Today is Kyra Megan Pillsbury's 20th birthday.
Kyra did not live to see this landmark birthday, nor her 15th, her 10th, or even her fifth. She died in February 1996, at the age of 4.
I know this, not because I knew young Kyra or her family; I did not. I know this, because all that information is engraved onto a wooden bench, right there for all to see, in a beautiful little spot near the ocean, at West Cliff Drive and Woodrow Avenue on Santa Cruz's Westside. Under her dates is this inscription: "From the bottom of my heart, to the tips of the stars."
Near Kyra's bench is another one, perhaps even more heartbreaking because the bench itself is small, kid-sized. On it reads the name Gabriel "Gaby" Jackson, who died in 1998 at the age of 3; I did know Gabriel's family, a little bit. The inscription on his bench feels like a punch in the heart. It's a once-popular movie catch phrase forever associated with the experience of being a kid in the 1990s, that in this context takes on a meaning of such power and eloquence, I can barely type it without wanting to cry:
"To infinity and beyond."
I'm sure that, for the parents and family members of these children, the passing years have done little in easing the pain of the absence of their loved ones. But they have given the rest of us a gift, a kind of human-scale memorial that reminds us that infinity and beyond is never really that far away.
These memorial benches are all up and down West Cliff Drive, and, indeed, all over Santa Cruz County. It's no coincidence that most of them are near the ocean. From our small human perspective, the ocean has always represented incomprehensible vastness, and gazing out at the sea has always been, at least for me, a tonic against the obsessive brooding on the persistent blues of day-to-day living.
Some may find them morbid or sentimental. Some may not even notice them at all. But count me among those who see the benches as the one element that transforms West Cliff -- or the wharf, or the harbor -- from pretty spots to holy ones.
I have, in fact, become a kind of student of the aesthetics of the memorial bench. The benches lack the sobering sanctity of the graveyard. There is rarely any sort of religious iconography or language associated with them. By their very nature, they aren't able to convey that kind of gravity; after all, they're designed to give you a place to park your, uh, well let's say, the least sacred part of your body.
Plus, you enter a cemetery with the expectation, indeed the desire, to ponder the mysteries of this ephemeral thing we call life. But a memorial bench brings the possibility of accidental discovery, that someone out for her early evening jog might stop and be open to a reminder that she's alive when others are not, that death isn't some quarantined thing that stays confined to the graveyard.
In that sense, the bench is a modest little access point to spirituality, a kind of water fountain for the eternal soul.
I like reading the names on the benches, and I think dates are important. Not all of them have dates, and I find that a shame. In what time you lived and for how long are two of the most important facts about you. They are handles on memory.
On those benches that do have dates, I have found a higher-than-usual proportion of people who have died young -- perhaps not as young as sweet little Kyra and Gabriel, but long before their allotted three score and ten.
Of course, age is the factor that determines whether any given death is a tragedy. And perhaps it's this sense of injustice that prompts those whose loved one died before growing old to want to carve his/her name into a bench. For whatever reason, the benches of Santa Cruz are heavily populated with people who died in their 30s and 40s, and they usually carrying the most moving epitaphs -- "Remember me whenever you see waves shining in the sun," "With arms wide open, my sacrifice" and, wistfully, "Gone fishing."
There are, however, among the memorialized, those who squeezed every minute out of their lives that time would allow. There is Mr. Kyushiro Mine, who lived just a few years short of 100: "After a long journey, peace." Some epitaphs opt to reflect the irreverent spirit of the departed -- "Always whittling and whistling," and, for Brett Gardner, who must have been a laid-back dude, "No shoes or shirts required."
The best epitaphs, however, remain those that are simple, personal and remind us that there's a real human behind these engraved numbers and letters -- "My bohemian man has gone to the Great Beyond and a better home," and simply, "My one and only love."
Taking a breather from a walk or a run, I use these benches for their intended purpose, for sitting and reflection. They create a zone to think about what we too rarely think about: those we love, and what we're doing every day to create the memories that will, sooner or later, be all that's left of us.
The benches face the ocean, that beautiful nothingness that reflects back to us all we truly believe. But they are surrounded by the mundane elements of quotidian life, rolling cars, chattering walkers, houses containing the ordinary trappings of living -- all of which eventually prompts me to stand, leave the bench and follow my grateful heart back to those I love, to the life I'm inhabiting, to the gifts I've been given, to infinity and beyond.