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Set In Stone

I swallow hard, breathe deeply and do what I can to fight back the weirdness that threatens to engulf me.

I'm at Amador Memorial in Oakland to pick out a headstone for my husband. It's been ten months since Joe died and it's time. In keeping with the Jewish tradition, when the stone is done, there will be a short graveside ceremony, an unveiling. I had already set the date with our rabbi. Joe wasn't Jewish, but all his wives and children are so he always went along with the program.

I walk around the showroom looking at the display. I wonder if the names etched into the headstones are real, if the dates are real or if it's all made up.

I'm the only customer there. I feel awkward and uncomfortable ... and weird.

How am I ever going to decide what to get? There are too many choices. Marble or granite? Brown, black, gray or rose? Rounded or rectangular? A double stone or just a single one for Joe? What about the border? Ornate or plain? Am I going to have to pick a font? Do they do comic sans?

"Can I help you?" A man asks.

"Yes. I need one of these," I say, gesturing to the slabs.

We walk around the room. I study the stones, trying to figure out on what basis you pick one.

"Sierra white," I say, reading the label on a granite one. "Where does this come from?"

From a quarry south of Yosemite, not far from Mariposa, he tells me.

"I want it," I say. Mariposa was Joe's favorite place in the world.

We go into an office. The man sits at the desk and pulls a form out of one of the drawers.

"What kind of a border would you like?" He asks, showing me a notebook with pictures.

I chose something simple--straight lines.

"The name?"

"Joseph Remcho," I say and then spell it. The children and I had discussed "Joe" or "Joseph" and finally settled on the latter.

"Date of birth?" He asks. As I tell him my voice starts to crack.

"Date of death?"

"January," I say and start to cry. He pushes a box of tissues across the desk. He was prepared. I'm not the first person to break down in tears in this office. I pull myself together and continue. "January 4, 2003."

"What else would you like on the stone?" he asks. "You have two more lines."

I had thought about this but hadn't come up with anything yet.

"Can I get back to you on that?" I ask the monument man.

I can and he sends me on my way with a pamphlet called "Words of Comfort" filled with things like "he loved people and laughter" and "to know him was to love him."

I wasn't going to get much help here.

I tried to pawn the task off on the children. Sammy suggested a one-word obscenity. It had merit but it might disturb the peace of others who visited the cemetery.

I thought about something simple like, "loving father and husband." But Joe was also a brother, an uncle and a cousin. He had been a wonderful son not to mention friend, mentor and advisor and an outstanding lawyer. If I went that route, the list would wrap around the entire stone.

I asked friends. My friend Thelton said he had neurosed over what to put on his mother's headstone when she died earlier this year.

"I finally came up with something," he said.

"What was it?" I asked.

"I don't remember."

That was reassuring.

I could have written volumes about Joe, but two lines were too much. It had to be pithy and meaningful because it would be set in stone and that was intimidating.

"Maybe we shouldn't put anything on it," I told the children.

When I mentioned this to the rabbi, he suggested that I walk around the cemetery and look at headstones.

I did. Some said where the deceased was born. Others gave the precise age at the time of death--41 years, 11 months, 22 days. Some had inspirational messages. Some had sad ones and others had nothing at all. Those told you nothing about the person who was buried there. I didn't want Joe to be one of those.

So I started mulling ideas over with Morgan and Sammy, something about "love" and Joe's spirit. Together we came up with it and when the headstone was unveiled I was happy with what we settled on.

"Your love fills us, your spirit guides us."

Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Ronnie Caplane

Ronnie Caplane is a lawyer and freelance writer based in Northern Calif.

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