We headed across town, a trip the kids knew not to complain about, not because they would get in trouble, but because they knew how easily tears can cover their father’s face on the way to the cemetery. This was a ritual we made every December just before Christmas. My youngest son, Hugh, asked me the same question each winter as we, together as a family, stood before the tombstone of my father.
“Will I die someday, too?” he said.
“Yes, son,” I told him, truthfully, “and so will your mother, and so will your brother, and so will I, and so will your grandmother, too. That is why you must tell people that you love them while you have the chance.”
Our last name, McKean, was chiseled prominently on the marble surface of the heavy tombstone. The irony escaped none of us, especially not my seven year old boy who was named Hugh after his grandfather.
“That’s my name, daddy” he said, and had declared happily each year since he was old enough to recognize his own name. I think he was proud to share his grandfather’s name. Little Hugh’s way of revering the grandfather that he has never met – alive, at least – was to trace his shared name on the polished stone with his young fingers, as if he was practicing for a spelling lesson in school.
My oldest son, Leonard, usually stood next to me the whole time, not going any closer than I did, nor stood any further back. I think this made him feel like a grown-up. We said nothing to each other during our visits, a respectful silence that I believed he was old enough to appreciate. Cemetery visits may seem morbid to some people, bringing children to a graveyard, but it was a ritual for our family that I think brought us closer together as we, together, contemplated the inevitable loss of loved ones, and the stark reality of death.
When Leonard was born (my first child) his grandfather was still alive. I can remember how proud my father was of his grandson. He would toss the baby carefully into the air, which was a delight for both of them, a play between generations. Who would guess that less than a year later, my father would be dead from lung cancer. Yes, he smoked cigarettes all his adult life. But that didn’t make his loss any less painful for me, because I not only loved my father, but I was his friend, too. We used to sit for hours arguing about politics and movies and religion.
My father was a factory worker all his life, but that didn’t stop him from becoming well read. C.S. Lewis was his favorite author, and his erudite knowledge of the ancient Christian philosophers like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas was vast. I’m sure that he could have been a professor if he would have gone to college. But his lack of a formal education didn’t stop him from insisting, since I was old enough to speak, that I get a college education. What I studied didn’t matter to him, just that I went. When I finally graduated with a bachelor’s degree, not in philosophy but in English, he was thrilled, and, certainly, it was among his happiest moments.
Although, he said his absolute happiest moment was when I, his only child, was born healthy, a big baby, ten pounds and eleven ounces, a boy with all his fingers and toes. I didn’t believe him until my first child was born, and then I knew it was true – not because I finally believed him, but because I had experienced becoming a father for myself. There is no other way to know just how happy a man or woman, a future father or mother can be, until a person has had their own child.
How could I know that my happiest moment would soon be followed with grieving so profound that I seriously contemplated suicide for several months? Once my father was diagnosed, it was less than a month before he died. Although I knew it was natural for him to die one day, for us all to die eventually, I felt it was the most unnatural thing that I’d ever lived through. It took a full year before I realized that this death, his departure, was the second most important event in my life.
Until then, I thought I loved my son as much as a person could love another person, but I was wrong: after my father’s death, the word “love” haunted me, especially when my family and I made the annual pilgrimage to the familiar tombstone with our last name on it. My life had a fantasy-like element, until then, which was completely lost after his death to cancer.
Unlike my children, as a boy, I never visited the gravesite of my grandparents, nor did I ever meet my father’s father at all; he died before I was born, but I lived with his picture in my life from the time I was an infant until, at age 19, I moved out of my father’s house. The photograph was an old black-n-white, a grainy thing that my father had had professionally enlarged, matted and framed. He hung it in the living room prominently with the other family photos. Every year or so, as I got older, my photo was replaced with a current one, but the photo of my grandfather never changed. He was always a young man, and I never really thought deeply about this important, revered person. But after my father died (and the photo became mine), I thought about the flesh and blood man, my grandpa, often. What was his life like? What were his dreams? And what sacrifices did he make by having my father?
Now, I strongly feel that the man in the picture is my guardian angel, and even a personal friend. I’ve always known that I resemble my grandfather: the same prominent nose, the same high cheekbones, and the same wavy hair. But I feel deeply, no doubt destined to become a grandfather myself one day, as if our lives were (and are) profoundly intertwined. I know that I love this never-aging man in the old photograph as much as if he was still a living person, and my gratitude to him for both my father’s life and for my own life – and for the life of my sons, as well – is boundless.
“Does Grandpa love us from Heaven?” my oldest son asked me once after we had gotten home from the cemetery.
“I don’t know, but I hope so,” I said, fighting back tears. My son gave me a long hug, as if he never wanted to let me go.
“I love you, dad,” he said. “And I always will. Always.”
After the long, arduous process of grieving over the dying and death of my father, I learned for the first time the incredible sadness of joy. This is when I realized – no, experienced – that I had become a grown-up. Until I had had my boys, endured the death of my father, and discovered the life of my grandfather, I was unenlightened about what it means to be alive, and, eventually, to have lived.
Dana Stamps, II has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Cal State University of San Bernardino, and he has worked as a fast food server, a postal clerk, a security guard, and a group home worker with troubled boys. His poetry chapbooks For Those Who Will Burn and Drape This Chapbook in Blue were published by Partisan Press, and Sandbox Blues by Evening Street Press. “Maturity” is only his second published short story.