Soon after school ended last year, I took my kids to the cemetery for the first time. Luke was 8 and Alyssa, 6. Almost three years since their father died.
I hadn't intended to take them on this particular day, but then I never planned or intended to take them on any day of my choosing. I always knew that we would go by their schedule- when they asked to go there, I would take them.
We were on our way home from somewhere, all of us happy and fooling around in the car. All of a sudden Luke asked "Can we go the cemetery mom?"
My heart sank and I felt like I couldn't breath. My first instinct was to say "No, not today" and I wondered why on earth, how on earth he could be thinking of the cemetery when we were having so much fun....fresh out of school on summer vacation, a gorgeous day, lots of promise for more laughs to come. Then it hit me, of course he would be thinking of his father on this day. Just as I do. Even when things are good, great even, they are just never quite right.
"Yes" I said.
We drove passed our house and up the hill to the cemetery where Joe is buried. I had no idea what I was going to say to my kids, though I had thought of this moment a million times since he died. Suddenly I was at a complete loss for words and could only think to take my next breath.. My kids drive by the cemetery twice a day, every day when they ride the school bus. I have told them there is a bench at their daddy's grave and because of that they know right where it is. My heart breaks to think of them looking out the bus window at where their father is buried. It's just not right.
We drove in and I stopped the car. They both got out and walked straight to the bench and looked down at the name for the first time. There in big letters, their own last name was inscribed:
C H A L I F O U R
I could see the mixture of emotions on both of their faces. As a kid you must not be able to help but think it's kind of neat to see your name written on a beautiful piece of granite, so important-looking and official. Yet somewhere deep down I could tell they were feeling the pain of what it meant to have that name there. Alyssa literally stood quiet for a minute and then skipped off singing to herself, looking at other gravestone and flowers. She was escaping. She had her fill of what this meant to be here and at another time, in another moment, she would process more of this event, but for now, she was done.
I stood there not saying a word, just looking at my kids and their reactions. Luke was looking down at the marker with Joe's name and the date of his birth and his death on it. He looked up at me and I could see the stress in his eyes. He blinked back some tears as he looked at me. I did nothing but look at him, ready for whatever happened next, but having no idea what that would be.
"So how does this work?" he asked. "Daddy's body is down there?" He asked questions he knew the answers to, but he needed to hear me say them.
"Yes Luke, his body is in kind of a fancy box called a coffin buried under here" I knelt down and touched the marker with Joe's name on it. For a moment I felt the strangest dynamic with Luke, no longer mother and son, but equals, two souls facing extreme pain in loss. I felt like a child in some way, knowing all the logistical details but having no real, concrete answers for many of the questions death presents. I looked at Luke wanting so badly to do right by him, to be strong and answer his questions. I have no idea what it is like for him or for Alyssa or any child who has lost a parent. I just try my best to watch and help them through their grief as best I can.
"Can he hear what we're saying?"
"His body doesn't work anymore. His ears don't work and he's not alive, so no, he can't hear what we're saying from down there." I answered.
"Wouldn't it be cool if we could just go down there and open it up and say "Hi daddy" and he would be there?"
I knew what he was saying. Wouldn't it be great if he were still alive. If we could see him, talk to him, if he was still here, with us. I half-smiled at Luke and stood up again.
Luke stood there a few more seconds and then looked to his sister. He ran off in her direction to look at other names and dates on more stones.
For now, he was done.