The year after my father died, I went to visit him a lot. Well, I guess that's not exactly true: I visited his grave a lot, but he really wasn't there. He - the real him, the him I actually loved and missed and wanted to visit - he was long gone already. At times - the more honest moments - I knew the grave was a poor substitute; it was (and is) just dirt, and grass, and a cold slab of stone with a name engraved upon it.
A cold slab of stone does not a father make.
Still, I went there often that first year, my senior year of high school. Sometimes I would leave school partway through the day, pick up something to eat for lunch, and sit beside him - it - eating silently. I shudder to think of the picture we made there for anyone passing by: this forlorn 17-year-old woman-child sharing a Taco Bell banquet with the cold slab of stone she called her father. Eating there at my father's grave felt pathetic and unnatural, yet I felt less alone there than amid the thronging noise at school. It was an elemental instinct, this need to somehow be near that which was now gone - to regain some connection to what I had so painfully lost. It was the same urge that compelled me to sleep in his bed every night, or to reread scraps of paper just to find his handwriting on an old water bill.
I wept openly, even as I ate, chewing slowly because chewing at a normal speed required effort I didn't care enough to make, all the while the tears coursing rivers down my cheeks, pooling beneath my chin, dropping down on blades of grass. There was no sobbing, no hiccuping with the shortness of breath that comes from working up an exquisite cataclysm of sorrow. No, my crying was not so drastic; my tears poured out of me with almost no effort or notice, like the continuous water that flows so smoothly through the fountain you never even hear it splash. An infinity pool of grief.
I would visit in the rain, uncaring of the cold as the wet grass soaked my pants. I would visit on sunny spring afternoons, with large, dark sunglasses shading my eyes from sun and stranger alike. Sometimes I would see others there, mourning their own losses. I would wonder if they noticed me, searching, as they were, for a way through the fog, trying to find meaning in a life without George, without Carl, without Martha, without Ingrid. I wonder, now, how many I did not see, when I was blinded by my own fog.
Some days I would break the silence by talking to the cold slab of stone, hoping, somehow, that my father would get the message wherever he was. I don't remember most of what I said, but I'm pretty sure it was meaningless drivel, my own ineffectual efforts to fill the air with something that might lift the weight of silence. I probably told him - it - about school, or my friends, or church, or family. I just wanted to believe small talk was still possible with this man I had loved - this man with whom I had rarely ever exchanged more than small talk.
Once, in a class at school, I wrote him a note. A sheet of lined notebook paper, filled with my loopy cursive nonsense, folded in a pretty pattern and decorated with roses and hearts. I have absolutely no memory of what I wrote, but I know I filled the whole page, and on the outside, I wrote, "DAD," in big fancy letters. I took it to the cold slab of stone and left it there like a peace offering, or, more accurately, like a mail delivery I deluded myself into thinking he could somehow he receive. I'm sure some custodian, greatly underpaid and overworked, picked it up and recycled it over the next few days. I wonder if he read it.
I don't go to there very often these days. I couldn't even if I wanted to, as I now live a six-and-a-half-hour drive away from it, but even if I were closer, I'm not sure how often I'd go. I see it now, in my mind, more for what it is - a cold slab of stone. It is not my father, and it never was. My father is something that cannot be touched now, something far more beautiful than a polished piece of marble with pretty painted words, something far closer and easier to reach when I feel the need.
And yet... I sometimes miss that cold slab of stone. I sometimes miss that slab of stone and our lunches together.