I rarely think about visiting my dad’s grave. Usually someone else suggests it. This evening, it was Bruce. We had eaten dinner out, and as we got into the car I wasn’t ready to come home just yet.
“Let’s drive by the river,” I suggested.
“Go to the cemetery?” Bruce said.
“Oh, yeah. Good idea.”
I had been restless and out of sorts most of the afternoon, and just before Bruce got home from Saturday work duties, I was finishing a great but depressing book about Alzheimer’s disease. Great because it was a true story told well; depressing because it was a true story written by a daughter in anguish over her mother’s devastating illness.
By the time Bruce got home, I needed something fun and distracting, so I suggested we go to dinner or a movie. Bruce predicted that I would tire out before a nighttime movie was over, so we settled for dinner at a burger joint (where neither of us ordered a burger).
After we finished our food, we sat and lingered — rare for me. Bruce loves to linger over dinner out; I’m usually ready to leave as soon as we finish eating. But we were enjoying the atmosphere, the food and the 1970s-80s music, so we chilled while Bruce enjoyed his Dr Pepper (no ice), and I had three glasses of iced tea. Just a nice, relaxing evening as we took our time, enjoyed each other’s company and chatted about aging, our bodies and our minds, how we’re slowing down, even in our 50s.
Back in the car, as we approached the White River we noticed how high the water had risen because of the recent rains. Just like the ebb and flow of life — sometimes high, sometimes low.
We parked near the dam and sat in the car watching the sun set for a few minutes, then we drove to the cemetery where so many of our loved ones are buried.
Some of them are my family, and some are friends unrelated by blood, but all have a place in our hearts.
Sometimes during the week, I drive to the cemetery on my lunch break and sit in the car by Emily’s grave. Sometimes I get out and just stand there in front of it, marveling that she touched so many lives in just 13 years, wondering why her death hit me so hard when I’m not even her mother. (Would you tattoo the name of someone else’s daughter above your ankle?)
Tomorrow is six months since Emily’s little transplanted heart gave out. I still haven’t quite wrapped my mind around the reality that she’s gone.
I drove Bruce to view her gravestone, placed just recently, and I took pictures (I also keep a collage of Emily pictures, produced by the mortuary for her service, on the bulletin board above my computer). Not even Emily’s mom knows this, but I take pictures of her grave almost every time I visit. Most of them look the same. Some have wilted flowers in them, fresh after her burial; others have autumn leaves, maybe a dusting of snow; the most recent ones have her gravestone in place.
I’m ready for grass to grow over the grave, I told Bruce this evening. Right now it’s just dirt. Would grass make her death more real, the site seem more “normal”? I’m not sure why I want the grass.
We moved on.
Back in the car, I said, “You know, I haven’t been by Philip’s grave since we buried him. I’m not even sure I could find it without a lot of driving around.”
So I dialed Mom’s number. Philip was Mom’s first cousin, and she knew how to find the grave. I’m not sure she’s been back to his grave since that day in 2015, either, but she directed us to the right spot. Sometimes I marvel at the things Mom can remember, especially when it comes to the many relatives we’ve lost.
We told her we had been to Emily’s grave and were going to Dad’s, but we wanted to find Philip’s gravesite first.
We found it, and just a few feet away are his parents’ graves; I had forgotten that. I barely remember Uncle Arthur and Aunt Virginia, and I wish I’d known them better.
By most standards, Dad and Philip had long lives. Dad was only 59 when he died (just three years older than I am now), and Philip was 85, but they were very old compared to Emily.
And compared to Kristen.
Our grief over Emily was still brand new when we lost Kristen, daughter of my cousin Billy from Yuma, Ariz. Kristen died in a car accident on Nov. 1. We didn’t get to attend a service for Kristen, but we grieve her just the same. Kristen was a young single mom, and my heart aches for her parents, her children and her siblings. I can’t express in words how it hurts my heart to think about the loss of this precious young woman I hadn’t seen since she was a little girl.
