I wrote this last Christmas Eve (2011). At least, I wrote much of the words, thoughts, feelings. It was written in the evening, after the events described, when thoughts were racing, and emotions were high. It was, like much that is written in times of great emotional stress, a jumble. There were long, rambling sentences that probably only made sense to me. I put the draft aside, intending to go back in a few days to revise it, then post it. However, as I read it, the emotions were still too raw to articulate well, and the story too close, too personal to share. I put it away again.
On Christmas Eve this year (2012) I pulled it out, read it again, and discovered it wasn’t as jumbled as I had thought, though it was rather long and rambling. So, I’ve spent some time revisiting my story, trying to clarify thoughts and feelings so they (hopefully) make sense to someone other than me. It’s still personal, and the emotions are still raw. But, I think I’m ready to share. I hope someday, somewhere, a boy who has lost his father might read this and know that he’s not alone, that there are others who can understand his grief.
This is a bit longer than normal, so don’t start reading unless you’ve got a few extra minutes.
(The photo of the gravestones in the snow is an old snapshot I took on a different day, at a different cemetery.)
Christmas Eve. Perhaps not the best day to go to the cemetery to put flowers on my father’s grave.
I guess there aren’t really any days that can be considered the best day to go.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I have anything against cemeteries. Heck, I don’t even have anything against death.
Denver’s second-oldest graveyard, Fairmont Cemetery, is a few miles from our home, and it is one of my favorite places to go for a long walk. Fairmont’s 280 acres are filled with more than just tombstones: more than 3800 trees provide shade, and give shelter and home to a variety of wildlife. It’s a peaceful, calm, quiet oasis in the middle of a big, bustling, noisy city. Perhaps it’s not just the symbols of death, but, maybe it’s also the zen-like calm silence that all cemeteries possess that make people feel uncomfortable among the graves. In conversation, casually mention that you love to take long walks in the cemetery. You’ll find people’s reactions quite fun. The fact that I am walking among the dead doesn’t bother me; we find in cemeteries what we take with us: I believe that death is the final stage of life, and that there is nothing after death, so I am not haunted by the images of ghosts and stranded souls wandering around the tombstones, lost and forlorn.
Death is not something I find fearful or terrifying. Dying? Yes, that bugs me. The thought of a long, lingering, pain-filled, drugged up existence? Yeah. Bugs me. Terrifies me. But the death part? No. I’m fine with that. I am not afraid of non-existence. There’s a strange comfort in knowing that someday I will simply cease to exist.
Not in a suicidal fantasy way. No.
In the way that means that death brings an end to all the worrisome questions that echo through my brain:
“Am I too fat?”
“How bald will I get?”
“Wrinkles: how many, and how deep?”
“What if I lose my sight? My hearing? My ability to care for myself?”
“Will my penis stop working?”
“Will my stomach get so big I can’t see my penis?”
“What about a heart attack?”
“Will Julian and I still be together then? Will we have separated? Will I be a widow?”
“How many years might I spend alone, in a nursing home, with no one but the other dying, demented, lonely individuals for company?”
“How will I pay for it all?”
“I have no children, so who will help me if I’m old and alone?”
“Will I be so lost in Alzheimer’s that I won’t care?”
“If I have Alzheimer’s, will I forget about my penis? Will I even recognize my penis, and remember all the good times we’ve shared?” (I’m a guy. We think about our penis from time to time. Often. Frequently. Obsessively.)
“Will I be lost in Alzheimer’s, yet unable to let anyone know that in some deep recess of my mind there is a voice, my voice, shouting ‘I’m sane! I’m fine! Help me! I’m still in here, I’m just lost! Please find me!”
No. With all of that, death doesn’t seem like such a bad place to be.
And, the cemetery seems the least scary thing in life. Going to the cemetery to take flowers to my dad’s grave is not an emotional task. I go because mom wants to go. My need to visit my dad’s resting place has long since past.
Going to the cemetery, the cemetery my mom and I went to on Christmas Eve, means going to the military cemetery, where whatever remains of my father exists. Dad was not always buried here; from the time he died in 1980, until 2008, he was buried in Rhode Island, in the plot where my maternal grandparents rest. It seemed a natural thing at the time, burying dad in Rhode Island, as my mom spent a great deal of time there, and, I think, she thought she’d move back there some day. The years passed. We never moved. In 2008, my mom had my dad’s body moved from the family plot in Rhode Island to the military cemetery here in Denver.
