Running Blind

by Sabine Heinlein

Every morning, when the massive, black iron gates open, I jog past the ragged stonewalls towards the old mausoleums. I jump over tombstones and weave past undertakers. Western Queens doesn’t have a big park with old trees and ponds; what we do have is Calvary Cemetery, America’s largest graveyard. Wedged between the Brooklyn-Queens and the Long Island Expressways and carelessly dissected into four jagged parts, Calvary borders Sunnyside, Woodside, and Maspeth. With more than three million burials, it is big enough to accommodate my lifelong fears of death and dying, of seeing too much without being seen.

I am an Anxious Person. I am Anxiety. Give me a cold, and I see myself dying from lung cancer. Give me a kitten, and I’ll think of its agonizing demise. Give me love, and I see death. Yet my fear cannot hold me back. Gates beg to be scaled, kittens want to be held, and oceans have to be crossed. Calvary is where the heimlich, the familiar and homey, meets the unheimlich, the uncanny, the hidden that has to be kept out of sight. This was the first thing I saw when I arrived in New York from Germany. Since then, I have walked that precarious line. Narrowing my world to accommodate my fears has never appealed to me. I like to give my fears ample space. I want them to become complete, so I can fully understand them; so I can move on from one fear to the next.

Most New Yorkers know Calvary only from their journeys from JFK airport back to the city. They know that they are close to home when they see the endless army of tombstones framed by green grass emerge, Manhattan’s skyline towering in the background. Returning to New York, we travel backwards: from death to life.

By car it is impossible to see what’s going on below the overpass, beneath asphalt, exhaust, potholes and noise. It’s like trying to make out the flux of the ocean from the plane’s window; all you can see is one large frozen wave. You need to be on the ground to see and feel movement.

The reason I’ve found myself at the cemetery day after day for months now is my distorted vision. Last March I woke up and noticed that the world looked different. Red had changed into rust and the words on the page looked skeletal, starved. An ocular CT scan revealed a retinal blister behind my right eye.

Central Serous Retinopathy is caused by increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The illness was first diagnosed in soldiers in combat. If removed from the battlefield, the blister usually shrinks and normal vision is restored within one to six months. Away from the battlefield CSR affects primarily Type-A Personality men — competitive, impatient, hostile, rapid-talking men whose faces sweat and whose eyes are weighed down by dark circles. CSR hardly ever affects women. And yet this illness suits me; I have been in combat all my life and never cared much about gender. It was as if I needed to have my vision distorted to see the world anew. In times of agony, when I am assailed with more than a comfortable share of the unfamiliar, I begin to see the things that ail me like silver flashes of a school of fish.

The body is determined to let the mind know when enough is enough. And it doesn’t give up easily. The blister was followed by neck and back pain. Eczema began to stain my legs and a mysterious cold moved through my body, from head to chest to lungs and back. To assuage my disconcerted body, my doctors urged me to perform daily “low impact aerobics.” They tried to fool it with Xanax and Valium. This would make me relax and shrink the blister, they thought. Meds are okay, but aerobics? My ass. My daily trip to the cemetery would have to fulfill three things at once: Walking and jogging would strengthen my body and lower cortisol levels, and the army of tombstones would help me reconcile the heimlich with the unheimlich.

Calvary was more fun than I expected, despite the fact that it reminded me of home. There is, for example, the tombstone for the Ficken family. “Ficken” is German for “to fuck.” The name has been engraved diagonally for added merriment. I chuckle each time I pass it. Why didn’t they change their name when they immigrated to America? In the little Bavarian village where I grew up, Fick (in English: Fuck!) is a common surname, and the Fick children were subject to endless pestering. I used to joke that my adulterous parents had had all the Ficks in town.

Unless it is Mother’s Day, Calvary is, for the most part, colorless and deserted. You have green and gray, interspersed with some meager flower bouquets. But for one Sunday a year, in mid-May, you can see America’s sons and daughters blunder around tombstones seeking mom. Sometimes they are accompanied by mewling children who don’t see the point in visiting a piece of gray rock. I’ve noticed the visitors carelessly dropping bouquets and I’ve watched the flowers rot for weeks before they are removed by maintenance workers.

Some of my formative childhood experiences took place at the cemetery in Baiersdorf, the village where I spent the first 12 years of my life (before my mother left my father for yet another Fick). I often accompanied Heinlein Oma, my paternal grandmother, to Heinlein Opa’s grave. This exposed me to what was valued and honored in Baiersdorf; it planted the seed to my leaving and facing the unknown.

Upon arrival I was (re-)introduced to Heinlein Oma’s girlfriends and relatives. “This is my little one,” she would say in her thick Bavarian twang. Her friends and cousins would pinch my cheek and comment on how much I had grown (which was a lie; for a German I have always been pitiably small). The group of rotund, ruby-cheeked women then plunged into gossip, with my grandmother acerbically leading the way. Rules were made of what should and should not have happened, of black and white, good and bad, erasing all ambiguity. Occasionally the attention turned to me as one of the old hags removed a stain from my face with her spit. Relieved when Heinlein Oma sent me off to the spigot to get water, I ran to wash my face. Then I lugged the heavy tin can back to the grave. While Heinlein Oma removed the dead leaves from the flowers to make them look like new, I polished the grave’s marble border and tombstone. Heinlein Opa used to be the village’s mayor, and his grave had to shine. He had the highest tombstone in the cemetery, which made it hard to polish the top of the cross. It was here that I learned about hierarchies, found out about grieving, love, exclusion, and pride, about seeing and (not) being seen. It was where my grandmother taught me that life must go on, regardless of the grief inflicted upon us. Pain exists to be overcome. The cemetery is as much a place for the living as it is for the dead.

