July 9th was a hot, dry day in the little Oklahoma town of Velma. My wife Nicole and I had come there to inter the ashes of her mother, Lynda Evers, who passed away from brain cancer last December, and of her grandmother, who died of leukemia in 1992, in the grave of her great-grandmother Hattie Young, which was located in the old Velma cemetery. Velma’s situated between Ada and Duncan in the southeastern portion of the state; no relatives were near, nor did we know anyone who could attend or assist with any service we might desire, so, as it so often was during Lynda’s battle, it was just us. To a great degree in our quarter century together, that’s how we have preferred it, but it had special meaning in this situation. At our hotel in Ada, we sketched out what we felt was a meaningful service.
After a local had dug out a spot in which we could lay the two urns, we drove to the old cemetery. Nicole read a poem by Emily Bronte, entitled “Encouragement.” It had come to her by an odd path, the kind of path we are used to in public education. I had assigned one of our mutual students Ms. Bronte as a British poet to research and study–particularly her poems. The student, needing help with the project, came to Nicole with one of the few Bronte poems she was comfortable with, as a starting point. Nicole wasn’t familiar with the poem, but, as she was battling through the grieving process at the time, it had powerful, beautiful and terrible resonance with her as she read it:
I do not weep; I would not weep;
Our mother needs no tears:
Dry thine eyes, too; ’tis vain to keep
This causeless grief for years.
What though her brow be changed and cold,
Her sweet eyes closed for ever?
What though the stone–the darksome mould
Our mortal bodies sever?
What though her hand smooth ne’er again
Those silken locks of thine?
Nor, through long hours of future pain,
Her kind face o’er thee shine?
Remember still, she is not dead;
She sees us, sister, now;
Laid, where her angel spirit fled,
‘Mid heath and frozen snow.
And from that world of heavenly light
Will she not always bend
To guide us in our lifetime’s night,
And guard us to the end?
Thou knowest she will; and thou mayst mourn
That WE are left below:
But not that she can ne’er return
To share our earthly woe. (1846)
After Nicole carefully recited the poem, I read a modified passage from The Book of Common Prayer, which an Episcopal pastor in Columbia had read from as Lynda passed. We carefully lowered the urns into the grave, then I walked over to the car (parked about ten yards from the site), started it, dialed the USBed iPad to the following song, turned up the volume, and left the passenger side door open so the music could flow across the otherwise isolated burial ground.
No doubt, there is something about Shaver’s hard-won (and hard-lost) worldview that fit not only the moment, but the sixteen months (from Lynda’s diagnosis) that led up to it. Neither Nicole and I are certain about what lies beyond earthly life, but the feeling Billy Joe bull’s-eyes in his song made it our near-unspoken choice for the ceremony’s last words. The version we played was not the one from the video above; it was a live version (from the classic Unshaven: Live At Smith’s Olde Bar) that ended with applause, which, given the solemnity of the occasion, may seem to have been inappropriate, but, considering the path of Lynda’s life out of this isolated Oklahoma geography to coast-to-coast nursing of the less fortunate for thirty-plus years, and to Ireland, it was perfect.