Not all roads lead to the funeral home.
Last week I wrote about Scottish roads, and their correlation with the highs and lows of life. Just a few days later, my family and I drove to an overwhelming church for an overwhelming funeral.
As we jostled along towards the Milwaukee Marquette Campus, I closed my mind and tried to picture the Scottish roads. It helped. Remembering the unexpected nature of my road trips, the sense that the whole day could change without a moment’s notice, somehow eased the shock of Marc’s death. I remembered decaying towns marking the entryway into mountain passes, and seashell-lined coastal paths leading towards abandoned, neglected properties.
I remembered understanding that the road isn’t always as it seems.
Now, in the wake of it all, in the quiet mourning, I wanted to remember the Scottish roads again, but for a different reason: for the moments of happiness, and the little spots along the way I never expected to find, in hopes that the road may, indeed, lead us somewhere beyond the funeral.
For me, the adventures truly began in Stirling, my bizarre third date-turned-road trip. That fateful weekend taught me three things: One, there’s a statue of Robert the Bruce near the William Wallace Monument, which is confusing. Two, Chris and I road trip quite well together. We both enjoy M&S sandwiches and cookies, and we both wholeheartedly agree when someone suggests stopping for coffee. And three: The best way to see Scotland is by car – by exploring without limitations. We drove all over the country. We defined our weekends by new adventures, and over time, my vertigo from sitting on the (ahem) wrong side of the car began to fade.
And while reflecting on those moments the other day, I realized that we never listened to music. We laughed, and discussed life, and I educated him on the importance of Pottermore and being Officially Sorted. We listened to the sounds of the winds shake the car, and the low hum of the heater warm our numb fingers. But never music. The countryside of Scotland contains a quality unlike any I’ve ever encountered. You need only a window. Need only watch the sublimity of the rising and falling of the land, the lochs, the indecisive sky – greys and blues, and purple reflections of the vast valleys of heather – all fade in and out of the Scottish mists.
It was on one such trip when Chris and I came across Linlithgow, not to be confused with Longniddry, as Chris oftentimes does (Chris has given me full permission to lovingly mock him on my blog, I’m not actually that mean).
We arrived just as a couple prepared to wed. I wouldn’t mind marrying someone in a palace…as long as it’s nowhere near Rosalin Chapel (more on that later). I could imagine the bride-to-be: a mess of fluttering nerves on the verge of fulfilling the most fairytale flight of fancy. The ceremony would take place in Linlithgow Chapel, and then, in the adjacent Linlithgow Palace, the couple would hold their reception. For me, that meant I had a ten-minute window to use the bathroom before they barricaded the doors. For her, I hope it meant a dream on the verge of materializing.
I didn’t plan on spending much time in the chapel. After all, churches all tend to resemble one another after a while, and I couldn’t ignore the call of the nearby palace. But a kind, elderly man stopped me.
“Ahh, lassie, you seem to be this man’s better half!” he winked at my boyfriend. “Better three quarters, in fact.” His white bushy eyebrows waggled in jest.
With a warm smile, he took my arm, and began leading me around the church. Stained glass windows originating in the Victorian era caught the light; rays of color pooled over layers of stone.
One particular window was crafted in the 1990’s. I smiled and nodded as the man gushed over its beauty, and then I pretended I appreciated the rather abysmal sight. But I enjoyed my time in this chapel more than I can ever remember enjoying a church.
As it so happens, this kind man wasn’t the pastor, but an enthusiastic choir singer. I adored him. We may never have exchanged names, but I know he mumbled, “Oh crumbs,” with frequency, and I know he took pride in his town. In many ways, the church will remind you of many others just like it: intricate stonework, windows, and high vaulted ceilings. Hundreds of weddings, funerals, and prayers have breathed through these walls. And yet, this chapel means just a little bit more. So if you ever go, please say hi to the choir man for me.
As lovely as my experience may have been, the palace still called.
I find each castle, ruined or no, retains a different character from the last. This one felt warm and on the verge of life, as if the last residents had simply left for a stroll one day and forgot to return home. Even without the grand hall’s roof, it took little imagination to capture the camaraderie and grandiosity of its royal banquets.
Our footsteps echoed along empty floorboards. Where once cooks warmed the evening dinner over the fireplace, the rock had turned a pale, ghostly green.
Stairwells spiraled towards sheltered turrets. Almost no one but Chris and I seemed to occupy the space; perhaps everyone else had heard the wedding memo. Whatever the reason for our seclusion, the stone turrets felt swathed in secrecy, and while peering through the slits in the stone – ideal for shooting arrows – it seemed as if the rugged, rainy views existed for us alone.
I wondered how many soldiers had crouched in these turrets, surveying the quiet land for signs of battle or danger.
I wondered how many kissing couples had sought shelter here.
I wondered what people had seen while looking out across the land: a picture of healthy, rain-drenched meadows, or silent fields of red in the cold morning light.
The palace simply made me wonder – made me almost recall a time I only know through stories.
For full disclosure, I feared tumbling to my death on this little trip. For a few few precarious moments, I imagined the harsh gales flinging my body into the grey waters of Linlithgow Loch.
But we survived, and the quiet halls allowed me to listen to the winds from within our stone enclosures, and feel better acquainted with the palace’s past.
In many ways, I believe I fell in love with the town because I never expected to find it. Like a colorful seashell found on a suburban sidewalk, you value it more for the unanticipated joy it gives you. I fell in love with our spontaneity. I fell in love with the idea of stumbling upon a palace whilst going for a simple drive. And so I fell in love with Linlithgow.
Linlithgow may not matter to you. It’s possible you’ll never see this tiny town outside of Edinburgh. In this instance though, it’s not the place, but the feeling – the notion of stopping without expectations, of allowing the moments to guide our days, of the possibilities along the road.
Not all roads lead to the funeral home. Sometimes, they lead to a palace. I suppose it just depends on the day.