Four miles outside of town on a lonely country road, just around a hairpin curve to the left, lies Cedar Falls Cemetery. It’s over two hundred years old, filled with brooding old oaks that tower over the graves and shelter those resting beneath that hallowed ground. It’s a lonely, foreboding place that seems to take you back in time as you walk between the irregular rows of old and faded headstones.
On the far left as you pull into the drive, along the fence row, lie seventeen graves whose occupants share my last name. I have come today to see them, along with my aging father. We visit our family a few weeks before Christmas each year to clean their graves and place small, colorful wreaths against the stones, to make them part of our Christmas celebration and to tell their spirits that they are not forgotten.
As dad and I pulled weeds and cleaned fallen branches from the graves, he told me what he expected of me when he was gone. It’s not a subject I enjoy talking about. But at his age he feels it’s necessary to reassure himself that his son will carry on our traditions after his death, and to reassure his son that his death is nothing to fear.
“I hope you’ll always do this, Luke. It meant a lot to your grandparents to take care of our family graves, and it means a lot to me as well. I trust you, Donnie, not to let it go when I’m gone.”
“No, sir. I won’t let it go, Pop. I’ll do it every year just like you always have.”
Looking into the fading blue eyes of a man who has meant everything to me, I was suddenly struck by an almost overwhelming grief. I felt the emptiness of his absence from my life and it broke my heart, and I had to turn away from him to hide my tears.
“You don’t like talking about me dying, do you, son?”
“No, sir, I don’t.”
My father wrapped his arms around me from behind, and hugged me to his chest. I wondered as he held me, how many times had those arms sheltered me in my life? How many times had those hands, gnarled and twisted by arthritis now, gently brushed away the tears of a hurt little boy and sent him off with a pat on the back and a smile?
“Don’t worry about me, Luke. I’m an old man, son. God could take me at any time and I’m fine with that. I’ve tried to be decent and I think the Good Lord will take that into account.”
I had to smile at him. He’s so at peace with himself and his God that he shames me sometimes. He has the faith of a child: simple, trusting, and innocent. He believes in a gentle and forgiving Christ. He believes all men are God’s children and deserving of respect and dignity, regardless of color or country. He’s a truly good man in a world that has too few good men. He has been the best of fathers and my best friend all my life.
I ached looking at him because I know how very much I will miss him when he’s gone. I hope he knows in his heart how much he means to me, how much I love and respect him. I’ve tried to tell him but words fail me as I attempt to explain such depth of emotion.
I reached out and took my father’s hand, and we walked back to the graves and finished our work. I love listening to my dad hum softly to himself as he works. I’ve always found that sound reassuring; it told me everything was alright, that he was there and there was nothing to fear. He caught me looking at him and I laughed as he winked at me and asked if I was going to let an old man do all the work.
As we placed each wreath gently on the graves of our family, I reflected on how fortunate I’ve been in my life. How many gifts I have that I took for granted for so many years. One of the greatest gifts was working next to me as we payed tribute to our lost loved ones. He gave me love and patience. He was strong but gentle, and he was a father I could go to with any problem or question and be listened to and counseled wisely, without judgement on his part.
Rising from our work, we shared a thermos of coffee in his truck and talked. He told me he’d gone to see Mom on his way to my house that morning.
“I’ll be laid to rest beside your mother, babe. It’s a long way from this place where so many of us are resting. Your mom wouldn’t hear of being buried here, it’s too far out in the country for her, so I guess I’ll have to be laid out in a damn town.”
“Could be worse, Pop. If we’d put mom here she probably would have haunted us.”
“Oh, I think she would have if we’d done that! That’s all I need, to get woke up at night by a mean old woman’s ghost.”
“You’re so full of crap, Pop.”
He laughed as he started his old truck and we drove back to my home. Dad was tired, so he dropped me off and headed for his cabin in the woods by the river. Watching him drive away, I was again grateful to have him as my father.
Someday, the duty of taking care of our graves will pass to me. I’ll place a wreath on my father’s stone, and tell my sons about the greatest man I ever knew.Powered by Sidelines