Last week I found myself in a cemetery. That may sound a little ordinary to you, but my experience was anything but ordinary. In fact, it was a little surreal.
To be clear, cemeteries are not a regular habit for me. In fact, I’ve only visited them a handful of times in my life and most have been the “historical” kind. Last week’s visit was to a small cemetery overlooking the ocean in Pacific Grove, CA, just south of the Monterey area. It’s a beautiful spot: quiet, peaceful, and guarded by dozens of the area’s native cypress trees. I was there to visit the final resting place of my aunt and uncle, who spent several years living in nearby Carmel-by-the-Sea.
On the drive over, I made a mental list of the things you do when you visit a cemetery. Flowers, words, a few prayers, some contemplation, maybe a photograph for a keepsake. That’s my “left-brain” mindset in action, by the way. I always have to take the logical approach instead of just going with the moment. To further complicate things I’m not really comfortable with cemeteries. Notice I use the words “final resting place” instead of “grave”. Or “cemetery” instead of “graveyard”. On this day I was even conscious of how I dressed. Apparently I default to the formal, as if I’m visiting someone’s house for the first time. Which I guess I am in a sense – it’s just a really tight neighborhood.
I stopped in Monterey for the flowers. The drive then took me through the quaint central shopping area of Pacific Grove before the road rose up to the coastal bluffs to the southwest. One final right turn and I had reached my destination. Passing through the front gates I immediately slowed to the posted 5 mph speed limit, then navigated the loop road to where I thought my aunt and uncle were buried. I parked and started walking, and I probably looked odd trying to find their plot. I wandered here and there, up and down the rows, not really knowing what to look for or where to look. I had to keep donning reading glasses to make out the inscriptions.
Finally I found them. I was happy to see my aunt and uncle were buried side-by-side, off to the edge of the cemetery, in a quieter area and under the guard of one of those cypress trees. Add in warm breezes, the afternoon sun, and a view of the ocean in the distance (photo) and it’s quite a place to call “home”.
I spent several minutes kneeling and recalling fond memories. It was peaceful, as there were only a few others on the property and the sounds of the nearby neighborhoods seemed appropriately hushed. I said a final prayer and took a few photos and suddenly it was time to go.
Here is where my experience took an unexpected turn. As I put the car in gear I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. Emerging from a nearby stand of trees, a single deer stood not ten yards from my car; motionless. He watched me for a few seconds, cocked his head, and walked very slowly across the road in front of me. Several yards beyond the road, he paused, looked back once, then once again, before casually disappearing up and over a hill. Gone, as if he had not even been there at all. It was a moment – an encounter really – that my brain could not immediately process.
My first reaction was to look around and locate all of the other deer on the property (hello again left-brain). But there were none, not even as I completed the drive around the loop road and exited the property entirely. Now that I think about it, the people I saw when I entered the cemetery were gone. Just me. And a deer. And my aunt and uncle.
My wife has shared several experiences where an animal makes an unexpected appearance after the loss of a loved one. Since I’m all about explanations, I never accepted any otherworldly connection. Now I’m not so sure. When I was talking to my father later about my visit, he asked “did you see any deer?” He went on to explain that deer are seen frequently in the Pacific Grove cemetery, only too happy to munch on all the flowers left behind by visitors. But my deer was a lot more interested in me than flowers. I think he was even trying to tell me something.
There are moments in life that go beyond the expected or the ordinary, and then there are moments that completely defy reason. My moment was one of those – transcendent – even as I continue the search for a logical explanation.