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The Dash (Fiction)

This story owes its origins to a very lovely eulogy I heard at a funeral recently. The concept of “the dash” was the lynchpin of the priest’s oratory celebrating the life of the recently deceased. It struck me as a beautifully simple yet still thought-provoking way to think about the meaning of a life. I have attempted to capture that intriguing simplicity here.

Daniel Patrick O’Reilly
Beloved son, husband, and father
December 31, 1842 – May 12, 1918

That’s all it said – and even that I had to decipher. The stone was faded from years of wind and rain, the marble worn to a pale yellowish-white like old bones. Several of the chiseled letters and numbers were rubbed nearly smooth. Fortunately, Daniel Patrick O’Reilly’s parents gave him a fairly straightforward name, and whoever buried him exhibited a similar tendency with the inscription, or I might not have been able to figure it out at all. His was the first grave I saw when I walked into the old cemetery today, the first of many inscriptions I read as I meandered along the winding paths toward the river.

Mariah Jane Stephens
Our Little Angel
Is In His Hands Now
November 22, 1799 – July 5, 1808

I have always loved to walk, loved the feel of my arms swishing through the air at my sides, of my feet tromping along paths well-worn or newly-trodden. I prefer to walk the quiet places, places where I can get lost in the sights and sounds of my own head when I need a break from the world around me. I have never walked through a graveyard alone before, though. I am surprised at how calm I feel in here, how I seem to be soaking in the stillness, allowing it to permeate the brittle outer shell that has been slowly forming ever since That Day. I didn’t expect this to be a good place – not for me, not now. But I feel oddly comfortable here – oddly safe and protected.

Father
June 22, 1813 – October 18, 1886

I was drawn here today. I don’t know how or why, or by whom or what, but that is how my walks work. I wake up and feel oddly compelled to move in a certain direction. The next thing you know, I am standing at a door or a gate or an entryway of some kind, and a path seems to open before me. A path that always seems to end up taking me along exactly the right kind of journey for that day, that mood. It seems so clichéd that I ended up here, today. I’m not usually this obvious. My mind is usually far subtler, more nuanced. Then again, I haven’t felt quite like myself lately. Everything has been slightly off since It happened, like the world has skewed just a few degrees left of center and intends to stay that way.

Reverend Josiah Parson
August 4, 1867 – January 29, 1901
May His Spirit Rest in Eternal Peace
Now and Forever
Amen

I never used to pay much attention to death – it was a vague, amorphous concept that other people had to deal with from time to time. I mean, I’m only seventeen. I’ve never been to a funeral. All of my grandparents are still alive. I’ve never even lost a pet – our two cats are ancient and even the goldfish I won at the church carnival two years ago is still alive. My parents were young when I was born – Maggie, my mom, was barely older than me and my dad Evan was only a year older. The twins, Charlie and Luke, were born a year after me, and Sarah was born two years after them. And all of us – parents and kids – have always looked young. Strangers used to tell us so all the time, to comment on what a beautiful family we were, to tell mom and dad that they looked more like our older brother and sister than our parents.

Faithful Amos
February 1838 – June 1864

Wandering through the cemetery, my eyes roam over the grave markers and dying trees, the huge mausoleum that looks like it was transported from a Greek myth, the withered roses next to a marble cross on this side, the cracked paving stones surrounding the Smith family plot. I take it all in – the cloying scent of the magnolia trees sweetly worming its way into my nose and throat, the blinding rays of bright-white sunlight that break through the thick cover of the trees and sear their way through my eyes even when the lids are closed, the thick humidity dragging at my skin and making every step I take feel like I’m swimming upstream through the air. Each of these things should, by rights, be an irritant, something to fight against, something to protest. And yet, oddly, the feeling of peace, of calm quietude continues to grow stronger as I wander from section to section, reading each tombstone I pass.

Maria Elena Esquival Rodriguez
Requiescat in Pace
January 25, 1881 – January 26, 1957

I wonder about each life, each person lying under the ground. The etchings on the graves are often eroded beyond translation, faded to defy decoding – names and dates, inscriptions and memorials, all lost to time, weather or vandalism. But on each one I can make out one thing: the dash. A small, brief line marking the passage of time between dates. Such a tiny thing to look at, really. Hardly worth mentioning. Or is it? In the first few inscriptions I read, I barely even noticed it – like a question mark at the end of a sentence, or the comma between numbers in a date, it was just there. But as I walked and read, as I struggled to decipher more of the stones, as I took in more and more of the words carved into the granite and marble, the dash started to seem bigger, more important, almost pregnant with meaning. What meaning, you ask? The meaning of a life, of course.

Martin Elijah James
Priest
January 2, 1831 – April 20, 1887

The scale and scope of a person’s mark on the world are encompassed in the dash. The dates signal a beginning and an end, sure – but it is the dash that signifies the life between them, that exemplifies the complexities of the soul that existed on this plane for the span of those years. Reading the names and quotations, the references and details, I realize I am barely scratching the surface of the lives of those buried here. The gravestones are, after all, created after the end has already come, and only rarely, very rarely, drafted by the person whose life they claim to sum up. But the dash, in its small space, offers the ever-expansive possibility of interpretation and understanding; the eloquence of an unspoken connection between start and finish, beginning and end, life and death.

Baby Girl Smith
She left us before we knew her
September 30, 1849 – October 1, 1849

The cumulative weight of all the dashes in the cemetery should, by rights, weigh me down, drag me under, burden me with soul-numbing sadness. All those lives should wear on me, fraying my already fragile nerves past the point of return. And yet, they don’t. With each successive dash I see, each line of etched text I struggle to make out, I feel myself lighten just a little, feel the tension that I have been wearing like a skin suit ease ever-so-slightly. I can breathe again. I don’t have to worry that I chose the right inscription, don’t have to fear that I didn’t say enough. I can stop focusing on why I wasn’t in the car that day or why I’m still here, alone, completely alone. The dashes seem to speak to me, to offer me the beautiful simplicity of calm, to encompass everything I cannot say, cannot do, cannot make myself feel – or not feel. The dash is the shorthand for the life. And knowing that, now, I can finally let go.

Here lie
Evan and Maggie White
and three of their four children,
twins Charlie and Luke
and Sarah
Taken from me too soon
I will see you all again, in time
September 12, 1974 and June 5, 1975 – May 31, 2011
March 13, 1997 – May 31, 2011
July 1, 1995 – May 31, 2011

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