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Memento Mori

This past Saturday afternoon, after the Saturday morning on which we laid to rest yet another family member – this one far, far too young –, I suspected that my usual four miles might be too far to walk carrying the burden of that grief. It felt ungrateful to remain indoors, though, on such a balmy afternoon. So I set forth. I’d made it just past the grain bins, roughly 200 yards, when I saw something along the edge of the road that I did not recall seeing before. One of the things you learn when you have more plants for neighbors than people is that the plants, like people, tend to move in and out. For every goldenrod and beautyberry that has shown up faithfully every September for the last 50 years, there is a hyssopleaf thoroughwort or a cornelian cherry that suddenly one year pops through the undergrowth like refrigerator biscuits coming through their cardboard can. This plant was one of those. There is an app on my phone that, utilizing a photo I take, identifies plants and animals (I’ve not used it on animals yet. Let’s just say that plants don’t have teeth or stingers.). Sometimes it asks me to take another photo from a different angle. Sometimes, even after additional photos, it acknowledges that it’s not sure exactly what the plant is and can’t be more specific than family or, at best, genus. But sometimes it knows exactly what I’ve discovered growing in a ditch or along the edge of a field and proclaims in big letters across the screen, “You’ve identified a new species!” I opened the app and took a photo of the tiny green plant with lots of short green leaves which the app immediately identified as St. Andrew’s Cross, native to this area, preferring our dry woods and acidic soil. When it blooms, it produces yellow flowers. I identified a few more plants as I strolled, not the least interested in getting any cardiac benefit and every bit interested in just clearing my head of the weariness that had been my companion for too long. There was hairy lespedeza and shrub lespedeza and camphor weed, which I’d seen a hundred times, but never named. I recorded paper mulberry and tropical milkweed and, just for the fun of it, walked into the field and confirmed that what Daddy and Keith are growing is “upland cotton.” And I smiled every time the app proclaimed, “You’ve identified a new species!” On Monday, I watched the Royal Family and the United Kingdom lay to rest their mother, their grandmother, their Queen. I confess to a fascination with the British monarchy that is beyond explanation or reason. I confess to taking sides when it comes to their intra-family shenanigans. I also confess to crying – more than once – during the hours-long pageantry of rites and ritual, pomp and circumstance. I cried for Princess Charlotte, only seven years old, in her mourning clothes and Princess Anne struggling to keep her face composed and the corgis watching their master pass one last time. I cried when the Queen’s Piper played, “Sleep, Dearie, Sleep” and the baby-faced pallbearers of the Grenadier Guards on the last leg of their journey strode slowly and confidently into St. George’s Chapel. And I cried when the Lord Chamberlain broke the wand of office signifying the end of his service to the Queen, even though I had no idea at the time who he was or why he did it. I listened to the hymns, the scriptures, the prayers and I was reminded, as I always am when I allow myself to be in the moment and let go of the urge to be productive, when I listen with my heart as well as my head, that we are all the same. For a moment, I stopped crying. I think I may even have smiled. Without the use of the app or even my phone, I had identified (or, more accurately, re-identified) a species. Its Latin name is homo sapiens, but we usually just call ourselves human beings. Royalty or commoner, British or American, whatever labels we attach to ourselves or others, we share everything that matters. We love our families, mourn our losses, summon the strength to perform our roles. And, as Queen Elizabeth observed over 20 years ago in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks in America, “Grief is the price we pay for great love.” Homo sapiens means “wise human.” We aren’t always. Sometimes we are petty. Sometimes we are prejudiced. At various moments we are lazy and ill-tempered and stingy. But even then we are alike and it is in our sameness that we find the ability to forgive, to heal, to grow. Copyright 2022

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