This piece was Whit's gift to me on Father's Day 2008, handwritten and mailed to arrive well before the day.
It's hard to describe this as a piece of fiction, even though the literary conceit of a narrator sitting in the cemetery takes place only in his own heart and mind. Spring Grove Cemetery is where he attended the burial of his maternal grandmother; he was given leave from the military school where he attended 8th grade. As far as I know, it is the only time he was ever there. The death he refers here to is the death of an old self, or rather just part of a self, and in no way was a conscious anticipation of what has now happened. It gave me even more reason to believe that he was finding a path that, once home with family and friends, would never lead back to prison.
Every single recollection of Whit the narrator in this piece actually happened, and even his recall of the exact words is completely full and accurate. I know, because I was there. Only the literary device of the setting, with all the creative symbolism, is fictional.
As it happens, Whitney will be buried in Spring Grove Cemetery, next to his grandmother, on Saturday, the day after his birthday. For each of the past 3 years, he has asked me to go to this cemetery and take photographs of spring as it arrives in this beautiful setting, so that he could post them on his wall. This is the weekend I had planned to go out on this year's photographic stroll through the grounds.
His gift reads as follows:
Gazing across the rolling terrain of the cemetery, I realize how appropriate a place like Spring Grove is for the deceased to do what I assume the dead desire most: To rest in peace. I suppose graveyards in general are known for having atmospheres in accord with, or even encouraging, solemn reverie. But this one in particular seems to me to be at such a height of serenity, all others simply fall short. A fact only emphasized by that cloudless Sunday afternoon in June. On that Father's Day.
In what seems to be a slightly bizarre counterpoint to what those grass covered acres represent, I can't remember ever seeing so many living, breathing birds and squirrels and hares and other vibrant creatures. All of them completely unaware of the significance we humans attach to those stone and marble blocks they dart around. Likely unaware of the concept of death altogether. Wouldn't that be nice.
It is on a marble bench where I sit. An overly expensive and extravagant tribute to a man or woman's existence. A lifetime of experiences culminated in a few lines of chiseled letters on glossy rock. From this vantage point I can see hundreds of markers, sculptures and gravestones, each with their own stories. But there's only one with any significance to me.
At first glance this one seems like all the others around it. To me it looks bland. And a little smaller, maybe.
'That's only appropriate,' I think.
It seems like some sort of emotion should be swelling up inside me. Grief, regret, sorrow. Anger. Or even happiness. But there's nothing. How can that be when the stories and experiences those grooved letters represent are so much a part of my life. Or were a part, I should say.
In the distance the gargling hum of a lawnmower carries in the breeze. I find myself being drawn into its gentle rumble. I came to this place to mourn. But in order to mourn something I must first have a feeling of loss. So it is there on that bench where I sit in my introspective haze trying to determine what, if anything, I lost.
Our relationship was always bittersweet. Not that any relationship isn't; I think our bitter and sweet was just more polarized than most. Although one common ground we shared, the one thing neither party will dispute, is that we both did what we thought was best for me. It still boggles my mind how polluted a person's judgment can be. But sure enough, he would dig me into one hole after another, each one was promised to be my true path to success and happiness. It's really my fault for allowing myself to be controlled like that. And I'm sure any harm done was unintentional; he just didn't know any better. Yes, he meant well.
At the same time, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
In 1999 I was in my mid-teens. Already no stranger to the Juvenile Detention Center, silly things like school and work didn't take up too much space in my day planner. It's tough to schedule that stuff around important activities like stealing and partying.
One day, with a duffle bag packed full of clothes and a determined look at the front door, my father asked 'Where are you going?'
'I'm moving to Pittsburgh.'
'No you're not,' Dad said, blocking the door.
'Yes I am!' A very educated retort, I know, but what do you expect from a rebellious teenager?
There was a short foot chase around the house until downstairs in the basement, halfway out of the back door, Dad caught up. A wrestling match ensued. Today in similar circumstances things may have had different results, but Pops didn't have too much trouble then.
'Let me go!'
'I'm not living here anymore, let me go!'
'No,' Dad said, 'I will never let go.'
And then there were the robberies. What was supposed to be an exciting way to spend Monday night turned out to be nothing more than a forfeiture of three years of my life.
Seeming to be a figure either directly or spiritually present in every major happening of my life, true to form Pops was there in the hours after my arrest. The officers told him he could come down to the station to visit with me before I was booked. So there I sat, a shamed and, I reluctantly admit, terrified 17-year old kid when Dad comes in with two sodas and a bag of McDonald's.
For over an hour we sat there talking and eating chicken nuggets. There was almost no mention of the robberies. We did our best to dance around that topic, instead talking about movies or memories. Casual bullshitting. I suppose we just both knew that these were our last moments together as the father and son we were then. We did our best to spend those last minutes together with as much normalcy as possible.
I was born in 1984. Sometime in 1989 a little boy was being dropped off by his father at daycare. Every morning that boy would get out of the car and run as fast as he could to the window in time to watch his dad drive off. Five days a week that kid would zoom to that window and smile as 5 days a week his dad would smile back at him and wave good-bye. Until one day he didn't. No smile, no wave, not even a glance. And so as that car pulled back into traffic there was a little boy who had just realized that his father no longer loved or wanted him and who had just been abandoned in this daycare where he would spend the rest of his youth eating canned peas and Wonder bread. When asked by a woman why he was crying so hard, it must have seemed a little confusing to hear 'He didn't wave' as a response.
Behind me the once-distant lawnmower crests the small hill where I sit, the shrill chugging of its engine pulling me back to the present.
Refocusing my eyes, I read the name on that slightly inadequate gravestone one more time.
What had I been thinking about? Oh yeah, loss. Mourning.
As connected as we were for so long, I feel no loss. No more than I would feel the loss of a virus purged from my body. And after being such a poison to my well-being, maybe that's truly what has happened, a sickness cured.
Rising from my bench's cool stone I walk to the grave and look one last time at the name neatly scribed on the molded concrete.
'Whitney Smith,' it reads.
For all our memories, there is no longing for what lies buried in the earth where I stand. The impulsiveness that steals and lies, the brashness that scorns a loving father, the childishness that feels abandonment: It is all better off laid to rest here in the ground.
The rest of me turns and walks away. I've got to meet up with my father and have lunch. It's Father's Day after all.