There are other worlds
In which to sing
Beyond the clouds
The sky still shines
Blue in the light
Of the mourning sun
One day I know
I’ll follow you, friend
To find love there
Just ‘round the bend
Dedicated to my dog Max – d. October 24, 2020
And my grandmother, Velva Sawatzky – d. October 7, 2023
I want to share, about the way that the sacred landscape of Cypress Lawn Arboretum truly came into my heart, and helped me to heal. This is a story of death, untimely but somehow just right – the way things were meant to be. More than anything, this is a story of renewal.
Max the dog saved my life. And I think I saved his, too. We found each other in a time where we were both vulnerable, having been through real challenges and emotional struggle amid great uncertainty, and the bond I formed with this delightful and gentle pitbull uplifted our shared spirits in a way that profoundly transformed my belief in kinship.
When I began my role in January 2020 as the Arboretum Director of Cypress Lawn Memorial Park, Max was my daily companion and truest friend, even moreso perhaps than any human connection I knew. After each full day of work, I would return home in the evenings to Max’s company, for daily evening walks full of sniffing each tree we passed, and many joyous zoomy moments of fetch and fun. In March, just two months into my tenure at Cypress Lawn, the pandemic overwhelmed us all, and soon thereafter Max and I were in social distanced isolation together, as a binary star of dog and man.
In these days, I was also getting grounded and finding connection with the trees of Cypress, many thousands of them across our acreage. Most of this time in my formative tenure at the Arboretum was spent in solitude, learning about the living collection one plant at a time without much of any human companionship, and finding novelty and beauty in the landscape everywhere I turned. It was and is such a deep blessing, to have Cypress Lawn as a safe open space for me to inhabit, to breathe fresh air and walk amongst the living wooden ones, especially during this harrowing era through the heart of the pandemic. Max and the Arboretum were collectively carrying me through, and giving me joy beyond the societal suffering caused by COVID-19. One tree in particular – a Monterey cypress, who would have guessed! – became my favorite individual plant during this era, a time of embracing my new professional place.
This singular cypress, on the eastern edge of Section C of our foundational East Campus, has a large burl right at the base of the trunk – a perfect perch for contemplating the days, the seasons, and the passage of time. I sat on that natural bench dozens of times during my first year as steward and speaker of the trees – it quickly became a seat of deep thinking, and a post of envisioning a future worth celebrating in this old cemetery. In short, this one tree became my home.
And then, in October, just as the season turned to autumn, so too did Max’s star fall from this life. My dog died suddenly, without warning, and I will never know the cause of his passing. This was the first true grief experience in my three decades on this earth, and it was a visceral, gut-wrenching loss in my human experience. At the time of his death, Max was blossoming as an adult dog, three years old and emerging from some unknown traumas in his early days, before my family rescued him from a shelter. Thankfully, he did not suffer, and left us like a fiery, shooting star dances bright across the sky and then is gone in a momentary flash. He is still missed, still talked about fondly in conversations with my parents and sister. Max will always be our dog, and a dear friend. He sings in some other world, now.
In the aftermath of his loss is when I found that I needed Cypress Lawn. Having the memorial park as a safe place for going through grief, of growing towards healing just by being there every day, is what guided me towards reconciliation of the suffering in my heart. I would sit on that burl on the trunk of this one giant cypress in Section C, cry my eyes out, and eventually I began to feel OK again.
There is a special statue, a bronze sculpture of a dog, head bowed in humble service, atop the Gentner family monument just a few steps away from this tree, which I now fondly call Max in my beloved friend’s honor. It was this monument, and the words inscribed upon it, that also helped me to find solace in striving onward, past Max’s time. I found the courage to keep going, here in the graceful shade of a wooden one.
Feeling this, knowing this experience of loss, and the healing energy that the cemetery offers with its gestalt and the gentle life surrounding when on a simple walk through the park – this shaped my perspective of what it means to be a steward of Cypress Lawn’s trees. It’s not just about arboriculture, and good management practices, and quality pruning techniques. It’s about the feeling – of safety and peace, and a sense of service that I have to share this resource with our community of families in Colma and the greater Bay Area. With my friends, neighbors, and tree-lovers near and far. This experience of Max’s death, and the growth I’ve known beyond his days, has given me a “Why?” of such profound depth towards my purpose as Arboretum Director. I am still carrying that flame, burning brightly forward with each day that I put on my boots and cross the threshold of our iconic granite archway, with cypresses on either side that I have watched grow from humble seeds these past four years of caring.
Just a few short weeks ago, my family lost a matriarch, a woman of immense courage and a powerful spirit of kin-keeping. My maternal grandmother, Velva Sawatzky, passed away peacefully on October 7th. I am so grateful that in her last days, I got to hold her warm hand, tell her I love her and hear her say I love you too, even share stories over old photographs and enjoy a meal together at the dinner table. Unlike Max, her life was long and full, and the time of her passing was not at all unexpected. Sad, indeed, and she will long be missed, but her kin, of which I am a lamb and also a shepherd, will celebrate her life knowing that she lived richly, and made the best of a long season.
A cemetery is very clearly a place of death – there is no avoiding this truth. Death is an honest place, a home we are all bound for, in the end. The reality of death is a taboo for many, a subject of stigma we often avoid in the conscious conversations of our lives.
But, I question, need it be this way? Might there be a healing, a liberation of spirit, to speak this truth, to honor the reality of our fleeting time in this life as a means of being and growing more richly in the present we do have?
I know that death carries a heavy weight upon us – as pain, as trauma, as wounds in our waking memory that may sit as a burden in our hearts. But death is also a path, which we may walk towards renewal; towards sharing a genuine story with family and those we love; towards a higher power that waits patiently for our light to come home.
I know a feeling, deeper than fact, a belief-knowledge that resides in the core of my being, a message I wish to share with all the world… in confidence I speak to thee! When we can find the courage to embrace the honesty of death, coming in time for each and every soul as the setting of the sun upon the horizon, the journey towards that distant light may be brighter for each day we know in this world.
So, I say to you, live! In this day, each hour, every moment that you are gifted on this planet. For it may not come soon, but when death arrives at our door, the human that has walked the liberated path – across the desert, up the mountain, down through the sacred forest and out to the edge of the vast ocean, dancing on the brink of the world – that person may take the hand that beckons in grace, and joy, and honest love. That human may strive beyond the horizon, into the infinite, glorious glow of knowing that awaits as the next leaf turns. May you find that very courage. I love you all.