My breath caught when I saw the e-mail.
The subject line read, “Dad’s Graveside Monument.” The body of the e-mail was my mother’s voice explaining different options for a headstone to place at my father’s grave. The word surreal is used with relatively high frequency. A thesaurus gives you strange, weird, odd, unreal, dreamlike, fantastic, and bizarre as potential word choice alternatives. The moment felt like all of those descriptors. It felt like – like life had so many ways to go, but it went this way. It went the way of me opening an e-mail with this subject line, with this content. And it’s sitting amongst the crowd of routine messages in my inbox. Yes it felt dreamlike. Like a dream, but not a dream.
I find myself driving through cornfields. I see the windmills turning in deceiving slowness. Sunlight rims the white borders making them glow. My memory flashes back to myself as a small body watching them turn through the backseat window of my family’s Astro van. I’m squeezed into a small space next to the car seat of my baby sister. My mom is saying something about how for her it will always be Lake Michigan, but for my dad it will always be the Indiana farmland. It stretches as if the world could be endless. Rhythmic rows stream past my eyes as we speed closer to my grandma’s home. The windmills were not always in the landscape. But over the years, they slowly dotted along the side of the road, sprouting and spreading as if a web of dandelions in the summer.
I realize that I am close. I type “Earl Park cemetery” into my GPS. It tells me adding this stop will increase my journey by thirty-two minutes. I hit cancel before it totally reroutes. I press into the small of my back so it is flat against the cushion of my seat. I flex my toes inside of my shoes. I wish I was wearing my trusty leather sandals, but a dog ate them a week earlier. I try to tune my mind back to the podcast I have playing. I focus back on the road in front of me. And I see the windmills.
I hit the search icon on my GPS again. Type in the same three words. Watch it load a new route, and again hit cancel. I do this three more times.
I don’t know if I want to go alone. I don’t know if I should be alone when I see it for the first time. I don’t know what sort of reaction I am going to have. I am worried being there will tear me up and I won’t have anyone to help keep the pieces from blowing away in the wind.
But I am so close. Thirty-two minutes. I continue to stare at the road ahead of me. As I look forward, red and orange and yellow and white dance in my right periphery. There were an abundance of flowers after the wedding was over. My sister collected stems from the centerpieces and sent me with a sweet collection arranged in a wide vase. I had buckled the vase into the passenger seat for the drive, my quiet and friendly companion.
It dawns on me in an instance, I feel like an idiot for not realizing it sooner. I literally have a bouquet of flowers from my sister’s wedding less than two feet from me. I hit search on the screen one more time. I let it load. I don’t hit cancel.
I am slightly worried that I am going to lose my signal and wind up directionless in the deep heart of the growing cornstocks. I do my best to pay attention to all the road markers as I take turns. Eventually I come to a road that plucks at a cord I didn’t know was in my chest. A road that feels very dreamlike. I remember the procession of cars. In the movies they are all black. But these cars weren’t so uniformly nondescript; among them I could recognize my brother’s mini van loaded with car seats and my aunt and uncle’s beige SUV. I remember driving through the gates right up to the spot. The earth was open. The day was grey. The wind was strong; it stole our voices and pushed little bodies into laps to huddle under jackets.
I park. Today my car is the only one. The air is warm but overcast. Rain showers are breaking in and out of formation.
I unbuckle the vase of flowers. I open my door. I walk toward this patch of land where statues and stones grow in place of trees. I don’t remember the exact spot. Before the ground had felt so naked. So exposed. So fresh. So raw. I wonder if it will still feel like this. I wonder if I will be able to see the lines of newly planted grass. I try and picture how the mock-up sketches I saw will look in real life. I know I am getting closer, but I don’t see it yet. I pass three graves with my last name. They tell me I am close.
When I see it my breath is swept up into the wind, the wind churning in the giant blades of the windmills. Dreamlike. Colors markedly vibrant. Rich green softness beneath my feet. Cool black stone sitting as a sort of throne. The warm red and yellow and orange petals, nodding on stems in rhythm with the breeze. Clear light leaking through the patchless parts of the sky.
