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first person

Illustration by Wenting Li

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

At the top of our leafy neighbourhood sits a graveyard encircled by a chain-link fence that’s wrapped in overgrown shrubs and leaves.

I’ve driven and walked by this cemetery thousands of times, sometimes smirking at a large yellowed banner wrapped around the fence promoting “lots still available.” The graveyard is off Bloor Street in Toronto. Prime real estate in the big city is even desirable in death, I guess.

In the six years that I’ve lived in our community, I’ve never stepped foot in this cemetery. You’ll see joggers darting in and out, walkers meandering through the pathways and, of course, the mourners. A walk through a cemetery always seems to me like you’re taunting death. I remember as children my brother and I used to abide by old graveyard folklore, and we’d hold our breath as our parents drove past spooky plots. I don’t even know why we did this, but it had something to do with our breath waking the dead. For years, I secretly sucked in air and turned a shade of purply red each time I neared a cemetery. Eventually, the superstitions subsided but, like most people, I’m still uneasy around the topic of death. This year that unease is everywhere.

Six months into quarantine life, my little family of four has looped the same familiar streets two to three times a day. But one morning, as this slow, unusual summer was coming to an end, my husband pointed to the graveyard and said, “Let’s check it out.”

I peered at him sipping my coffee as I strolled. Our two boys were ahead of us and “hi-yah-ing” down the street as they re-enacted a Pokémon battle. These kids have been cooped up inside for months, overhearing snippets from radio and TV reporters tallying COVID-19 cases and the latest death count. They wince every time adults scream at them to “stay six feet apart, please.” And though my husband and I are trying to appear calm, my little boys' shrivelled, overly sanitized hands seem to show the opposite. A graveyard walk didn’t seem like the best parenting choice right now, but we were all a bit desperate for a change of scene.

We turned into the cemetery and I crouched down to meet my boys at eye level. “No screaming, no running, no battles, okay?” I said to them, explaining that we needed to be respectful. “Got it,” my seven year old said as he nodded and shoved the last bit of a chocolate chip muffin into his mouth.

And off we went.

Without the buzz of cars, bikes and playing kids, the garden was peaceful. I suppose that’s the point. Instantly, my guys began noticing the tombstones – the names, the dates, the cleanliness or lack thereof. “Mommy why is that one all yucky?” the five year old asked as he got closer to a moss-covered gravestone.

“Mom, that guy was born in 1890,” my older one said stunned. “Is that when Grandpa was borned?” my little guy followed. My kid has stellar comedic timing.

My husband pointed out stones etched in Cyrillic script as he started into a short history of his Eastern European ancestry, only to be interrupted by shouts of “it’s Harry Potter!” when the kids noticed a Harold Potter tombstone. J.K. Rowling is a big deal in our house.

We continued to weave along the empty path. The heat slowed us down as if forcing us to give each grave a deserving moment. I paused at one family tombstone that listed half a dozen names, with the last being that of a little girl, three days old. I took a deep breath.

Flowers and trinkets covered many of the gravestones, one even had its own watering system set up to keep the site green. Now that guy has good kids, I thought.

“Look at this one, he liked hockey a lot,” my son said, as we saw the Montreal Canadiens symbol engraved on a headstone. In a Maple Leafs town, that’s quite the statement.

I looked at my boys. They quietly peeped around corners as they tried to whisper-shout to each other and share their discoveries. I reached out and grabbed my small one. I could feel his sticky hand in mine and wanted to somehow seal it to my palm forever, wishing the sugary breakfast remnants were glue.

I watched my older one lumbering ahead, so at ease. The kid, who has been dodging dog walkers and stroller pushers for weeks, hissing to his kid brother “don’t get too close,” was finally calm.

“Look, 2012. She died the same year I was born,” he said, standing in front of one slab of granite. The typically timid kid was not the slightest bit scared as he bent over to get a closer look.

“It’s incredible,” I said, trying to hold it together. “People die and it’s so sad, but more beautiful people come into this world.” He looked at me, smiled and nodded.

As we made our way back to the noisy street, we observed our surroundings in silence. I noticed the one and only other visitor. The older man was planting flowers by a grave, wiping sweat from his forehead and adjusting a bandana around his neck. I stared, maybe a beat too long, hoping to offer a smile, but the man never looked up from his work.

I felt a yank on my arm. “Can we go in the sprinkler when we get home?” asked the small one.

“Sure,” I said, as we linked arms, leaving the cemetery behind us.

Months after our stroll, I’ve often thought about returning. The leaves on our trees are turning gold and red, and I think about what those colours must look like contrasted against the grey and black stones.

Another stomp through the graveyard may be just what my family needs right now.

Ciara Byrne lives in Toronto.