We were headed down to the Outer Banks. We made a pit stop at a little gas station in Virginia. Across the street was a Baptist church. Single room, white pine siding, black steepled, with a cemetery off its side, no fence. No fence to keep the living from the dead.
Leah fed Simon in the car. I went across the street to the cemetery with my daughter.
The headstones all waited for remembrance with their stony dignity. Flowers rested at some. Some were well manicured. Others overgrown.
“What are these?” Hat asked.
I told Hat that cemeteries were places where people are who other people love and miss. And that’s why there are flowers. Because people bring flowers to people they love. And I smiled at her, and it was clear she did not understand what I was saying or what I was trying to say.
“Oh,” she said.
It is not an easy thing to explain: rocks rising from the ground, the flowers, the quiet, the solitude, the density of the air, the weathered whiteness of the church.
She skipped and ran to a stone. Then another, and she reached out and touched it. She smelled the flowers. She smiled and asked again where we were, what this was. I tried again. Again the misunderstanding. Again the little “oh.”
I stood there and I remembered, as a boy, riding bikes in the summers with my brother and father. We would sometimes visit Cemetery Road and bring flowers to a young girl who died a hundred years ago. Then I remembered my college days when I had to get away from the mayhem of a party and how I would take the long way home so that I could go by the graveyard where it was quiet and the distant murmurs of the parties didn’t have a hold of me (I had to hop a fence to get in there–I definitely wasn’t supposed to be there). I remembered how I have watched loved ones pass on, and I thought about how I will probably watch many more.
Death demands something of me, whether I want it to or not. I have responded to that demand in many ways. I have honored the dead. I have wept for the dead. I have sought peace amongst the dead. I have stood with a brave heart before the dead. I have loved the dead.
But I felt as if I were missing something as I watched my daughter. In pink shorts and a white, sparkly t-shirt, she ran between the headstones. She dared to laugh in the place of the dead, a smile emblazoned on her face.
I smiled then, too. And I ran to pick up my beautiful daughter, from whom I have learned so much.