A few days ago I bribed my boyfriend into taking me to Oakland Cemetery’s fall festival, Sunday in the Park. I had been once several years ago, and I remembered how much I enjoyed seeing people dressed as Victorians wandering through one of the oldest and most beautiful cemeteries in Atlanta.
I didn’t have the stamina to walk the entire cemetery on this trip (it’s about 48 acres), but I did hold out long enough to visit a good bit of the grounds, sample some tasty Angel Fire 7 barbecue from a food truck, and take photos of some of the spectacular marble citizens who live at Oakland. I also visited Margaret Mitchell’s grave, and stood over her like one of the mute angels that pepper the landscape, wondering how one shows reverence for a favorite long-dead author. I ended up taking a quick photo of her headstone like a good tourist and stepping out of the much-trampled grass so someone else could do the same.
I also visited the section of the cemetery called Confederate Memorial Grounds, where approximately 6,900 soldiers lie, regimented even in death, in neat rows of nondescript headstones. Around 3,000 of these men were unidentified. The Lion of Atlanta, a huge lion sculpted from a single block of Georgia marble, honors these unknown men.
There were vendors set up along the paths selling an eclectic assortment of oddities. Ghoulish paintings, vintage clothing, and photos of funerary cherubim somehow blended with children having their faces painted and live jazz music.
Ren and Helen Davis, the authors of the award-winning book Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery: An Illustrated History and Guide were there signing copies of their book, so of course I bought one. Something both fascinating and a little bit creepy to read on these fabulous cool, fall evenings.
It was a great day for people-watching. A lot of visitors had dressed for the occasion; some were wearing authentic-looking Victorian dress. There was a flower-seller who looked like she could have come straight out of one of Dickens’ novels. Some were dressed as dead Victorians. Some were dressed as Victorians who had somehow had the misfortune of becoming vampires. Some were dressed in what I can only describe as “gothic skank,” but they somehow fit into the theme of the day. At any rate, it was highly entertaining to watch them all strolling side-by-side down the old brick-lined walkways.
I had briefly considered dressing up before abandoning the idea for pragmatic (i.e. sane) reasons. Besides, in my bicentennial scarf, it’s possible that onlookers assumed that I lacked hair for a moribund (and thus spooky-enough) reason. Which may or may not be true, so far as I know. My stage-three tumor may or may not be the eventual death of me. According to statistics, I have a seventy-five per cent change of being alive five years from now. Which, of course, means that I have a twenty-five per cent chance of not being.
My mother survived just over five years from her diagnosis of breast cancer. She survived just long enough to be counted as a “cancer survivor.” And then she died. Her tumor was also stage-three when it was found.
My oncologist tells me not to compare apples to oranges. First of all, despite all the similarities, my mother’s cancer was quite different from mine. Hers was what is referred to as “triple negative,” a cancer that recurs at a higher rate due to its not being responsive to estrogen, progesterone, or Herceptin. Mine is highly sensitive to estrogen and progesterone, so its recurrence can be hopefully prevented with hormone therapy down the road. Her tumor was also of a type that tends to be more aggressive and metastasizes with more frequency than mine. If my cancer metastasizes, it will most likely go to my gastrointestinal tract or ovaries. Her cancer was the type that goes mainly to the brain, lungs, liver, and bones, all of which it eventually did. She was also quite a bit older than me and in poorer general health, which I suppose counts for something.
I try to listen to my oncologist and not compare my situation too much to that of my mother. But it’s hard not to at least think about it, as it’s hard to not remember all the things that she went through in those last five years of her life.
So please forgive my morbid frame of mind as I walked the beautiful grounds of Oakland Cemetery, enjoying the loveliness of it all, but quite cognizant at the same time of my mortality. It makes me think of a line from the poem “Sunday Morning” by Wallace Stevens in which he says, Death is the mother of beauty. The sure knowledge of our death, and that of every other living creature, is what fills our lives with meaning. Except for death, we could take all of the world’s beauty for granted, and even with death looming in the background, we sometimes still do.
Thankfully, there’s a lot of beauty to treasure in this world that hopefully makes all the fuss over life and death worthwhile. Again, I think of Wallace’s “Sunday Morning,” whose final lines tell us:
Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.