The grass that swept between towering limestone monuments to the dead was well-manicured. But not too well-manicured. The graveyard was managed respectably, and the lawn was cut so that the final resting place of everyone’s grannies and uncles and whatever other loved ones they’d lost weren’t overgrown. It didn’t look bad. Just a bit tousled, maybe. A bit drab. A bit like a money pit where people were expected to pay thousands of dollars to put their family members in a patch of mildly well-cared-for dirt as if the dead cared at all where their abandoned shells ended up.
My dad’s patch of dirt was fresh. Cancer. I don’t want to talk about it. No, really. Just leave it. I’m fine.
His fresh dirt was mounded up to about the level of my shins, and someone placed a storebought wreath on the mound as if all those pretty little fabric flowers weren’t going to blow away in the wind and litter someone else’s final resting place. I stared at the wreath and wracked my brain for something to say, or some meaningful gesture that could respectfully send my dad off to the great beyond.
Nothing came to mind.
I didn’t really know my dad all that well if I’m being honest. My last pleasant memory of him was when I was six and someone commented on how enamored he was with my existence. At the time, I felt proud. My daddy loved me. Thirty-seven years later, I felt…something else entirely. I don’t know. I still don’t want to talk about it.
Rather than lift a prayer to heaven and wail loudly over the stranger I’d lost, I shifted uncomfortably on the spot and looked around the graveyard again. There were a lot more gravestones than I remembered from the last time I was there. It was like a morbid hourglass that measured time in human remains and engraved stone. Memento mori. Remember death. As if we could ever forget.
My grandma died when I was seven before I even knew to be sad when someone died. I didn’t shed a tear until my sister told me it was because I didn’t really love her. I cried a lot after that. My grandpa followed her a couple of years later. The romantic thing would be to imagine it was love that had him chasing her to the grave. It was not. Grandpa was a smoker.
I spent a lot of time in this graveyard, as a child. We would visit Grandma and Grandpa, then take walks along the winding path, counting out the lives of the people who’d gone before us. Some people’s lives were really long. Ninety-eight years. Ninety-nine. Others were a lot shorter.
Like Macie. A girl I knew in high school. We were in driver’s education together. She was pretty, popular, smart. I didn’t begrudge her for it. I did get a little annoyed that the driver’s ed teacher gave her a better grade than me, even though she was clearly the worse driver. I felt bad about it, later, after the car wreck that killed her.
My dad had already left my family, by then. I hadn’t spoken to him in months, so I never got to tell him how guilty I felt at being annoyed she got a better grade than I did. Or how strange it was to know someone who died without ever really knowing them. She wasn’t a friend. She was more than a stranger. I didn’t get the chance to ask him how you deal with a loss that isn’t really your loss. I didn’t get to ask my dad, so I asked no one. Those feelings stayed buried deep, and I held onto them like something precious.
Macie’s pink-tinted gravestone was somewhere on the other side of the cemetery from where I stood glaring uncomfortably at a thick earthworm that waved its body in the air as a temptation for any birds flying overhead. I wiped my palms on my jeans and peeked in that direction, though whether I wanted to see the gravestone or not was hard to say. Either way, it was hidden from my sight by the creepy mausoleum that contained a man-sized statue all the kids in town used to tell horror stories about.
Legend had it that if you peeked into the mausoleum at night then the statue would turn his head to look at you, his face agape in horror. He would steal your soul. He would chase you to the ends of the earth. He was the pig-man. Everyone had a different story. I remember my heart trembling as I held my breath, barely creeping up over the edge of the stained-glass window to steal a terrified glance at the mythic statue. We’ll both assume I managed to keep my soul, though I suppose it’s a pretty difficult thing to check. I can’t say I ever saw my own soul, personally, so maybe I wouldn’t notice if it suddenly disappeared.
