by Kari L. Bukowski as part of Debby Gaines' Creating Stories and Sharing Lives Community Writing Class
A year or so after my dad passed, my sister emailed me and my mother to say that she was coming in from California to see us on the 4th of July; her note simply said that she was longing to enjoy a “good, old-fashioned, Midwestern 4th with family.” Other than the fun family reunions we had at my aunt’s house on a lake in St. Cloud, Minnesota, when we were just kids, I couldn’t immediately think of anything that would spark such a nostalgic statement from my sister. But given her flair for the dramatic and even grand gesture, I didn’t think much of this outpouring of sentimentality as I responded to her email. I was just glad she was going to come out to visit for the holiday. This was a new twist in her usual timing of visits home, but all of us were still adjusting to new normals – my mom to being alone, I to being without Dad and separated, with divorce pending, and my sister still missing Dad as deeply as I.
That 4th of July visit was much more purposeful than she initially let on, and that became clear when she broke the news she had discovered her husband was having an affair (had been for a year, as it turns out), and that she was going to file for divorce. The fact the affair had begun and was continued while the two of them were in counseling sealed the deal. There was no going back. Unable to stand being in the house with her husband while this pain of discovery was so raw, she had literally made the decision to come home on the spur of the moment, opting for flight before she had to prepare to fight. She needed a place of comfort and security to tend her wounds, get her thoughts sorted out, and be nurtured back to a semblance of emotional health. To that end, she cleared her schedule and got on a plane.
This 4th of July was actually our second one without Dad. The first had come just a few short weeks after his memorial service, for which my sister and her family had been out, but they had to return home before the holiday rolled around. This 4th was the first I ever recall spending as just mom and daughters. My sister, wanting to do something meaningful to remember Dad, decided we should all put together a planter for his graveside for the remainder of the summer season. This gave us a little project to pursue together, a simple but meaningful task, that would involve planting living things, our expressions of growth, symbols of beauty, possessing the innate ability to flourish even though we ourselves were in various stages of pain and grief, my sister’s the most raw.
Having settled on the task, our first stop was the garage, where mom had a lovely ceramic planter we all agreed was portable enough to tote to the cemetery. We measured its diameter and depth and headed to a nearby local nursery that always has a lovely variety of plants. As our good fortune would have it, the mother of one of my former high school students was working that day, and she made it her personal mission to help us find just the right things once she learned our purpose.
Ever so patiently she walked us from greenhouse to greenhouse, showing us a variety of flowers while expounding on some suggested choices. In the end we determined we wanted a succulent, my sister’s preference, that would be hearty, would spread, and could cascade over the edges of the planter over the course of the season. We settled on Portulaca Grandiflora, or moss roses, and were able to get several different colors to create a rainbow effect. Loaded up with the starter plants and a bag of good, organically-rich potting soil, we headed home.
It didn’t take long to fill the pot, which we did along-side the garage so as to avoid spilling dirt on the driveway. Mom likes things clean and neat, so even dirt spilled outside would have bothered her. The potting soil had a rich, organic aroma that filled our nostrils as we dug holes for the tiny plants, inserted them in the loam, and tamped them down.
We opted not to water them until we reached the cemetery, simply to avoid adding heaviness to the planter, which we had to carry both to the car and then to Dad’s marker. Since the outdoor pump at the cemetery doesn’t work, my sister and I found a re-sealable container in which to safely tote some water, loaded up the planter, and were ready to head out when Mom called to us from the house. She was inspired to also have us load up a cement garden gnome my sister had brought back from a trip to England years before as a gift for my parents. Gnomes in general, and this one in particular, had been a favorite of Dad’s, and his coloring was a perfect match with the planter. The two items were destined to spend the summer together – a companionable pair - until fall rolled around.
We arrived at the cemetery in the mid-day heat of the summer sun, pulled the planter and gnome out of the car, and walked them down the row containing Dad’s headstone. As I carried my burden, I tried to recall the last time I had completed a simple project like this with my mom and sister. Living so many miles apart for decades has kept my sister out of our day to day lives here in the Midwest, and though I help Mom periodically with things, she’s very much independent, and my own life is busy with work and various commitments. It felt good to be together, to be working together, to be hauling something tangible together that we had created together to mark Dad’s resting place. I think he must have been smiling down on us as he watched all “his girls” come for such a special visit, and the thought of was comforting.
Placing both items in careful proximity to the stone, but also well within the mowing paths, we watered our creation and, sweating, stood back and admired our handiwork. There were some tears as each of us was lost for a bit in our own private thoughts or words spoken quietly (I have made it a habit, particularly in the first years after his death, to go to the cemetery and speak to him regularly) before we turned back toward the car and headed home for a tall glass of much-deserved “good, old-fashioned 4th of July” lemonade.