•••At Calvary Cemetery a small but persistent community of joggers and walkers meets in the mornings. In the early morning hours, all we have is each other. There is the woman who walks her barking, unleashed Yorkshire terrier. Her husband — or bodyguard? — follows her in a car. More than once I had to shake the yapping thing off my leg while owner and driver looked away.

Sometimes I run into the young jogger whose mutt recognizes me from afar. The dog refuses to continue his morning run unless I give him a generous head scratch. I am, the woman claims, his “favorite stranger in the world.” To dogs it doesn’t matter whether you are famous, their mother, daughter or some random, anxiety-ridden German. If you scratch their heads properly, they will remember you.

Here and there I catch a glimpse of well-built men, their taut muscles glistening with sweat. They, too, wave hello, although hesitantly. Calvary is a lonely place for lonely women, and no one wants to risk misunderstandings.

No day goes by without the old Buddhist meditating cross-legged on the bench in front of the memorial stone for the unclaimed. “God’s Holy Poor,” reads the engraving. My heart jumps each time I see the man.

When I want my heart to jump higher, I take a detour and visit my favorite spot. Hidden behind a large mound of healthy dark earth is a tiny working farm. The chilies, squash, lettuce, tomatoes and onions are cared for by an older woman in a straw hat, her little blind dog beside her in a baby carriage. In her quiet and raspy voice, she tells me that she learned to grow vegetables “at home,” on her parents’ farm.

“Where was that?” I ask.

“You know Gangnam Style?” She asks me, identifying her country by the ephemeral hit single.

“I have throat cancer,” she adds, unexpectedly. She must have noticed my flinching, because she follows up with some life-affirming words. “The fresh vegetables have improved my health very much. Juices, lot of juices, every morning.”

She then shows me how she buries compost next to her zucchini to avoid artificial fertilizer. Once it is time to harvest she shares her bounty with the employees of the cemetery. “But sometimes bad people come and steal. Last year they stole all my chilies.” Relieving me from any implied accusation, she adds, “When you come back in the fall, I’ll give you squash.”

While I have nothing but love for the farmer, my feelings towards the chubby man who rests on a bench feeding peanuts to a dray of gray squirrels are mixed. But like the Buddhist, he waves when he sees me, so I cannot stay cross. It’s just that I do not like squirrels; I hate what they do to my yard. The only squirrel I ever treasured was dead. It satisfied my interest in crossing boundaries. For weeks he was splayed out on the main path in plain sight, a welcome lesson in decomposition — and an affirmation of the carelessness of the living. His squirrel friends mated just two feet away from its desiccating body. They might as well have yelled, “See, it’ll all go on, with or without you. You are nothing. Nor does our happiness make you alive.”

How nice it must be for the undertakers to see live women and men maintaining their bodies as they dig holes for the dead. They wave, mouthing “hello,” their voices drowned out by lawnmowers and weed whackers. We are the ones who keep the place alive.

I wonder if the undertakers know that we, the joggers, cyclists, Buddhists, atheists, dog walkers and squirrel feeders, help maintain order, that we deserve to be here because we, too, fight our battles. We close faucets that have been left running, pick up trash and direct drivers that are lost. One time I came across a duffle bag. I opened it and saw in it a purple tube dress and a golden belt. I ran to one of the workers and handed it over. I hoped for gossip and conversation but only got bewildered stares. Who loses a purple tube dress and a golden belt on a cemetery? It could have been me, I thought. It could have been me.

A few years ago, when my grandmother died at the age of 98, I returned to the cemetery of my childhood. It was a dreary day in April, I had a run in my stockings and my feet were numb from the cold. As I started crying, I couldn’t stop. I cried for my grandmother who taught me perseverance and irony. I cried because my stepsister was wearing a designer jacket that I couldn’t afford. I cried because my mother — who according to Heinlein Oma was “a witch” — insisted on coming without being invited. I cried because Heinlein Oma’s best friend was alone now and because I knew that she would be next. I cried because my little nieces and nephews did somersaults next to the open grave. And later I cried some more because my father scolded us, “Nobody cried about Heinlein Oma!” A master in not-seeing, my father had missed my crying. He missed the gravedigger who tenderly slipped a chair under me.

Back in New York, I continue to run across Calvary. As I am writing I notice the letters look fat and healthy again; the blister on my right eye has shrunk. Each attack seems less threatening than the previous one. I am building an armor made out of the things I have seen and felt. I cannot go back and assume that the world is good and that I can always maintain control of what I can see and who will see me. I will continue to confront my anxieties — as one aims at a moving target.

Previously: Of Long-Winded Female Writers and Role Models: Remembering Maeve Brennan

Top photo via pabo76/flickr.

A Pushcart Prize winner, Sabine Heinlein is the author of the narrative nonfiction book Among Murderers: Life After Prison (University of California Press, 2013).