There was a time, in the first few years after my fathers death that I wished his grave was closer. I was 14 when he died, and, as an adolescent, my understanding of death and dying was still based on the things I’d learned being raised in the Catholic tradition. I believed that some part of my dad was attached to the cemetery, to the stone, to the grave. I’m not sure exactly how, or what, but, in the religious tradition, there’s a belief that the dead are somehow in need of visiting. For a time, I wished I could visit him at the cemetery, that I could go and talk to him, in the way you see people in movies talk to the graves. I don’t remember all the things I wanted to say, though I do know that I wandered around for a long time feeling like he couldn’t hear me, because I was so far away. Years passed, life brought new experiences and beliefs, and I realized that the grave of my father was just a symbol, a memorial to the fact he once existed. I came to realize that my father lived inside me, and that I didn’t need to see a marker of his life, as I had the proof: my memories, even though there were not that many, and that they faded a bit each year. I have no emotional attachment to the place where his remains are. My dad lives in my thoughts. But, for my mom, there is still a desire to visit his stone. It somehow reestablishes her connection with him.
Eight inches of snow had fallen over the city two days before, and not much had melted away, except on the major roadways. This day, Christmas Eve, was my favorite type of Colorado winter day: a cloudless sky, bright blue, with blazing sun, and a chill in the air.
As we drove through the cemetery, I am instantly struck by the beauty ahead of me: a snow covered hill, sloping slightly upward, bordered by a brilliantly blue sky, with row after row of the iconically familiar while marble military gravestones. The blanket of snow on the hill is undisturbed, and the solitude of the scene addes a bleakness to it all, a sad reminder of all those who’ve served and died for our country. We make our way to the road where my father’s grave lay, park, and I get out of the car. Mom waits in the car. On the best of days, walking over the lumpy earth around the tombstones is tough for he; with eight inches of snow on the ground, we agree it would be safer for her to remain in the car.
Usually it takes a minute or two to find dad’s stone, one among all the other identical stones. Is it this row? No, maybe it’s that one there? Wait, it’s this one, yes, this one here.
This day, however, I walk right to it.
I use my foot to clear the snow away from the base of the marker, and slide the plant holder, containing silk poinsettias, into the ground.
As I kneel there, looking at the stone with my father’s name engraved on it, I am suddenly overcome with such a sense of grief and loss that the tears begin running down my cheeks before I am even aware of them.
“I miss you daddy.” I might have said this aloud.
I have never cried at my father’s grave before. Do not confuse “never crying at his grave” with “never crying for my father”. I’ve cried for my father. Many times.
More than thirty years after my father’s death, there are moments when I’m overcome with feelings that are so overwhelming that they can only be expressed in tears. The grief and loss nearly takes my breath away, and, if I wasn’t already kneeling, the pain that pierced my heart might have brought me to my knees. Though the emotions that attack me are stronger than any I’ve felt before, the emotions, are like old friends; I understand them without ever having to exchange words, a simple glance tells me in an instant all I need to know. It took me many years to finally understand the complexities of the emotions I felt about my dad’s death. The feelings and thoughts that take hold of me, there at my father’s headstone, are familiar, complex, and simple — it’s a sense of loss for man I know in a general sense as My Father, but, more profoundly, it is the certainty of the loss of a man named John, a man I’m named after, a man who is very much a stranger to me, a man I’ll never get to know.
For most of the years of my childhood, both of my parents worked two jobs. They worked so much that I didn’t have much time with them. My mother was a high-school teacher by day, and taught classes a few nights a week at the adult education center, so she had more time off than my father, since she didn’t work during the summers. My father worked full-time in a hospital lab by day, and, for many years, he worked full-time in a hospital lab at night. We didn’t know it at the time, but the brain tumor that would eventually claim his life at age 55 began taking it’s toll about two years before the doctors discovered it. He was more tired than usual, and fell asleep at work, and, while he never got test results mixed up, he did forget to run tests. He was asked to step-down from the lab, but, in order to not lose his pension, he was offered a janitor job at the hospital. The news travelled from one hospital to the other, and, instead of two lab jobs, my father had two janitor jobs. I remember once, hearing him tell my mom, his voice rather trembly, that he was sorry about the change in his jobs, and my mother, in an uncharacteristically tender voice told him that she would always love him, no matter what his job. It was a moment that has stayed with me all these years, as it’s a moment that defined what kind of people my parents were.
This sense of loss that often catches me unawares is grief, and an anger, an ache that I will never know more about who my father really was as a man. I know he was a father who loved me. Who worked hard to provide a good home for his family. Who went to church. Who never drank. Or smoked. I know what kind of father he was. I never got to find out who he was. Did he follow any football teams? What did he think of Nixon? Even though he changed from being in the Navy, to being in the Army, because he couldn’t swim, did he miss the Navy? Did he like being on the sea, in the big ships? I never got to talk to him in an adult way, just a father-to-young-son way. I never got to ask him about his political beliefs, or his spiritual ones. I never got to talk, as two grown men, about what it was like for him, coming home that day, when he was about 5, and he and his brothers found their mother hanging in the basement, a victim of suicide.
