A few feet away, I would squirm, self-righteously enduring this outrageous display. I wondered if I missed the man at all. What ever had he given me? Did he leave a void or just some burden? I couldn’t tell, the experience was so totally devoted to my mother’s needs. Here she was, specially dressed in old clothes for the occasion, lying on the ground beside the grave and, to my embarrassed eyes, playing a scene, badly.
I felt pre-empted. It seemed only a husband was lost, never a father. I realized that in the years since his death, and aside from my mother’s histrionics, my family had honored my father with silence. We rarely mentioned him, and never expressed what, if anything, we felt, either about his life or the fact that he was gone. Our family’s muteness had swallowed him whole. With friends I had discussed him at length and often bitterly, but never with my mother or my brother.
To offset the agony of our cemetery visits, I insisted on committing the sin of taking my mother to a restaurant. She would attack me and my idea viciously, railing on about the waste of money, the dishonor to my father of introducing pleasure into the procedure, and even admitting embarrassment at how she looked. In time I added a Broadway show to the ritual. “We’re not dead,” I’d argue half-heartedly. In time she came to look forward to what she had once fought.
As the years passed, slowly but unmistakably, it became clear that my mother’s seemingly endless tears and fits were subsiding. The positive aspect of my father’s death was having its effect. His constant complaining was gone. So too was the thankless caretaking she had managed to perform under crisis conditions, expecting death at any moment. She started acting and looking younger. My nerves became less raw. I reacted to her less out of anger and self-righteousness, more with patience and reassurance. Gradually her panic lessened.
Changes were taking place, but always individually, never family-style. In addition to her move from the city, my mother started taking sewing classes at the Y. My brother wound up in an alcohol rehabilitation clinic where he kicked his 20-year-old drinking problem. And my incessant depression brought me to a shrink. We were treating our addictions.
On the fourth anniversary of Nicklaus’ putt, we went to visit my father yet again. This time my brother joined us. Our corner of the cemetery was becoming more populated; the tombstones of new neighbors blocked our view as we approached.
My father’s absence had by now become less a trauma and more a soft ache. My mother’s old theatricality had nearly vanished. She tenderly hugged his headstone and sobbed. Then, murmuring gently, she rested her head on the hard stone slab as if it were a pillow. My brother stood off to the side in the shade of the tree and cried. I loved them at that moment as they let their feelings take hold of them without their customary need for hysteria or flight.
I saw these three people anew. Yes, for there too, a few feet below us, confused and touched by this outpouring was my father. Separate and awkwardly solitary they were, heavenly bodies destined to orbit in isolation, yet exerting on each other and on me a silent gravitational pull of enormous intensity. The forces and the bonds had weakened substantially since his death, but they remained far more powerful than any others I had known.
This constellation was more than my family, it was my identity, it was me. We were each less addicted now—to alcohol, to hysteria, to sadness, and to suffering—but we still could not comfort each other. We sought our solace alone, in silence, as if there were something wrong in seeking comfort. We hid openly, in the shade of a tree, with the support of a stone, in the shelter of a coffin and the safety of detachment. Receding from them, I watched, as always, from outside that mysterious triangle of pain and loss and love while somehow being trapped in it too.
From beneath the headstone silently whispering our family name, my father waved goodbye. His burial was almost done.