Once upon a time I thought that this piece of writing was strong. One of my strongest, even. I had felt good while writing it and even better once it was complete. It got lots of thoughtful feedback and a very good hit count (for me).
I always felt it was a good example of ‘what I do’, and so picked it as the piece I would present at a student reading last Wednesday – a very anticipated part of the week-long workshop I was attending at the Humber School for Writers.
But then I read it again. I read it through the critical lens of everything I had so far been shown that week. I looked at the narrative. The voice. The originality of that voice. The economy of the language. The style. And once I did that, I was ready to throw the piece out. Out, gone, into the garbage, deleted.
It was sentimental. It was clichéd. It was verbose. It was intensely personal and honest, but honesty is not enough to make a piece of writing compelling. So I edited some parts, rewrote others. I got it down to under three minutes, and then I read it in front of 60 of my peers and some of the biggest names in contemporary Canadian literature. (Reading in front of Wayson Choy does little to help settle one’s doubts about their writing.)
The feedback was positive, and I appreciated it very much, but more importantly, I think it’s a better piece now. I murdered some darlings. I have a feeling I’ll be saying goodbye to many more.
At the Foot of His Grave, I Sat Down and Cried (A Reading)
In my mind it was Flander’s 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 desolate as my grief still had the power to make me feel.
I never went to my dad’s funeral. Heavy with child, I was not able to fly across the country, but one year later, we were back, with nothing but a few hours drive separating me from my father’s grave. We headed out.
Mischa stayed with her grandparents and Cassidy, whom my dad had missed meeting by mere weeks, came with us.
It was a peaceful drive and I thought of my sisters who had, one year earlier, travelled this same stretch of road. I thought of how circumstances had not only denied me of the experience, but had protected me from it. We drove silently through the gates of Florida National Cemetery.
We parked and I got out of the car. The spot was beautiful, ensconsed 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 at the end of the row farthest from the little road, the shade of the trees dancing over his plot. I was relieved. And then I looked at the headstone.
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 graveyard, but lovely, white marble slabs. From the back, all the same, but each debossed on the front 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 he inscription, but coming face to face with his name carved into a grave marker sent my heart lurching.
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 read, RM3 Navy Vietnam, and then the dates of his birth and death (too close together. Much too close together), then two lines of a personal message that we were allowed to add, “Beloved Father and Grandfather.”
I placed four rocks on the headstone, 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.
After a while, my daughter cried out for me from the perch in her father’s arms.
I took her, and kneeled in front of the stone. I looked a the words, Beloved Father and Grandfather.
I held the baby in offering.
“Dad,” I said, “This is Cassidy.”
And I started to cry.
I soon gave the baby back to my husband, then I sat in the grass that nobody ever sits in, and I wept.
I kept sitting, and crying, and the ants bit my ankles, my legs, my hands while I told my dad how much I missed him.
Eventually I was able to get up.
I didn’t say goodbye, I simply stood and started back down the row I had walked earlier, towards the car, feet aflame.