To be here. To reach with my hands for a physical closeness. And then to only feel grass wrinkling under my feet and the ridges of carved lines under my fingertips. I sink to my knees.
Here he is. In a dreamlike way. Here he is and how I have missed him. Missed him in an every day and night sort of way. It’s not so terribly quiet. The wind’s voice keeps the worst of the loneliness away.
Maybe it could be like a phone call. Like I was away at college or gone for the summer. I feel gripped by this strangely specific type of missing. This missing of talking with him. Of being listened to by him. Knowing words he would say because he always said them. But wanting to hear them again because his voice made them more true.
My legs fold underneath me, pinching on my heels. I sink further. My heart seems to be the weight pressing me closer to the ground. I figured I would probably cry, but I was only expecting to cry from my eyes – not my shoulders, my ribs, my lungs. In the shaking, in the folding, I start to speak.
And I feel close. Somehow this spot means so little and so much. This spot on a map, an address to type into my GPS. Two dates carved into black marble. Bookends to this person. Markers of a real life. I can sit here and press my hand against the numbers and letters. I can let myself into the space that held him. The letters that made up his name and the numbers that measured his time.
The words coming out of me wouldn’t be very good dialogue in a movie. I say things about the wedding. The things he would have loved. How we thought about him all day long. I tell him about the new things I am doing. That I actually finished school and got a job and moved to a new city. My uncertainty with all the things I’m doing. How I don’t actually know what I’m doing. How I don’t actually know where I’m going. How I am hoping in a desperate and deep way that maybe it’s okay to not know either of those things and in that uncertainty I can instead find a certainty of being.
I want to hear him say it again. See it in his wide earnest eyes. Hear him say that he’s proud of me. That not everyone could do what I am doing. But that even if I wasn’t doing any of it, it wouldn’t change a thing. It wouldn’t change a damn thing. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. But for me it was just the opposite. This beautiful safety of an unearned and effortless belonging.
I miss this. I miss him. I sit and let the loss intertwine with the wind and feel it blow across the skin of my face and through strands of my hair.
The sky is big around me. I feel small. But not unimportant. In its expanse, I feel more aware of myself. Maybe unsure of the doing and going, but I feel a soft contentment with being fill in the space between the ground and my body kneeling above it. No matter where I go, it seems to follow me. I don’t always notice it. But in moments like this when my thoughts are full of the sky and the wind and time and life and death and love and safety, I know I will always have it.
Above this growing grass and under this wide sky, I can touch this solid stone that marks him. It stakes a claim that he lived, he was. I like the idea that coming to this place only adds thirty-two minutes to my drive back home to Ohio. Its permanence is reassuring. It will be here even when I am not. I can come back and find it again.
What is this human desire to remain?
Eventually I rise to my feet. They carry me back to where my car is parked. And I drive home. I don’t bother buckling the empty vase in beside me this time.
My memory takes me back to a different day. At the visitation before the memorial service, I stood with my family. We stood together in the midst of swirls of people passing across us with their words pouring over us. The forming pool ran in a river too rapid to make sense of. But a father of a friend anchored himself across from me. He had round glasses and a round face. I had only known his daughter a few months and met him once or twice. He had earnest father eyes too. His mouth opened in honesty. He said he wanted to tell me what he wished someone would tell his daughters someday when he is gone. The words were simple.
“The goodness of your father cannot ever be forgotten because that goodness lives in you.”
While he is gone in a very permanent way, while the stone marking his grave carries a finality I can never fight, while I didn’t have a choice but to receive this immeasurable loss… I have something that will always remain. That will remain with the same degree of irrevocability. That is as much a part of me as my internal organs, and as equally important to live. I can’t quite name it goodness. I can’t name it affection, or kindness, or grace, or love. I think maybe it’s a word that is all of these words summed and multiplied. I think maybe the word is belonging.
The place with the giant sky, the statues like trees, and the fence of windmills is still in Indiana. The day I was there will always be July 23rd, 2018. But something has come with me, crossing over state borders and laws of time. Like the brokenness that has become a part of me, a wholeness has found its way in as well. Both will remain. And with greater permanence than a marble block mounted on cement foundation.