That's not as maudlin as it sounds. My mom is buried in a shaded part of Glendale Cemetery in Des Moines, surrounded by rows of hedges on two sides, and often, I've visited her grave to sit and think, or to read. I rarely cry when I visit my mom's grave; I don't really remember her, so the tears are more likely to come when I miss the idea of her, or wonder what it would have been like to have her in my life.
But today was a little different. For the first time, I was visiting the familiar gravesite not only to see my mom, but my dad, who was buried not even two months ago. I hadn't visited the cemetery since the day he was buried, which some people have found strange -- but I haven't needed to go there to remember him. Besides, my grief is still fresh. I hadn't been ready to see his name on the headstone.
Today, though, I knew I had to make it happen; it's Mother's Day weekend, and I needed to see my mom. What to do with the fact that Dad was there as well? I had no idea, and I envisioned things wouldn't turn out well. Suffice it to say I've spent the last few weeks crying a lot.
But armed with flowers, a little shovel and a watering can, I headed out. Glendale typically mows down fresh flowers, but -- eternal optimist that I am -- I told myself the groundskeepers there certainly won't mow down mine, because they'd be so pretty. I drove to the familiar spot and approached the stone, looking out of the corner of my eye as if to avoid contact with someone I don't want to have to talk to at a party. But soon I was upon it, faced with his name and with the mound of gently sloping bare earth.
And something odd happened: I didn't feel like crying. I waited for the throat tightness to come, the welling-up to start, the floodgates to open. But ... nothing. I looked from her name to his, and back again. "Hey, Dad," I said stupidly, to no one. My voice sounded small and far away. I looked around some more.
And then I got busy.
I watered the earth to soften it, and I planted two tall, bright-orange lilies and two rows of dark-purple petunias. The earth felt good under my nails as I smoothed it down. I dug and patted and filled in and smoothed some more, and before I knew it, it was time to stand back and survey my work.
Dad and I had gone to the cemetery together on quite a few occasions, and today, I remembered how proud he always was of the way he cared for his parents' and other relatives' graves. Twice a year, he'd cut the weeds and wipe off the stones; he's plant flowers just so, washing his hands up to his elbows with water from a bucket when he was done. He'd kneel then and pray silently, making the sign of the cross when he was finished and reminding me to knock the dirt off my shoes before getting back in the car.
On the way home, he'd tsk-tsk about the unkempt gravesites; he'd criticize the families who appeared not to care about tending tombstones. He'd say that young people had no time for such things, and he'd voice his worry that once he was gone, no one would care for his family's graves -- maybe not even his. Of course, I'd reassure him that my sister and I would take care of things. But deep down, I wondered: Would I?
Today, I realized that without a doubt, I can, and I will. I found myself taking some pride in the way my parents' stone looked, with the urns filled with the artificial flowers my sister had placed there, paired with my contributions alongside and in front. I also found myself looking around and -- proving there's some of my dad in me -- making darned sure no one else's stone looked as nice.
I took a picture to show my husband and my sister, and I said a silent prayer. Then I walked to the car with a sense of lightness I hadn't come close to anticipating.
I miss my dad when I drive by his former home, or near the neighborhood in West Des Moines that houses the last skilled-care facility he stayed in. Every morning on the way to work, I tear up as I drive by the hospice facility where he died. I think of his walk or his voice or the unintentionally funny things he said, and my heart hurts.
I'm relieved, though, that the cemetery still seems to be a safe place for me; that even though that small plot of earth now houses the parent I knew for decades as well as the one I never really knew, the memories don't open up, swallow me whole, and prevent me from wanting to visit. Perhaps I'll feel as close to my dad there as I do to my mom; perhaps he'll speak to me there as she always does.
And perhaps the groundskeepers really will leave my flowers alone ... because, you know, they really are prettier than anyone else's.