Shell Shock – an essay by Ann Thomas

Shell Shock

I made quick cuts through the headstones, crazed maneuvers in a little utility vehicle that should have been enough to lose anyone, thinking “What the hell am I doing driving through a cemetery like this? She can’t actually be chasing me,” not anticipating the woman in her white SUV could corner so sharply. She managed to pin me under the chapel’s sheet metal overhang, threw her Chevy into park on the asphalt driveway, and flung open the driver side door all to balance on her running boards shouting “I am chasing you down!” My stomach churned with the realization I would rather be paranoid than this to be real, the mantra ticking in my brain “Onemoretime, onemoretime and I’m going to completely lose it on someone, even though this is consecrated ground.” She balanced there demanding to know where the wreath was from her son’s grave along the timber where the blooming jonquils themselves declared it was time for the wreath to go. I had just conceded to the insistence of those yellow bastards this very same April morning since the grass was dying under the weight of now-brittle branches decked in sun bleached red ribbon and naked of their rust dry needles.

“I took it off a few hours ago because it is killing the grass, since it’s April and I thought you weren’t going to pick it up,” I explained with caution. This place is a minefield where I detonate emotions as cemetery sexton, tearing open hearts with shrapnel unleashed by missteps I can’t anticipate, but honestly what suggests I could expect a woman to become so angry about the Christmas wreath taken off of her son’s grave the week before May? She corrects me: it couldn’t have been killing grass as she doesn’t allow any grass to grow there, rather she works the ground up a bit to plant habaneros. I asked “Peppers?” certain, so certain, that I misunderstood though her glare confirmed my idiocy, acknowledging “Yes, habanero peppers.”

I laughed, heartbroken now to think she took it for mockery when it was really horror I could only follow with “No, no you’re not planting habeneros on your son’s grave because I will mow them over,” not as a threat, but the closest I could come to reaching through her grief. I know this phrase flicks the switch in your brain accusing me “Who Are You to Tell Anyone How to Grieve a Child?” and all I will say is “Who are you tell me ‘Who Are You to Tell Me’ when I already know?”

So let’s stop with this line, because we are going off the track and if there is anything I want it is to reach you trapped in grief as a crab in the wrong sized shell without which you are naked in a way God never intended please don’t stop listening I swear I understand how that shell is integral to who you are but your shape changes and as a hermit crab from time to time will leave its shell behind momentarily to move into a new one that accommodates changes I beg you let your shape change because if I laugh and tell you I am going to mow the habaneros off your son’s grave yes it is in part to comply with the rules we have posted near the cemetery entrances explicitly stating no plantings of any kind are allowed but also it is the closest thing I can come to promising I care enough not to dismiss you though in all honesty it would be easier to take the heat from other families that get angry when there are exceptions because I swear onemoretime, onemoretime and I’m going to lose it on someone even though this is consecrated ground we creep along, this mine laden beach the ocean of eternity laps with low and high tides of mourning while light glistens off individuals moving shell to shell, some in such a way you see them as breathtaking masterpieces of God’s grace you want to pick up, cradle in your palms to share with others, marveling at them for their own mystery while holding them forth as a sign of hope, most often because they have hope in their own hard-won way others quickly dismiss as too easily gained though I know better, learning from them as I watch through the seasons how they love those the gravedigger and I help them bury.


Ann Thomas lives in Iowa. Her narrative nonfiction has appeared in Dappled Things, Image Journal, and is forthcoming in Ruminate.

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