to throw him. In a world where everybody rode horses, everybody was thrown by a horse at least once. As long as it didn't draw blood or cause permanent injury, it was all right. Jr bent over laughing at the memory of the moment. I know Whitehead Store, the road, the whole scene, even the attitude of long-faced preachers that would be reminding boys of their wayward behavior. It was not that he was a preacher so much as his attitude. The boys disliked him because he never spoke a civil word to them. Sitting at the table hearing Jr's memories educated me in so many ways I could not articulate them all. It would be the same as asking me to name my five favorite Bob Dylan songs. Impossible. What is my favorite poem by John Berryman? Which of my pets was my favorite? Unanswerable questions. All that I learned from Jr makes a logjam in my head and there's not enough time to pick apart the logs. I do not exaggerate when I say in the last years of his life, including the period of dementia that took his mind away, I took care of him with the same reverence as if he were the Master, himself. I believed by then I was sent to him to learn and to assist him in his solitary last days. I took it as my spiritual role. It was my opportunity to serve the Master by serving "the least of these," the humblest man I ever knew. Not a trace of his humility was for show. Humility was the core of his personality.
I came to know Melia over the period of time Jr was fading away. We bonded as friends as I did with everyone who cared about him. Melia and I decided to meet at the cemetery November one, have a sip and include Jr. Her mother Edith and her husband Joe joined us the first year. Mother joined us the next year. This year it was Melia and me. We are the ones committed. Others are welcome to join us, but it is important to us that we honor the day every year. It is a time for us to get together and remember Jr, telling memories of him, laughing over him, the way he would want to see us if his spirit might have a chance to see us there. We don't know, but we hope he can see and hear us. The Jr within each of us was present. We stayed in the cemetery talking and laughing as long as we felt like it. We'd had a big wind the night before that threw plastic flowers all over the cemetery. She arrived a few minutes before I did and she was picking some of them up when I arrived. She poked them into the ground beside the tombstone making a row of multi-colored flowers. A bee found them and flew back and forth across them, evidently having a hard time switching circuits from instinct that goes back millions of years to the sudden age of oil where some of the flowers are plastic. We laughed at the bee with an air of pity for its frustration. We don't get the modern age either. It was self-pity we were projecting onto the honeybee, a Monsanto survivor, alone in its illusion having to deal with flowers that are not flowers.
We were standing over a dear one replaced by a block of granite with letters and numbers carved in it. We could not have asked him to stay ten minutes longer in his exhausted body. The time was right for him, we know we can't have him back. We were happy for having him in our lives, and we know he went to the light. We would not call him back for our egoic benefit. We celebrated that he is in the light and his soul is happy as a soul can be. This is what we would want for Jr, and this is what we have. This is what we celebrated. We were both grown up enough to know dying is what we do. Jr predeceased us and that's all we're really sorry about. We celebrate his role in our lives as if he were with us in the present. I almost never visit the graves of people I know who have gone on. I put no importance in a grave except as disposal of the body. I mourn that the bodies are kept mummified in vaults just below the surface. I can't help but feel that decomposition of the body to return literally to the earth where it can nourish tree roots is a cycle worth honoring. I'm recalling a time when our friend Jean was at the table with Jr and me. She was talking about why she'd rather be buried than cremated. I mentioned that I'm going with cremation and ashes dumped on the ground in the woods. I said, "I want to be fertilizer." Jr said, "Y'already are." This is the humor that Melia and I miss when we think of Jr. I will laugh about that one the rest of my life. I laugh every time it comes to mind. We remembered our friend today in laughter, much good laughter, refreshing laughter. Good for the soul. Thank you, Jr.