I’m heading to Florida again, to the sun, the surf; to time splashing with my babies and holding hands with my husband. To my dad.
Last year, when I was visiting my dad for the first time since he left us, I was anxious. I was bitchy, I was on edge, and I nearly ruined our vacation, sick with the anticipation of visiting the place where my dad lay in the ground.
I think this time is different. I am still anxious, I have been bitchy, I am on edge and I am nearly sick with the anticipation of visiting the place where my dad lays in the ground. I’m just going to try really hard not to ruin our vacation with my grief this time.
Grief is a funny thing. My grief is a funny thing. I often think that it lives really low, way down in my belly, suppressed by the thought of travelling all that way to my heart, through all those acids and organs, and so it sits, heavy but dormant. Until.
Until conversation turns to the subject of him and I realize that we are speaking in the past tense. Until Bruce Springsteen comes on the radio, or I have a question that sends me instinctually to the phone, to dial his number for the elusive answer.
Until we plan to return to Florida and I have to visit him at Florida National Cemetery instead of in his living room.
Last year I introduced him to the granddaughter he left mere weeks too soon to meet. This year, I probably won’t bring her. An hour’s drive to a cemetery with prickly grass and not enough shade with a child who will understand that I am sad but not understand why, makes going to the cemetery even less appealing. But should I bring Bee? My lovely, sweet, inquisitive 4 ½ year old who knows that Big Guy is not around anymore, but has no idea of mortality, of the hard reality of death – of anything beyond, Big Guy died and Mummy is sad?
The other day, she asked me where heaven was. I took a deep breath and said, well, if you believe in heaven, then it’s in the sky. Oh, Bee replied, ok. Then she added, what is heaven? Another deep breath. Well, I said, if you believe in heaven, then you believe that it is the place you go after you die. Oh, she said again, ok.
I don’t’ really believe in heaven, or hell, or any utopian or fiery place that the spirit goes when you die. At least, I don’t think I do. I don’t know. What I do know is that I don’t’ want to have to explain to my lovely, sweet, inquisitive 4 ½ year old that we are standing on top of the place where my father’s bones are buried. That the stone with his name on it is marking the place where my father’s bones are buried. That we put rocks on the stone to signify that we were here, that he is missed, that he is loved. I don’t lie to my kids, but I’m not quite ready to tell them the truth.
So I’ll make the drive to Florida National Cemetery with Chris next to me and nobody in the backseat, distracting ourselves from the thought of our destination with jokes and music and wistful comments about how nice it is to be able to have an uninterrupted conversation, thanks to the empty backseat.
But I’ll feel it rising. That ball of grief that usually sits heavy but docile in my belly. I’ll feel my stomach churn as it snakes its way up; I’ll feel my breath get shallower as it pushes against my expanding lungs until finally my heart starts beating double-time, conceding space to this thing that callously left the spot it had burned in my body to thrust itself onto my consciousness, into my blood, into my throat.
I will sit and weep as I look at the words on the headstone. I will miss him and curse him and think that I am ready for this pain, but I won’t be. And eventually, my grief and my husband and I will have to leave; to get back to my children and our vacation and our life. And I will leave my dad, under the ground made heavier by the weight of the rocks I have placed on his grave marker and the weight of my tears seeping into the soil, and I will leave him to the earth; to the trees, whose dappled shade dances at the foot of his grave.