July 24, 2014

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Uncle's Last Trip

An icy January morning, 6 a.m. It is not my habit to be awake at this hour, in this season, but I have an appointment to keep. Kilometers away from here lies the village where I will bid farewell to my mother's brother. Ninety-one years old, and he still has the courage to be taken for a ride in this weather.

Mitsos (my car) is still torpid after a chilly night in his shed - oil gummy, spark plugs frozen. As I pry open his door, startling him out of his hibernation, he creaks, "Are you out of your mind? It's still night!"

"Sorry Mitsos, but it's an emergency. We have to go and say farewell to Uncle."

"To the airport?'' he asks.

"No, to the cemetery."

We arrive with the sun well up over the hills, but the winter chill still lingers in the air.

Leaving Mitsos to commune with the other cars, I enter the cemetery. Among the wreathes and flowers and marble monuments, the mourners gather - dressed in black, faces wearing masks of sadness (most with sunglasses), exchanging whispers and perplexed glances.

"Who is that one with the fur coat? Is that Elena? My God! How old she looks. I wouldn't recognize her if I met her on the street." Kinfolks who see each other only on big occasions like weddings, holidays, or funerals.

I look at my watch. Ten o'clock - Uncle is running late. Someone behind me whispers, "They will plant him around 11." Ninety-one years of human experience reduced to potato mounds and fertilizer. He adds, "Those who do the planting are never on time."

With an hour to wait until the "planting," I decide to take a walk in the cemetery. I like to visit cemeteries. Some people are uncomfortable even thinking about death. This is only fear of the unknown. I feel peace there, and respect for the past. I feel many things - but not fear.

Every season in the cemetery has its own character.

Spring feels like faith and hope for a wiser life.

Summer feels like the coolness of the grave and the dry spirit of humanity.

Autumn feels like the scene of a crime, sad and vaguely guilty.

Winter, like today, feels like a stasis, and the only warmth is in the shelter of the grave?

I walk from one grave to another, trying to find Grandpa and Grandma. It's been so long since my last visit, I can't remember where the family tomb was.

Then I notice an old man sitting on a grave, munching some sort of snack and drinking steaming coffee from a thermos. I approach and ask him if he can help me.

Gazing out across the rows of graves, he points toward a tomb in the distance. I follow his direction and quickly discover that he is right: there on the tomb are the names, birth dates, and death dates of my grandparents. I feel a chill - an anxious tremor in my bones, and Mitsos comes to mind. He will never believe this. Probably tell me it's what I get for waking him up so early.

I return to the old man, who is finishing off the last of his coffee. "Thank you, sir. That's the tomb I was looking for. But how did you know where it was?"

The old man smiles. "You came for the funeral of your uncle - or rather, for the restitution of the elements your Uncle borrowed for the making of the body he would need here in this world. It is like in the army: they loan you the uniform you will wear for your military service and then, when your time is over, you give it back.

"At the moment, however, your Uncle is not making good this obligation. The family is taking care of that."

I dare to ask, "What's he doing now?"

"He is reading."

"What is he reading?"

"His diary."

His diary. Maybe something is wrong with this old man. Mitsos, you're going to kid me when I tell you all this.

"Sir, I'm not sure I understand what you mean. I didn't know my uncle kept a diary. And if he did, he's certainly in no condition to read it now. What are you talking about?"

He smiles and says, "You are right to wonder! Let me introduce myself. I have been the guardian of this cemetery for more than 50 years. I live in a small place behind the cemetery chapel. I have quite a lot of experience with death - which I call freedom - and I'm pleased to make your acquaintance."

Relieved, I shake his hand. Something inside tells me that this is not a random encounter.

He continues. "Every soul, as we say, that emigrates to Earth with a borrowed material body, takes a diary along in which to record all the goings-on of the life it will live, without omitting anything. When the so-called soul leaves the earthly life, the only thing it takes with it is that diary with the behavior of its life recorded in perfect detail. It finds a quiet place where it goes and reads slowly and with great attention all that's in it, especially lost memories, forgotten facts...

"Analyzing the right and wrong, wise and foolish, good and evil of its former life, it then decides whether to return to earth. Many souls want to come back - some for vengeance, some for love, some for wealth, some because they miss the sensuality of the body. And believe it or not, some return so that they may learn to be wiser, better souls.

"There are others, though, that do not want to come back to this world. They are ready to travel to a farther destination: a place so sublime that the saintliest person on earth would be practically a criminal there.

"The reason for all this? Balance. Everywhere there is equanimity. In this physical world and that perfect world and all worlds in between, things are shifting, migrating, seeking their natural place. And until equilibrium is at last achieved, ta panta rei, as Heraklitos said. Everything moves."

"Does anyone else get to read this diary - some sort of cosmic judge perhaps?" I ask.

"No. One must judge the thoughts and deeds of this life by himself, recognizing his own mistakes. It is a personal matter. It has to do with one's own progress and enlightenment. Nobody has the right to judge anyone else."

In the distance, I hear Psalms being read. They take away my attention from the old man's sayings, and I realize that Uncle's moment of returning his borrowed elements has arrived. After thanking the nice man for the interesting chat, I hurry to the grave to follow the deliverance of matter.

On the way home, I'm reflective and silent. Mitsos asks if I'm OK. "Just fine, Mitsos, thank you," I reply.

In fact, I'm feeling better now than when we started, thanks to that old man. It was not just by chance that we met in that cemetery. Nothing happens by chance.

When we arrive at home, Mitsos heads straight for the shelter of his shed. Time to make up for lost sleep?

"Sorry about the early wake-up, Mitsos. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go write in my diary."

"What's a diary?" asks Mitsos.

"Well, you know how your speedometer records all the kilometers you travel? Or how the repairman writes down your oil and replacement parts in his book? It's the same for people. I have a book that I have to update."

"What update? You mean like the time you woke up your poor car in the middle of a freezing night in January?"

"Yes, and if every day was as instructive as this one, we would both wake up earlier.

"So long Mitsos, thanks for the ride and your wonderful company."

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