The feeling of loss that grabs ahold of me is a sense of being incomplete. Teenage boys learn from their fathers. Sometimes it’s basic skills: changing a flat-tire, repairing a leaky pipe, changing the oil in the car, how to shave. Sometimes, the things you learn from your father are more esoteric, things that only a man, most likely your dad, can teach you: explaining to you that the wonderfully intense feeling that woke you up and left you covered in sweat and sticky white stuff around your groin and on the sheets is a perfectly natural thing; teaching you, I suspect by example, how the world expects a man to behave, to react, to speak. I never learned any of those things from my father, many of them I’ve never learned at all. I can’t change the oil in the car, or, I should say, I’ve never bothered to learn. I have tried to teach myself how to do handyman things, and the results have always been less than adequate. I finally learned how to change a tire, when I was in my mid-twenties, out of humiliation, rather than desire. I had a flat and called AAA. That’s what my mom did whenever she’d had a flat. I had no idea one changed the tire on their own. The serviceman arrived, and when he saw that I was a young, able-bodied man, his attitude became contemptuous, his remarks snide. When he remarked that my dad would be disappointed that I couldn’t change my own tire, I told him sobbingly that my father had died when I was 14, and he’d never had the chance to teach me, and I hoped that he’d not be disappointed. To his credit, the serviceman was sufficiently embarrassed and contrite about his attitude and remarks, and took the time to show me what to do. Perhaps if I’d had older brothers, or uncles who lived around us, I’d have learned things from them. We had no relatives here in Colorado, and, the men in my life, friends of the family, were all older, and had raised their own children already. With one exception, a man named Mel, who is one of the kindest, most gentle of men that I’ve ever known, I had no male role models, no one to teach me those things that men seem to know. As an adult, I still get funny looks and stares, when talking to other men, and have to admit that I don’t know how to solder pipes, or I’ve never used a power saw. It’s funny the things that diminish us in other’s eyes. Whether my father could have taught me any of these things, I do not know. I never knew him well enough to know what he did or did not know.
The grief that engulfs me in those moments, like in this moment at the cemetery, is knowing that I missed bonding with my father. Men of my father’s generation, and in generations prior, as well as many of the men today, don’t express emotion in an obvious way. Dads of a certain upbringing don’t hug and kiss their sons, don’t say “I Love You”. Instead, fathers and sons have a thing that bonds them together. This thing, an interest in old cars, maybe; or fishing; camping; making birdhouses; golf; any of a number of things, is something that allow a father and son to spend time together, and gives them common ground in which they can relate to each other. These things that sons do with their dads, that they constantly talk to their dads about often make daughters and mothers roll their eyes, (as they share their own thing, creating that bond that mothers and daughters have).
Forgive me if I sound as if I’ve stepped out of “Father Knows Best” or “Leave It To Beaver.” I don’t wish to give the impression of holding on to some unrealistic ideologic image of how parents and children should be — I have no illusions. I’ve seen enough of other families to know that the bubbling, happy family is a rare thing. But, I also know, that in spite of all the drama and problems in families, there is, more often than not, something that binds a child to his parents. My mother and I have developed a bond. My father and I…well, my father and I had the bond a small child has with his or her father: a knowledge of safety and security and love.
Beyond that, there is nothing. Sometimes knowing I was loved is enough. Most often, though, it’s not enough, because I know so little of this man who loved me.
All that remains is an image, that gets fainter every passing year, of a man I once knew and loved in a childlike way.
Christmas Eve. I’m kneeling in the snow in front of my father’s grave. An enormous sense of grief and loss overwhelms me, tears flow, the emotions and feelings flash through my mind in a few brief moments–I’ve experienced them all before, so they don’t have to spend time explaining themselves to me. I understand in the briefest of moments where all my grief and anger come from. I feel their power, but, I no longer need the words to describe them.
I stare at the stone bearing my father’s name, and the whiteness of the stone makes me think that white is a good color for a gravestone. White is an absence; so is death. When you take color away, you’re left with white. When life is taken away, you’re left with a white stone bearing your name.
The grief vanishes as quickly as it arrived. I gather my thoughts, wipe the tears off my face, and make my way back to the car, careful not to look directly at mom as I get in, lest she sees a glimpse of my pain.
Each lost in our own thoughts, the drive home is as silent as the cemetery.