Rich Wilhelm

The Moments

In Cliff Hillis, fatherhood, Laurel Hill Cemetery, marriage, Uncategorized on May 30, 2016 at 9:45 am

My younger son Chris and I were cruising down the Schuylkill Expressway early on a recent Saturday morning, one of the only times you can legitimately use the word “cruise” when describing a trip down that legendarily congested road. As we headed east, our friend Cliff Hillis was advising us to hang on to the moment, once it begins. Not to get stuck in the moment, but to catch a glimpse of the ephemeral nature of life and to realize when you are in the process of having a moment that you’re never going to forget.

Cliff wasn’t physically with us in the car, but his Song Machine CD was. Chris is slowly embracing pop music, one song at a time, so it took some repetitions of the first few tunes on the CD before we got to “Hang On To The Moment.” Once we did though, I realized that hanging on to the moment is one of the primary items on my agenda right now.

Chris and I were headed to Laurel Hill Cemetery, making “Hang On To The Moment,” a appropriate soundtrack. Imagine the infinite amount of life moments represented in a cemetery holding more than 80,000 permanent residents!

We were on the way to witness the removal of the General Meade tree, a Norway Maple more than 160 years old. This tree had shaded the grave site of General George Gordon Meade ever since his funeral in 1872. The tree was beautiful but had reached the end of its natural life.

Think about the moments that tree silently witnessed. Of course, the Meade funeral was the most famous. Meade’s body was brought to the cemetery via the Schuylkill River and President Ulysses S. Grant delivered a eulogy. But the tree was witness to hundreds of other, smaller, funerals over the course of its lifetime as well.

Once we arrived at Laurel Hill, Chris and I observed the early stages of the tree removal and then took a walk deep into the south section of the cemetery. At one point, we were as almost as far away from Laurel Hill’s gatehouse as you can get, while still being in the cemetery.

We visited the small mausoleum of William C. Dulles, a 39-year-old lawyer who had the misfortune of boarding the Titanic in 1912. Here was a man who was forced to become suddenly and grimly aware of the limited amount of moments in one’s life. How did he react? Very little is known about Dulles, so we don’t know what those last moments of his were like. We only know what is noted, somewhat oddly, on his tomb: “Died from Titanic, April 15, 1912.”

Not far from Dulles lies Charles Vansant, the first victim of the infamous Jersey shore shark attacks of 1916. He was just 25 years old when he waded into the surf with a dog 100 years ago this July 1. Again, not much is known about Vansant these days, only that his quarter century of life moments ebbed that summer day, as he was surrounded by shocked family members and onlookers.

While in the south section, we also visited the stump of another recently removed tree. It was under this one that fictional character Rocky visited the grave site of his also-fictional wife, Adrian, and contemplated the moments they shared.

So, yes, a walk through Laurel Hill can be a reminder to hang on to the moment. But of course, you shouldn’t need a  graveyard stroll to get what Cliff is saying in his song. Each time our life changes in some way, we’re invited to hang on to the moment.

The day I met Donna.

The day Donna and I got married.

The days that our sons Jimmy and Chris were born.

The day my dad died.

These, and some more private to mention here, are the days when I was being gently told to hang on to the moment. I’ve tried to listen and do just that, but the moments get so slippery after awhile, it can be hard to hang on, especially as the mundane details of everyday life threaten to swallow up every waking moment, including those when one ought to be sleeping.

During the next two weeks, we will celebrate the end of Chris’ middle school career and Jimmy’s high school graduation. Moving on to high school and college will surely bring changes for our boys–changes that we can tell have already begun–and life will never be the same for any of us.

It is an exciting time. A sad time. A scary time. A time of change and growth and opportunity. A time during which I want to wrap my wife and our sons up in a huge hug that lasts a long time, even as Donna and I wave the boys in the direction of their futures and just tell them, “Go for it, whatever it is.”

And it’s a time to hang on to the moment.

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Patrick F. O'Donnell

writer, editor, general wordsmith and scribe

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