September 28, 2001
On December 26, 1776, the battle that gave Trenton, New Jersey one of its most notable attractions occured. Leading his troops into the then-small town, George Washington and his army achieved an unexpected victory over a fleet of Hessian soldiers, resulting in 22 dead, 83 wounded, and 896 captured amongst the losing party. The battle is immortalized in the location on which it was fought, a bronze statue of General Washington suspended on top of a 150 foot tall monument.
The famed general loomed over Grant and I as we stared up at the structure, appropriately coined the Trenton Battle Monument.
Though Grant had already established that he wasn’t a history buff, I couldn’t resist making the monument one of our stops, particularly after the events of the previous night.
“We already saw one battle of Trenton last night,” I told him when we arrived. “So I figured it was only appropriate that we see the site of the other one.”
“Ha ha, very funny,” Grant replied, voice dripping with sarcasm. At that point, he was probably regretting picking a fight for me. Any heroism he might have achieved from it was overshadowed by how much hell I was giving him for it.
Of course, before long, he was looking the monument over, examining it as if it were one of the most important things he had ever done. One thing I had noticed about Grant over the near two weeks we had spent together was that he paid attention to the details. Though I questioned his intelligence a lot in the beginning, it was quickly becoming apparent that he was no dummy. In fact, seeing him so lost in the moment as he took in our surroundings, I thought that I might learn a thing or two from him myself.
“You know Washington thought it was over for the US when the battle happened?” I asked.
“What?” Grant asked.
“The Battle of Trenton,” I said. “Right before Washington and his army came to New Jersey, he had written his cousin a letter and said that he thought the war was about to be over, meaning he thought he and his men would lose.”
“But they didn’t,” Grant said.
“You’re right about that,” I replied, “but, personally, I think that was just a stroke of pure luck.”
Grant eyed me with confusion. “I don’t think I understand.”
I grinned. “The battle happened on the day after Christmas,” I started. “And the Hessians had been drinking while celebrating the holidays the night before.”
Grant raised his eyebrows. “So the enemy was drunk?”
I pointed at him. “Bingo.”
“And?” Grant asked, his eyes returning to the proud General, raising his fist above us.
“And,” I continued. “In my experience, drunk people are pretty easy to take down.”
“So you think the US only won because the Hessians were drunk?” Grant questioned.
“Once again, bingo.”
“Wow.” He laughed, looking back up at the monument. “That kinda makes the monument look useless, huh?”
“I wouldn’t say it’s useless,” I said. “I mean, they did win, regardless of whether or not it was a fair fight. And they were happy about it. When everything was over, George went up and shook this officer’s hand and told him what a glorious day it was for the country. Then they went to Pennsylvania with their new prisoners and kept fighting.” I stopped for a second, looking up at the statue of Washington, preparing to reach my conclusion. “Thus, I believe that the Battle of Trenton, New Jersey was one of the most successful ego boosts in history.”
Grant stayed quiet for a while, eyes still fixed on Washington touching the sky. I was beginning to wonder if he had even heard me when he turned to me with a grin. “Are you always thinking?” he asked.
I shrugged. “I don’t know. Isn’t everybody always thinking? I’ve always thought it was sort of like breathing, really.”
He shook his head. “I don’t mean it like that,” he said. “It’s like you’re always living a seperate life inside your head or something. It’s like you’re never just living in one moment, you know?”
My heart sunk. The entire reason I had come on this trip was to start living in the moment. Apparently, I wasn’t doing as great a job as I thought.
Seeming to see the disappointment on my face, Grant was quick to clarify what he was talking about. “It’s not a bad thing,” he said. “I think it’s because you’re so smart. You know a lot of stuff about all these places that we go to, all the things that have happened there.” He paused, seeming to look for the right words.
Once he found them, he opened his mouth again. “It’s like you’re constantly trying to figure something out, trying to find the bigger picture. Like life is this huge puzzle you’re trying to solve.” He paused, looking at me as if I were the puzzle. “It makes me wonder if you ever really rest.”
I smiled, trying to brush it off in case he managed to crack my shell. The more time we spent together, the more I thought he just might be the person to do it. “There ain’t no rest for the wicked, baby,” I said. “And there’s always more to the picture, if you look hard enough.”
“Maybe you’re right,” he said. “Or maybe not. Until then, you just need to take a moment to breathe every now and then.” He grinned. “If you look too hard at the picture, you might miss something in the background.”
Before I could reply, he took my hand. “Try it.”
Together, we let the morning air slowly fill our lungs. I tried my best to let my mind go blank. I let it go when Grant did, closing my eyes.
