Being There

October 20, 2009

My sister sent me pictures by phone of my father’s headstone.  I was on the road to east Texas for the big event.

I drove into town and drove through for a small coffee with one cream and one sugar.  (He always went for the large, but as a symbolic gesture, I opted for the small this time.)  I pulled into the cemetary thinking I would spend a few minutes there just seeing what it felt like for my dad to have a headstone.  I placed the cup of coffee right above where I figured my Dad’s hands must be.

At the other end of Dad’s row there was a headstone being installed.  I stood looking at our new headstone.  Touched it.  Stood back.  I felt like I needed to do nothing and just be there.

Over from the new installation a little woman came tottering over, tidying things up as she went. Was she headed for me?  Of course she was.  I pretended to ignore her, but of course I couldn’t. She came up and looked at the headstone.  “You’re with the Sisson family?”

I nodded.  I wanted her to go away. I coached myself to just be there. She looked at the cup of McDonald’s coffee on my Dad’s grave.  “Are you a relative?”

I cleared my throat.  “Yes.  He was my father.”

“So, there’s Grant Steven, Kellie Ann and Kerrie Jo,” she read from the stone.  “Which one are you?”

“I’m Kellie.”

She introduced herself.  I can’t for the life of me remember her name.  I think it was Jo.  My mother used to go by that name.

“I think they got it in straight.  I like to be here when they put them in to make sure they are all straight.  I put all these marks with spray paint to make sure they get ’em right.”  She toed the orange blotch on the grass. She looked at me.  “It’ll get cut off next time they mow.”  She looked at the coffee cup.

“It looks nice,” I told her.  I wasn’t talking about the coffee cup.  I was having trouble being gracious with this kind woman who would make sure my father’s grave was always neat and tidy and that it was lined up just right with the other folks that were going to dust around him.

“They came in last month and put that one down there in and it’s about 6 inches off and gets over almost to the next grave.”  It was a dark shiny stone surrounded by bric a brack.  “I’ve told them to come and move it but they haven’t done it yet.”

My sister had placed solar lights by my father’s headstone.  This lady… might as well call her Jo… pointed at one with her toe and said, “Lots of folks are putting those in these days.”  I started to explain, but I didn’t.  I would have explained if she had complained but she didn’t.  She was perfectly nice but I didn’t think she would understand. And I didn’t think I could tell her unless I had to.

If I had explained I would have told the story the way my sister tells it.  My father liked to sleep with the light on.  He always went to bed early. He would leave the overhead light on until Mom came to bed and turned it off.  Kerrie said that when Mom lays down beside him the last time, we can turn off the light.

In the last months of his life at home Pop would sometimes sleep in the guest room with the overhead light on all night.  If anyone asked him how on Earth he could sleep in so much light, he would say, “I close my eyes.”  I always knew that Pop could sleep with the light on, but I didn’t know he preferred it until those last fragile months.  When I slept in his hospice room, I would wait for him to go to sleep and turn the lights off.  He would wake up and ask me if I could sleep with the light on.  We would come to some compromise where I would sleep with too much light and he would sleep with too little.

The week before he died, at the point where he wasn’t strong enough to get up at all, my aunt spent a week sleeping in his room.  She slept on a little pull-0ut cot that was pretty uncomfortable.  One night he told her he wouldn’t mind sleeping on that so she could sleep on his bed.  He said his bed was pretty comfortable and he could sleep on anything.  She hadn’t complained.  He just always wanted people to be comfortable.

Jo said, “Well, I’m glad to meet you.”

“Thank you for taking such good care of this place,” I told her.

“We have a good crew that comes out and does a good job,” she said, surveying the expanse of stones on the big flat land. It was a nice day. It was sunny, and not hot.  Somebody’s silk flowers had blown across the meadow. She looked at it, and I had a feeling it wouldn’t be there when I came back.  I thought of how my brother and I liked to say that our  father showed his love by doing things for people to make sure they were taken care of.  I knew he was in the right place.

She wandered off, back to the new installation.  I looked at the headstone.  I touched where us kids’ names nestled between the two bigger stones carved with their names and those dates, and where our family name graced the main foundation of the piece.

I picked up the cup of coffee and sprinkled it all around my father’s grave.

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