It is easy to take Father’s Day for granted until you lose your dad. Before Sunday, I had never visited anyone’s graveside, so when I started out on my bike ride that afternoon, I was surprised to find myself wheeling down the gravel road leading to the old Milford Cemetery.
Some of the headstones in the yard are so old that several hundred years of wind and rain have all but obliterated the names and epitaphs etched into them. A number of these anonymous markers lean at desperate angles, like the tips of masts from sunken sailboats poking out of the sea.
On that rainy day in March when we buried my father, I had not noticed the shiny granite headstone with the one word chiseled into the rock. On Sunday, I brushed my hand across the letters cut into the stone. “Kerin.” Although my dad was a minimalist, this seemed austere even by his standards. I made a mental note to ask my mother whether there would be more verbiage added later.
I was not sure where to stand, or even if I should stand. Kneeling on the ground did not seem practical. I looked around the graveyard, the way I do at church sometimes, to see what other folks were doing. There was only one other person in sight: a very old woman in a wheelchair.
I felt oddly disconnected to my father, standing here in this graveyard, with this ponderous slab of rock glinting in the afternoon sun. Then I saw the depressed outline where the ground had been broken on the first day of spring three months ago, and where grass and weeds were pushing through. Now I knew where to stand: at the edge of the portal between this world and the next.
I said a few words aloud, but they sounded as garbled as though I had spoken them underwater. So I stood silently, remembering the many things my father had taught me, grateful for all that he had done for me. I knew I was lucky to have had a father who set so many good examples by which to live, while at the same time I lamented my own shortcomings as a father, which stood in stark contrast to the memories of my father.
As I clomped back across the un-mowed field in my cycling shoes, toward my bike which was leaned against a giant oak tree whose roots had been growing in this soil before the first grave had been dug, and would undoubtedly outlast me, I happened to see a splash of purple springing from the ground nearby. It was a cluster of wild violets, just weeds, and yet impossibly beautiful. I picked four of the stalks and laid them on the headstone, remembering that my father would always collect a bouquet of wild flowers for my mother upon his return from a walk. I think he would be pleased.
When I arrived home, Michaela read me her Father’s Day card, which I have reproduced below, with her permission.
In the past 14 years I have gained a lot more from you than the spelling of my name. “It’s Michael with an A” is what I find myself saying after I announce my name and get that quizzical look that tells me it requires a spelling. I truly am “Michael with an A.” I have every part of you in me. And then I have a little extra part that is all my own. I have your need to succeed and your will power that pushes you to do your best whether in educational pursuits or your athletic endeavors. I have your powers of legal thinking in my genes. And whether I choose to become a lawyer or not I will always be one of the the most persistent people you will ever meet.
You have taught me to be strong even when I feel weak. And every day, in different ways, you teach me a lesson. You have taught me to always be myself, not by ever saying it, or enforcing it. But by dancing in Stop and Shop in the aisles just to embarrass me, or wearing skin tight lycra biking shorts, complemented by white socks and sometimes dress shoes if you have come directly from the office after a workout, or singing “Wide Awake” at the top of your lungs in the car with the windows down and the sun roof open in front of everyone when you drop me off at the mall, or worse, at school, even though you only know three of the words in the song. And by strolling down Paynes dock (Block Island) for your friend Wally’s birthday party, wearing a full scuba outfit including flippers, a snorkel , a mask and a neon orange life jacket. Even though everybody on the dock thought you were insane, you did it to make your friend laugh.
There is a song that says we are supposed to live everyday like we are dying: that is what you do. I thank you for giving me every ounce of your “Michael” and helping shape my “A”. Thank you, dad, for being the best father possible.