By The Bakersfield Californian
When I visit my dad now, he is under a stone. Or, his ashes are, with anchor set in the older part of the cemetery under a big old oak tree. It's peaceful. We buried him in the month of July, and the shade of the tree extended over his resting place. The ever-progressing seasons strip away the leaves, deposit acorns everywhere, leave my dad under bare branches with no shade, and then gradually replenish the green bower. I write this in the brief space between the end of winter and the beginning of full-on spring. The tiny new leaves and the tilt of the earth leave my dad's marker just outside the reach of shade. Which is fine: my dad loved the sun. Worshipped the sun.
I say hello to the neighbor to my right, his left: a fellow named Pierce, who's been here since 1967, an old-timer. My dad moved into the area in 2009. Pierce is old enough to be my dad's father. Pierce's wife, Phyllis, who resides next to him, was born one year before Pierce, and subsequently died one year before him. They both died at the age of 51. I wonder what cut their lives short. I also wonder if their lives were always that eerily in sync.
On my dad's other side rests Raymond, who arrived in 1981, or perhaps 1989: the final raised-up number of his date of death is broken. Raymond's wife Helen moved in just before my dad, in 2008. My dad is saving room for my mother. Raymond's stone has symbols on it that I don't get, secrets I'm not in on. My dad's plaque notes his U.S. Navy service, QMS2. Pierce's marker is decorated with flowers, and of course matches Phyllis's.
There are rituals I perform when I visit my dad. I start by trying to remember the most direct route to his grave through the cemetery's winding maze of narrow paved roads. I do this unconsciously, having been taught by my dad that it's almost criminal not to take the shortest route to any given destination. He chafed at having to go anywhere he deemed out of his way. I play my dad's kind of music in the car: Gene Kelly smoothly singing "It's very clear / Our love is here to stay . . ." If they're in season, I bring homegrown roses. I wrap the stems of the roses in wet paper towels covered with foil, just like he taught me. My dad grew roses everywhere he lived, and used to send me home with a bunch of his roses, wrapped just this way for a safe journey. I put the roses in the vase that is embedded just below my dad's marker. Pulling the inverted vase up out of the ground takes more strength than I think I have, but once it is extricated from the muck of bad weather, I turn it right side up and fill it with water from the spigot. Once the roses are safely in the vase, I use the wet paper towels to clean the dust and leaves off his marker.
I bring a small stone and leave it on the edge of the marker. I think the stones get mowed away by the caretakers after I leave, and so I hunt around Raymond, Helen, Pierce and Phyllis to retrieve stones from past visits. Today I find four. I line them up, and add a fifth. I believe this is a Jewish custom, which we are not, and whenever I do this, I resolve to Google the meaning of leaving a stone or pebble at a grave. Then I forget.
When my tidying chores are done, I talk a little to my dad, and to God. I live a hundred miles from this patch of green, so my visits are sporadic. I like to come here before I visit my mother, which is often to resolve some crisis, and for which I need God's help and sustenance. Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I don't. Today a woman offers me a pamphlet on the topic of Losing a Loved One. It has her church's strings attached. I refuse it gently. Save paper, I say.
Some people don't like cemeteries and never return there after the funeral. Cemeteries give them the creeps, or they prefer to remember their loved one alive. I understand that. Cemeteries aren't for everyone. I find these visits peaceful, a pause in what can be a hectic life. The time I spend here recharges my love for the living and the dead, and rekindles my resolution to try to live in a way that would make my dad proud.
Soon the shade of summer will again shelter my dad, and the caretakers will hammer into the ground the signs warning of rattlesnakes, and the number of dead in the cemetery will increase. As I leave, a pack of motorcycles weaves slowly into the cemetery, their engines growling softly, ridden by mourners whose visits are just beginning. I nod to them: Sorry for your loss. See you next time.
These are the opinions of Valerie Schultz, not necessarily those of The Californian. Email her firstname.lastname@example.org.