It was much different than I had imagined.
In my mind, it was Flanders’ Fields, row upon lonely row of grave markers with the Florida sun beating down relentlessly, shadows pirouetting around the stones as the day grew longer.
In my mind, it was a lonely place, as lonely as my grief still has the power to make me feel.
I never went to my dad’s funeral. I couldn’t, for even if I hadn’t been less than two months from the anticipated arrival of my second daughter, it is against Jewish law, and more importantly, very bad luck for a pregnant Jewish woman to attend a funeral. With so many unfortunate things happening to my family in the past few years, I don’t think my mother could have handled me blatantly tempting fate in such a way.
No mind; the point is that my dad died, and was buried, without me, and it is something that has weighed heavily on me since. And so, when the opportunity came to return to Florida, to enjoy a week together as a family; to allow my girls the opportunity to spend good, intimate time with their grandparents; to visit my dad for the first time in over a year – I said yes.
I saved the two-hour drive to Florida National Cemetery until our second-last day, afraid that going any earlier would cast a pall over our entire trip. So instead of being depressed and sad for the duration, I was instead irritable and sad with anticipation. On Thursday, I woke up early, took a deep breath, and we headed out.
Bee stayed with her grandparents, and Dove, whom my dad missed meeting by 9 weeks, came with us.
It was a peaceful drive, and I tried to rally myself for the experience. But as we finally turned off the I-75, sadness overtook me. I thought of my sisters, who, one year earlier, had driven this same stretch of road, devastated and feeling lost. I thought of how circumstances had not only denied me that experience, but also shielded me from the difficulty of it. I thought of my brother who didn’t attend the funeral and hadn’t been back; who couldn’t bear going so far and not seeing his father waiting for him at the airport. I don’t think my brother will ever go back.
I was immediately struck by how beautiful the cemetery was, sprawling grounds protected on all sides by the Withlacoochee State Forest. We drove the little winding roadways shaded by so many towering trees, baffled by the cryptic numbering system of the cemetery’s many sections. We had to double back a few times before we found the section we were looking for, and I had to laugh over that, the irony being that my dad was notoriously bad with directions.
We parked by Section 327 and I got out of the car. The spot was beautiful. If you’ll allow me a very Floridian analogy, it looked like one of Mickey Mouse’s round ears, jutting off of a larger ‘head.’ The section was ensconced in pine, oak and hickory forest, and as I walked the rows, looking for his site, I was filled with a sense of calm.
I found my dad, second from the end of the row farthest from the little road, the shade of the trees dancing over the stone. I was relieved. And then I looked at the stone.
From the back, all of the grave markers looked the same. Not the generic white crosses that are so often the image of a military cemetery, but lovely, large white marble stones. From the back, all the same, but each, of course, marked with a different name, a rank, a date, a word or two. I knew my dad would have a stone like this; my sisters had consulted me on the inscription, but coming face to face with my dad’s name carved into a marble stone – well, it made my heart lurch.
It was surreal, and caught me a bit by surprise, and I offered the grave a startled greeting. Was he here? I couldn’t tell. I put my hand on the stone, and tried to feel something. The rest of the inscription was my dad’s rank, (RM3), his military association (Navy), the name of the war he fought in (Vietnam), his dates of birth and death (Too close together. Much too close together.) and then the two lines of a personal message that we were allowed to add, ‘Beloved Father and Grandfather.’
This was my dad? Was this my dad? I understood that this was, of course, a military cemetery, and so his military affiliation was important here, but that’s not who my dad was – it was just an exciting and interesting story he used to tell about someone we never knew.
I placed four rocks on his grave marker, one for each of his children, and I just started babbling; making jokes and talking to my dad as though we were on his lanai and it was two years earlier, before he got sick, before everything got so complicated and so sad.
I felt disconnected; too warm and too far away from the person I loved. I wanted to sit down, but nobody sits in the grass in Florida; coarse, prickly grass full of fire ants that were already biting my exposed feet.
And then my daughter cried out for me from her perch in her father’s arms.
I took her, and kneeled in front of the stone. I looked at the words, ‘Beloved Father and Grandfather.’
‘Dad,’ I said, ‘This is Cassidy.’
And I started to cry.
After a minute, Chris took the baby back and I told him that I would meet them in the car. I needed some time, just the two of us.
I sat in the grass that nobody ever sits in, and I cried.
I steeled myself and took a deep breath and got ready to go several times, but I didn’t want to leave. I kept sitting, and crying, and as the ants bit my ankles, my legs, my hands, I told my dad how much I missed him.
Eventually I was able to get up. I didn’t say goodbye, I simply stood up, blew my nose and started walking back down the row I had come, towards the car.
The trip was not a cathartic one, but in the weeks since I visited my father’s grave for the first time, I do feel as though there is something slightly more tangible to attach my father’s death to. It didn’t bring me peace, just a better visual than the one I had previously had in my mind.
It took me a year to be able to visit my father’s grave; I don’t know how much time will have to pass before I can open the suitcase full of his things I have in my basement. Those are memories that I feel, for now, are safer in my heart than in my hands.