It didn’t dawn on me until later that the first and only other time the three of us girls had been in that cemetery together was also a day on which there had been a project. It was a year and two months earlier, the day we got the news of dad’s final cancer prognosis and his end of life timeline. After the doctor delivered the sad news with appropriate condolences, having shown us the PET scans in which Dad’s insides lit up like a Christmas tree, we cried together as a family and showered our grief-filled love on him for the better part of an hour. Finally, tears dried up and a certain numbness set in. That’s when he said he needed us all to do him a favor; he needed us to go pick out his burial plot. He said he didn’t have to see what it looked like. He just needed to know where it would be and know that the matter had been taken care of. What could have seemed like a truly horrifying request actually set us in motion after an hour in which it seemed time had stopped.
As hard as it must have been for him, he gave us that important, thoroughly heart-breaking task to move us forward together out of our love for him, bonded by a common purpose. It was something we could do for the man who had always been there for us, a way to give him some time alone to begin the deeply personal struggle of grappling with his impending mortality, a way to put his mind at ease on this one count. He did similar things many more times in the remaining weeks of his life, moving the ones he had loved so deeply in this life forward, knowing full well he wouldn’t be able to make our journeys with us. With a year’s perspective, I saw the amazing strength and wisdom and grace it took that day to send us, his girls, to purchase the plot he will eventually share with Mom.
As I allowed my thoughts to drift back to that April day a year before, I remembered we called and made an appointment to meet the caretaker of the quaint, old, local cemetery that sits on a lovely hill not far from our homes. Appropriately named Pinnacle Hill, the small space possesses undulating slopes surrounded by ancient pines that lend it quietude and set it apart as sacred ground. Though there are two entrances, there is only one horse-shoe shaped road running between them. Consequently, when we pulled in at the appointed time, we couldn’t miss the car out of which climbed the 85 year old woman carrying a hand-drawn poster board of the plots, wearing a plaid coat and matching fedora, who was making her way toward us with the assistance of her hand-carved walking stick replete with a mallard duck for its crown.
We awkwardly introduced ourselves, and very business-like she explained pricing, the rules of what décor could and could not be placed at gravesites, the maintenance services provided, and then proceeded to explain how to read the poster board, giving us some time to walk around with it and determine which plot we wished to purchase. We chose one in line with an ancient pine. After confirming it was available, the caretaker clarified in which direction Dad’s head would be placed, which side of the two-person plot would be his, and which side would someday be Mom’s. These customs are based on etiquette linked to the wedding ceremony. Dad and Mom will lie in the same positions as they had once stood when they walked down the aisle to begin their life together. This custom was quaintness beyond belief. My mind instantly juxtaposed the two images – wedding and burial. Because it was clear there was nothing else to be done but make the payment, Mom pulled out her checkbook, and the deed was done. It was surreal, and it was done.
I recall standing there that day, perhaps in shock, for a few minutes before we remembered we needed to move – to start walking back to our car. The gravity of the simple task we had just completed seemed to root us to the ground for just a few moments as we wrapped our heads around the fact that when all is said and done, this is what it boils down to: a piece of earth in which one’s remains will rest once he has crossed over into eternity, and for which his family can write a check to a complete stranger on a spring day in April.
Exhausted but starving, as I don’t know that any of us had even eaten breakfast before meeting the doctor in the hospital room hours before, we decided to go somewhere to have lunch. We ended up at a favorite, local, Mexican restaurant eating chips and salsa, tacos and rice, and my sister and I drinking jumbo margaritas. Mom initially looked horrified that we would order such large drinks, but they were the special of the day – a bargain. And, having just had such a surreal experience there seemed to be no better way to process what we had just done together. Even Mom took a couple of sips once the food arrived, something I don’t think I had ever witnessed before. The food was good, the margaritas sweet, we were together and had done as Dad asked, but our hearts were broken…
…And there we were again, a little over a year later, marking Dad’s headstone with flowers we had chosen and planted together. It seemed a fitting way to bring our journey to this hallowed ground full-circle, and I marveled at how much had changed in all three of our lives in just a year’s time. The circle of life strikes home profoundly in moments such as these. A few days later my sister headed back to California, back to the personal battle that awaited her, feeling somewhat restored – steady enough to have formulated a game plan and determine some next steps that would allow her to move forward.
As the rest of that summer unfolded, I went periodically to the cemetery to water and check on the planter and gnome. One such day my eyes were met with an amazing surprise. When I parked my car and looked down the row containing Dad’s headstone, I could see that the once-tiny flowers had begun to cascade over the planter’s edges, just as we had hoped. I was thrilled! There was a spring in my step as I walked down the row, and I could see one particular tendril was remarkably longer than the others. In fact, once I got up close, I realized it was literally growing toward the firmly planted garden gnome. When I knelt at ground level, my heart smiled. A single, perfect, pink moss rose had bloomed at the end of the tendril and was sitting right under the nose of the gnome. There he was, literally, smelling the roses, and I could almost hear Dad’s laughter at such a marvelous metaphor.
Kari is a state-line resident, the mother of three wonderful grown children, and a 25-year veteran high school English teacher who has loved literature and writing since she was a child. Mid-life and empty nesting have given her the opportunity to re-visit her writing passion more personally and reflectively.