Three more kids in my class died the same year as Macie. I didn’t know them as well, but the loss shook our entire school. There were candlelight vigils and a long line of kids trailing through the doors of the funeral home. I didn’t feel much of anything about it, really, except that there must be something wrong with me. Everyone else was so thoroughly affected by it, but it felt like any other day to me. A day with sad news: if you think about it, isn’t that all of them? My mom made me go to the funerals, even though I didn’t want to. She said it was the right thing to do. I wasn’t sure that was true. Watching their mothers weep next to their caskets felt profane.
If it were me, my mom would have wept like that. She would have buried her own heart in the ground with me. My dad wouldn’t have even known I was gone. Or he would have shown up at the funeral home three hours after the service and then shrugged and walked home. The daddy who loved me so long ago didn’t think much of his teenager. The angry, embittered person I’d become after he abandoned me wasn’t nearly as cute as the chubby little cherub who worshipped his every move. On the rare occasion when I talked to him, it was usually because my mother begged him to give me the time of day when my grades were slipping or because I was hanging out with kids she didn’t like. I would tell him that I was doing my best, and he would tell me that the proof is in the pudding and other colloquial dad-isms that made equally little sense. After each lecture, he would disappear for months, or for years or–as in the most recent case–forever.
The last time we spoke he’d admonished me for not being rich, not marrying rich, not doing anything of importance with my life, and generally being a waste of space. He couldn’t fathom why I turned out so miserably after all the effort he put into raising me. I told him I was doing my best. He said the proof was in the pudding. I told him my pudding tastes delicious, thank you very much.
Then he went and died. But I seriously don’t want to talk about it, so if you could stop asking, that would be great.
I don’t want to talk about the things I never got to yell at him about. Or all the memories of my life that he missed. He never showed up at my high school graduation. He wasn’t there when I got my associate’s degree, then my bachelor’s, and then the master’s. Dad didn’t console me when my pet mouse died when I was eleven. When no one showed up to my thirteenth birthday party, he hadn’t even remembered to call. There was no comfort from him when my best friend tried to kill herself when I was in college, or when she finally managed to finish the job ten years later. And I don’t want to talk about any of it. Not even a little. Because if I talk about it, I might end up resenting him. People say you’re not supposed to resent the dead. Even when you do.
I stood over my dad’s fresh patch of churned earth, thinking all the things I wasn’t supposed to think about him and struggling to understand what it all meant, in the end. Memento-ing mori. So many people at his funeral had so many pleasant words. His third wife cried as if the sun would never rise again. My aunts and uncles waxed poetic about how he was a loving husband and dedicated father. I stared dead-eyed at the horizon until the platitudes had passed, bearing the dastardly weight of people’s consoling hands on my shoulders as I wished that I had been anyone else’s child.
Long after everyone else shuffled uncomfortably away to do whatever somber activity was acceptable after a tasteful funeral, I stood by my father’s side. Without any pleasant words for the man who’d participated in my very creation. Dry eyed. Because, as my sister so wisely declared, maybe I didn’t love him. I scuffed my foot over a stray dandelion that grew at the edge of his burial plot. No answers revealed themselves in the dirt. I waited until the sun wavered over the horizon and the grass started to grow damp, but the burden of the unsaid only grew more oppressive with time. With nothing better to do and no easy answers, I decided to follow the example he’d set for me: I left.
This was a long one, but I was really happy with how it turned out. I wanted to tell a story about a character who lost an estranged family member and remembered their experience of that family member through tales of death. The purpose wasn’t to be morbid; I wanted to evoke feelings about the inevitability of death and allow the reader to feel the bitterness of the living. The main character in this story avoided their feelings, left too many things unsaid, and was eventually left dissatisfied with how things ended between them and their father.
I also thought this was a good opportunity to write a genderless character. More important than the sex of the protagonist, I wanted this person to feel very human. I was careful not to provide too many details that might sway the reader in one direction or another, and the end result is someone that I believe is easier to connect with on an emotional level. At least, I hope that’s the case
Thank you so much for stopping by to read my story!