Jesse Millner: The Bus Driver's Book of the Dead

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  MEMOIR by Jesse Millner
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Please Don't Bury Me in that Cold, Cold Ground

Please Don't Bury Me in that Cold, Cold Ground

My much younger wife asked me the other day if I wanted to be buried or cremated. I told her that I’d prefer neither until I actually and irrevocably died, upon which sad occasion, I’d like to be cremated. She had assumed I’d want to join my ancestors in that hallowed ground on the Southside of Virginia beneath the Civil War battlefields and accumulated misery of the Commonwealth. I surprised her by saying I’d rather have my ashes scattered across Lake Michigan where it pushes up against that beautiful park south of Northwestern University. So many memories of my years in Chicago: running north against the January wind as it whistled through my ears in that graveyard of frozen earth and dead trees, the lake solid white out for a mile or so, except where it was ribboned by indigo inlets full of happy mallards; the sky on winter nights at that same park, where constellations brightened over the black void of the water, which breathed its listless deep into moon-shimmering waves that crackled on the shore, stars in a wilderness of stars.

When I was 33, and I finally stopped drinking, I ran by the lake every day and sometimes at night as well. I felt my body come back to life and sing in a way it had never done before. And all of that singing along Lake Michigan, some sixty miles across at that point, 900 feet deep in places that hid the sunken vessels of other days. All of that singing in a slice of green space along the water with its ice skating rink, boat houses, tennis courts, picnic tables, all deserted in winter except for the rink, which was always home to a child or two in bright coats, laughing into the frozen air and breaking the cold dream I had fallen into.

Alive, I ran fifty miles a week, winter, spring, summer, fall—yes, fall, the golden time of dying leaves and temperatures when the first frost crinkled the lawns of October, when the oak and elm and maple turned toward red and yellow, when the cool nights cleaned out my lungs, when the cold stars sang back to me, when the constellations whirled over the lake, when the moon sometimes sent down a yellow trail, and when, sometimes I was tempted to turn like a Jesus and run across the water until I, too, rose into the sky.

Yes, cast my ashes upon the waters where Lee Street empties into the wall separating dream from concrete, where one world ends and another begins. Let me feel the cold lake one more time, until I, too, like the drowned sailors in the ships I mentioned earlier, until I, too, am faded and ghost.

I’ve changed my mind again. An environmentally aware friend told me that they make biodegradable coffins these days, so that your body, that blessed container that once held spirit, might rot back into the soil, completely. I know a spot in Wisconsin where I camped once near the Wolf River, a quiet, pretty place where the only sound was the little river rushing over rocks and the wind stirring the spruce trees and the whisper of god exhaling as she realized the whole world should have been created in this image of water and green and black sky with stars tumbling down. Bury me there, please, and come back the next spring and pick the lazy susans that would surely grow from my grave, the black and yellow flowers of my disposition, the radiant stems and petals of my skin and bone and whatever else had passed from one darkness into another and then found this beautiful light.

That’s the real truth, isn’t it? We are immortal like grass and soil and memory, like the rocks smoothed out by the Wolf River over geologic time, that real measure of our puny human lives. But there’s nothing tiny about forever, and though our bodies and spirits fade away, there is plenty to absorb us: I hope in the death that comes to somehow glisten in the rain, to somehow rise up as dust into the storm wind that blows across entire counties of Wisconsin before losing itself in the lake’s deep blue dream, that bowl, that liquid altar, holy remnant of glacier, blessed mirror of the sky.


  © 2010, Jesse Millner

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