Maybe he was right. Maybe I was so worried about looking around that I forgot just how much I might miss.
“Did you ever take the time to just watch the clouds?”
Grant asked me this as we laid side-by-side on a blanket in Cadwalader Park, looking up at nothing in particular. After we had depleted the contents of our picnic basket, he demanded that we stay for a little while, giving me the time to do nothing, continuing our cycle of breathing and not thinking.
I nodded, shifting in attempt to get comfortable. “My sisters and I used to do that all the time,” I replied. “We’d spend hours in the summertime just looking at them. We tried to find a shape in every single one.”
I could see the corners of his mouth turning up. “Did you think all of the time when you were a kid, too?”
I shook my head. “No. Though I probably should have.” I paused, trying to decide whether or not it was worth giving him another tidbit of my past. Remembering that I was supposed to live in the moment, I gave myself permission to just let it go. “I played softball when I was in the fifth grade.”
“Really?” Grant asked. “Well, that would explain the strong arm. I knew you had to lift or something when you pulled me out of the road.”
I laughed. “No. I wasn’t that great.” I paused, watching the clouds roll by above us. “In fact, I had to quit.”
“Oh no. What happened?”
I resisted the urge to cover my face. Even all these years later, that story still embarrassed the hell out of me. “Well, I was practicing in the back yard one day,” I started. “And I sort of broke my little sister’s nose.”
Grant chuckled. “You had a really strong arm, then.”
“Shut up. It wasn’t funny.” Though I knew exactly how unfunny it was, I couldn’t help laughing a bit myself. “She was letting me pitch,” I continued. “I was usually the batter, and I really didn’t want to switch out so soon, because I had been on a roll. But our older sister was really big on making sure everything was fair, so she demanded that I gave her a turn.” I picked up a blade of grass, examining it as I told the story.
“It wouldn’t have been so bad if she wasn’t doing that thing that they do in the movies,” I said. “You know, where one guy heckles the other guy to make him play worse? Well, she was doing that. She was really ripping into me, telling me I was a lousy throw, that I only got on the team at school because the coach felt sorry for me.
“Even though I knew that she was just joking around, I started getting really ******. I knew that pitching wasn’t my strong suit, and I really just wanted to go and get my bat back. I figured the sooner I proved to her that I wasn’t a sucky pitcher, she might surrender and let me hit again. So I swung my arm back and threw as hard as I could. I put all of me into it; all of the anger I felt at her for making fun of me, all of the determination I had to take back the bat. I threw it so hard, my entire body was shaking by the time I finally let go of the ball.”
Grant gave me a low whistle. “You were that mad, huh?”
I nodded sheepishly. “I really was,” I said. “And I might have proved her wrong if I had thrown it towards the bat and not her face. As it would turn out, it wasn’t my throw that was bad. It was my aim.”
Grant turned over on his side, grinning as he faced me. “And then what happened?” he asked.
“She started bleeding everywhere,” I responded. “One second, she was still laughing at me, and the next, she was crying and holding her face. It was nasty, too. The blood was, like, spurting out, even from between her fingers.”
“Gross,” Grant said.
“I know,” I said. “She was screaming bloody murder, of course. Our older sister ran up to her, trying to tell her it was just a little accident. As soon as she got her to put down her hands, though, she was running to get our parents.”
“Big uh oh,” I agreed. “We had to go to the emergency room, and she cried all the way there with a towel over her face. By then, she wasn’t even bleeding that much. She was mostly just yelling at me, saying that her nose was going to be crooked for the rest of her life, and it was all my fault. Our mom told us she’d pull over on the side of the road and beat all of our asses if we didn’t shut up.”
“My god,” Grant mumbled.
“She didn’t,” I assured him. “It was a stress thing, you know. But she was pretty mad. Even after we were on the way home from the ER and my sister’s nose was all patched up, neither of them spoke to me the whole way back.”
“So they made you quit?” he asked.
“Actually, they didn’t,” I replied. “I had a game the next week, and by then, everything had almost blown over. My mom and sister were even there cheering me on.” I paused, trying to figure out how to phrase what I was about to say.
“It was like the guilt was eating me up inside,” I continued. “Every time I saw that ball, I could see her blood on it, even though it wasn’t the same one. By the middle of the game, I was hoping the pitcher would hit me in the nose. In the end, our team won, and I just marched straight off the field and into my dad’s arms. I started crying and told him that I never wanted to play again.”
When Grant spoke again, his voice was quiet. “And you didn’t?”