When we lost her grandmother, my Aunt Juanita, Kristen was just over 2 months old; Dad and I flew to Yuma from Arkansas as soon as we got the news that the swift-moving cancer had taken my aunt. Mom and several other family members packed into a van and drove out, arriving a couple of days later.
The minute I met Kristen, I was in love.
At one point that week, when the rest of the family left the house, I held this sweet tiny baby in my arms for two or three hours. While the others made funeral arrangements and visited places they hadn’t seen in years, I hung back with the baby. I couldn’t put her down; we were buds.
The other Arkansas family members were in Yuma for about a week before having to head back to their jobs, but I stayed two weeks, having cut my summer internship short at the newspaper where I was working. My Uncle Bill and I had always had a special bond, so I hung out with him after everyone else had gone and the house was quiet (except for Aunt Juanita’s cuckoo clocks, which were everywhere — she had them set to go off at slightly different times so that she could enjoy each clock’s unique sound). That week, Uncle Bill sent me on errands in her car — a big ol’ Lincoln Town Car as long as a boat. She had a green-apple air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror, and to this day the smell of green apple always evokes memories of my Aunt Juanita. Since then, I’ve gone on the hunt many times for green-apple air freshener — in auto-parts stores, convenience stores, discount stores … I can’t believe how hard it is to find that particular scent nowadays.
I wish I had a particular scent to associate with Kristen. I’ll just have to hold her memory in my heart. If I had pictures, I would post them. I hope to see my cousin Billy this summer; maybe he’ll have some pics of his daughters and grandchildren that I can share.
As with baby Kristen, it was the same for me with Emily. I remember the first time I laid eyes on her, through the glass at the hospital when she was just minutes old. I took some of the first pictures of her through that glass. Her mom, Tanya, jokes that I got to see her baby before she did! Tanya was still being tended to after an emergency C-section when the rest of us were marveling at the new life she had just brought into the world. She was beautiful and perfect.
Except her heart. We knew from the beginning that Emily’s heart would require special care for the rest of her years on earth. We just didn’t realize how few those years would be.
When her parents took her to Arkansas Children’s Hospital for medical care, I was living in North Little Rock, less than 10 miles from ACH. I tried to visit as often as I could. In the beginning I got to hold her, even in her hospital room. During later hospitalizations, visitors were limited or prohibited.
I have no idea how many days Emily spent at Children’s, but her mom probably does — or maybe she and Chester lost count over the course of 13 years. I do know that she received outstanding care there.
But finally the excellent care of humans was not enough. It was time for Em to rest in the arms of Jesus, the Great Physician, healer of all hurts and sorrows, the author and perfecter of our faith.
Jesus and Emily have better things to do than fret that no grass is growing over her grave.
For 21 years, Mom has tried to make sure Dad’s grave has new flowers each season, but I never think of it (pretty sure it doesn’t bother him, either). I rarely think to visit his grave. I think of Dad every day, because he’s in my heart and always will be, but I don’t think often of the place where his body is buried. When I visit, I don’t linger, and I rarely cry when I stand over his grave, even when I’ve had a rough day.
He’s not there.
When I visit Emily’s grave, I grieve for her parents, her sister, her nephews, her grandparents, her aunts and uncles and cousins, for the youth group at her church, the adults who ministered to her, the medical personnel who skillfully and tenderly cared for her … for the people on this planet who hadn’t met her and will never know how wonderful and funny and smart she was, that she loved pink — that the women wore pink blouses and dresses and jackets and the men wore pink ties the day we lowered her worn out little body into the ground. I grieve for those Emily left behind, but I don’t grieve for her when I visit that grave with the dirt and no grass.
She’s not there.
Emily is with Jesus, the One who died for her sins, the One she accepted as Lord and Savior when she was a little girl — the One she wanted everyone to know and accept as Savior, too. He’s the One who holds her heart in His hands.
And this weekend, as we pause to ponder the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord who gave His life for us, we celebrate the reality of the tomb where His body was laid to rest.
He’s not there.
That tomb is empty.