My father died in 1967, when I was eight years old. It happened while I was at school. Dad had a heart attack while he was at work. It was his third heart attack, and he was only 47 years old. I vaguely remember being pulled out of my class at school and taken home, but I don't remember by whom. I clearly remember walking into my house and noticing a lot of ladies milling about, ladies I didn't know. Then I saw my mother. And I knew right away that my father had died. I started to cry.
"What happened? Why?" I wailed.
Mom hugged me hard and we both cried. There were no answers.
Dad was buried in a Catholic cemetery. There was a simple marker placed on his grave. We didn't have much money, and Mom was being especially cautious now that Dad was gone. Apparently there was a typo on the headstone, which distressed Mom greatly. She complained about it for months. It wasn't the name or anything. Something really minor. Which, I guess, seemed major to her. I never saw the headstone because I wasn't at the burial. Mom thought it important that we be at the funeral so we could see Dad one last time. But she didn't want us at the burial. Maybe she could only contain her grief so many times. I guess the burial was her private goodbye.
We left Connecticut for Florida, where we had relatives, shortly after Dad's death and went on with our lives. After I graduated from high school, my mother suggested that my sister and I might want to make a visit to my father's grave, to lay some flowers and pay our respects. I think my mother always felt guilty about moving us so far away from our hometown. So far away from Dad. From everything we knew as little girls who were the apple of their Dad's eye. We had never been given the opportunity to grieve our father's passing. Mom didn't talk about it much. She put up a brave front and did all the things a mother should do. But she didn't talk about it. We were all supposed to be good soldiers. Look straight ahead and march onward. If anyone was suffering, you would have never known it.
As I pondered her suggestion of a visit to the grave, I was terrified. I wasn't ready for this. Not even close! I had never spent the time sorting out my feelings about my father's death. He had meant so much to me. I knew him so well even though I was just a kid. He commanded great respect from his friends and colleagues. He took us to the record store every Saturday morning and let us pick out anything we wanted, as many as we wanted. He bought us the best sled in the neighborhood, and would take us out right after a big snowfall so we could ride it. He always helped us with our homework and insisted that we be the best in the class. And we were. And then he was gone. I don't know if I was sad or angry or just plain confused. I wasn't allowed to feel anything. My duty was to march ahead. My mother must have assumed that in time any pain I might have felt would just go away. I know I hid it well for years. Until I realized I would have to face it if I was going to return for a visit. Then I knew right away how unprepared I was, and how much work I needed to do.
Years went by, and my mother would mention from time to time that it might be a good idea for my sister and I to visit Dad's grave. She finally prevailed upon my sister, and they both paid a visit in the fall of 1984. Mom later told me that the gravesite was not being maintained as well as it should. She and my sister had discussed this with the caretakers and were assured that things would improve. Nothing was ever said about how it felt to be back there. Did it hurt? Did they cry? Even worse, I didn't know how to ask. We had each carried our grief privately for so many years. At least I assumed they carried it with them. I knew I did. Although I didn't realize just how much.
The burden of the visit I knew I would someday make continued to grow, and it started to wear me down. I spent more and more time thinking about how I felt. Was I ready? Or would I just break down? I had no idea. What I finally realized was that this state of limbo was killing me. So I decided to go. Completely. I moved to Boston, which was about three hours away from our hometown. Why? I must have thought this needed to be one very long visit.
I relocated in the fall of 1991. I asked my sister to pay me a visit shortly after my arrival, ostensibly to help me settle in and also to take a short road trip in the area in order to get reacquainted. She graciously obliged. We decided to spend a week on the road. During the course of our meandering, I casually suggested that as we were in the general vicinity, we might want to make a stop at Dad's grave to check on things. Since I'd never been there, she could show me exactly where the grave was so that I could find it myself in the future. Of course, she had no idea just how important this all was to me.
We arrived at the cemetery on a rainy, chilly morning. The leaves were turning. The rain and wind had caused many leaves to fall to the ground, scattering them about the markers. My sister drove me to the area where she thought Dad's grave was. We got out and looked around but couldn't find it. I kept looking, farther and farther away from the area she had indicated. I was determined to find it. She simply grew impatient. Finally, we decided to check in at the caretaker's office and ask them to help us out. Surely they would know how to find him.
The woman in the office had to flip through several large, old books to find the information on Dad's grave. It had been twenty-four years since he died. I guess a lot of people had died since then. She jotted down the exact location of the plot and gave us directions on how to get there.
"Fourth row down, fifth marker on the left," she told us. We were confused but forged ahead.
As we walked outside I noticed one of the caretakers about to get on his cart . It appeared that he was going to make his rounds since the back of the cart was full of lawn equipment. He looked like a kind man, perhaps 65 or 70 years of age. I asked him if he would be willing to take us to Dad's grave, since I figured he knew the place better than we did. He said he would and asked us to hop on.
I gave the caretaker the piece of paper with the directions to Dad's grave and he started driving.
"Hmm, this name looks familiar," he said to my sister and me. "Was this your Dad?"
"Yes," I said.
"About how old would he be if he was alive today?"
"Seventy-one," I replied.
"I think I knew him," he said. He went on to tell me that he was quite certain he had worked with Dad many years ago, and that he remembered him as a great guy. He said Dad was well-liked and respected by everyone. Yes, I thought, that sure sounds like my Dad.
We were dropped off right at Dad's grave. My initial reaction was shock. The marker was barely visible. It was a modest gravestone, flush with the ground and about two feet long and a foot wide. Grass and weeds covered the surface, and the stone had sunk into the ground.
I think the caretaker noticed the look of horror on my face. He immediately grabbed some tools and cleared off the growth, then pried the stone up even with the ground. In no time it looked fine. Before he left, he told my sister and I that he would make a point of keeping an eye on Dad's grave and that it would always look nice.
At last, I was here. I sat down in front of the gravestone. The ground was damp but I hardly noticed. Then I touched the stone. The granite was cold and wet. I read the words on the stone carefully. My father's name, the date of his passing, the dedication. I found the typo that Mom had complained about. It was insignificant, as I had imagined. I had brought a dozen roses with me, twelve of the most perfect roses I could find. I could only give my father perfect roses, for he had been perfect to me. One by one I laid them carefully in front of the gravestone, making certain that the petals moved with the wind. I touched the stone again, allowing my fingers to trace the letters. I removed nonexistent blades of grass from the smooth surface. I made sure that the dirt around the marker had been adequately dug out so that it would be a while before it encroached on the stone again. I was simply delaying the inevitable. Thinking about Dad. About how much he had meant to me. How very special he was. And how terribly I missed him.
I sat there for a long time. A lot of things came back to me: adventures in our youth, birthday parties, dressing up on Easter Sunday. And I cried. Tears that I had held back for a long time. I was soaked from the rain and my tears. I could have stayed for hours. I wanted to. But my sister finally interrupted my sojourn.
"Kiddie, I'm soaking wet out here," she said. Aren't you finished yet?"
My sister was absolutely stoic. Not a tear, a sniffle. Nothing. It was obvious to me then that she had yet to make her peace with Dad's passing. But I already had.
San Francisco, California