“And I didn’t.” I glanced back at the blade of grass in my palm, not looking at him as I finished the story off. “I guess you’ve gotta make sacrifices for the people that you love sometimes.”
“But no one asked you to quit,” he said.
I met his eyes again, giving him a sad smile. I leaned closer to him so that there was no chance of anyone else hearing what I was about to say. Out of everything I had said throughout our conversation, these words were the most personal. “Maybe the most important sacrifices are the ones no one asks you to make.”
When we reached our next stop, Grant’s face fell. “I thought we promised there would be no more death.”
“We did,” I said. “But this is a bit different.” Looking over at his weary face, I sighed. “I swear I won’t freak out this time. Please just come with me.”
He did as he was asked, though not without rolling his eyes first.
I wasn’t lying when I said that there was something different about Friends Burying Grounds. From the time I found the cemetery online, I was tempted. Though I knew that my perception was skewed, there was, indeed, something welcoming about it. Between the name and the bright blue meeting house right beside it, it seemed oddly homey, giving a rhyme and reason to the term ‘resting place.’
We made our way past the stone gates into the cemetery, roaming the rows of headstones. Unlike Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, the plots were a bit more spread out, giving those who entered the place alive room to roam.
Without thinking twice, I found the largest tree in the cemetery and took a seat beneath it.
Grant gave me a puzzled look. “What are you doing?”
I simply patted the spot beside me in response. “Sit.”
Though the look on his face told me that he didn’t particularly want to, he took a seat.
A light breeze rustled the leaves of the tree we sat beneath. I closed my eyes, allowing myself a moment of peace. Though I’m sure that these ‘resting places’ were intended for the dead, I couldn’t help but indulge in the tranquility of the place. Perhaps the reason I liked cemeteries was because they were quiet, usually without many visitors, the few mourners milling around the place speaking in hushed tones or not at all. Other than that, it was just us and the odd bird or squirrel. I watched a cardinal fly past, landing in the tree above us. I wondered if he knew where he was. I wondered if he had a reason to be here.
“Do you ever wonder what happens after you die?” I asked Grant.
He glanced at me before giving me a shrug. “I’m not sure I’ve ever had the time,” he answered. “Seems like pretty heavy, soul-searching stuff, don’t you think?”
I shook my head. “I’m not talking about the afterlife,” I said. “Just the technicalities of it. You know, here on Earth.” I pulled my knees up to my chest, looking at the gray stones that surrounded us, keenly aware that there were people underneath every one, each of them once having lives of their own. I wondered if there was a chance they might be able to see Grant and I, if they knew why we were there. I wondered if they might know what would happen to us next.
Grant considered my words. “No, then,” he said. “I can’t say that I have.”
“I do,” I said. “A lot, actually. I mostly wonder about my funeral. Who will want to speak, give the eulogy. What they’ll say about me. The music, the sermon. What people will think when they leave.” I leaned back, enjoying the warmth of the afternoon sun on my skin. “Then comes where I’ll be buried,” I continued. “I think I’d like it to be somewhere like this.”
Grant stared at me, eyes filled with concern. “Are you alright?” he asked. “You’re not thinking of, like… doing anything, are you?”
As vague as his question was, I understood it perfectly. I quickly shook my head. “No. It’s nothing like that.”
I shrugged, figuring it would be okay to spill my guts a little in order to ease his worries. “It’s just that I know people who have died, and everyone’s so quick to either cremate them or leave their body in the town they grew up in. Which I sort of get. I mean, I know there’s something about people staying in their hometowns, and that their family and friends would want to come visit them and stuff. It just seems pretty sh*tty when their hometown has one cemetery that no one takes care of, and when the people who promised to come visit them carry on with their lives until they can barely remember who the person was.”
I couldn’t help but think of Amy, lying motionless in that coffin, made to clutch the single purple rose to her chest by the people our parents paid to make her not seem so dead. After Angeline and I finally got around to saying our goodbyes, the pallbearers closed the coffin and carried her out of the church, lowering her into the ground of the cramped grassy area that no one ever even bothers to clean up with a weedeater.
I tried to shake myself out of the memory.
Grant stayed silent, staring off into the horizon. I wondered what he was thinking. It seemed my rant had rendered him speechless. Maybe he had lost someone himself, regardless of whether or not he knew it. Maybe he figured it was best not to say anything in response to something like that, out of respect. Maybe it was because, after thinking so much, he wanted me to take another step back to look around.
Whatever its cause was, I respected his silence, wordlessly watching as the sun shined its brightest before beginning to dim.