The road to his resting place is not long or winding, but my stomach is in knots as I drive. I feel carsick and heartsick. On impulse, I turn into a grocery store parking lot to grab some flowers to place on his headstone. I’ve never done this before, because I hate the way they die and add to the sadness of cemeteries, but today I want to carry beauty into this space, if only for a day or two. That’s how life is anyway. We show up, we blossom, we fade, we bloom again – but only on the other side of sorrow.
Today would have been my husband’s 60th birthday. I feel the weight of the milestone-that-will-never-be creating an ache in my chest for the party we will never have. I miss the years that didn’t get to be, even though he’s been gone long enough that I can no longer build detailed images in my head of how they might have looked. This is so disorienting to me. In a world filled with plenty of hard, cold, tangible pain, it’s frustrating to process something so nebulous and ethereal that still has razor-sharp edges.
I know exactly what flowers to buy. Red roses. We had an ongoing argument in our relationship about roses. I like pink best and he felt pink roses were “something you give your grandma.” He loved the romance of red roses; the passion. I grab a single rose and resist the urge to explain it to the cashier. “These are for my husband,” I want to say, “it’s his birthday.” But I don’t.
Back on the road to the cemetery, my heart beats something fierce. I take a deep breath and try to name what I’m feeling. Fear. Sorrow. Both at once, a chaotic chorus flooding my brain with warnings to run. Go get coffee! Go visit a friend! Target is right there! I can’t figure out why this is so hard. I am not sad for Steve, I know he is living his best life. I know he is not really buried six feet deep. I am not sad for me, exactly, because my life is truly lovely. And yet – I am wary and I don’t know why.
Lost in the spinning of my own mind, I drive right past the entrance to the cemetery and have to backtrack and that little mistake presses on a raw nerve, adding anger to an already overloaded emotional bucket. I let out an expletive just as “I’ll never be more loved than I am right now,” floats through my headphones. I pull over and breathe those words in deep. I close my eyes and visualize that truth making its way through the hallways of my heart, knocking on a secret door, and settling into the place that needs it most. If you asked me, “What place needs it most?” I couldn’t tell you, but I’ll know soon enough. Because, turns out, I’m going to run into an old friend here.
Aside: Apart from losing someone I love, the icons surrounding death are the hardest part for me. Grave stones. Funeral homes. Caskets. Mausoleums. These images create a surreality around Steve’s absence that casts a weird haze over everything.
Steve’s headstone is simple and lovely. It took six months after he was buried for me and my kids to decide on which words we would etch into stone, the words that would capture the miracle of his life and his love and his faith. I still don’t know if we did it, but his stone simply says: Father. Friend. Faithful. I run my fingers over the white letters as image after image rushes through my brain like a grainy reel-to-reel movie. Our wedding. Holding our babies. The first night in our first house. That day in a doctor’s office. The day he held his grand baby. The day he flew away Home. Image. Image. Image. Finally, the movie stops on one, and I know it well. It’s a literal photograph that lives on my instagram.
Thirty years after becoming a wife; ten days after becoming a widow.
I see her pinched face and I know: this is why I’m here. She is the one I’ve come to meet. Our relationship is complicated. I admire her and I’m disappointed in her. I’m proud of her and ashamed of her. She is my secret frenemy. But today, I realize, is the day I set her free. So I walk through the rows of graves, and I talk to that scared, sad widow. I tell her all her emotions are valid. I forgive her for not being enough. I thank her for stepping up to the plate, no matter how imperfectly. I tell her, for the first time ever, that she is not responsible for as much as she thinks she is. Her kids, her husband, her friends – they are all held within the love of God and it’s not up to her to keep His reputation safe for them. Finally, I tell her that we’re both going to be okay. Even better than okay. We’re going to find love, we’re going to heal, and we’re going to hope again. Not everyone will like the way we do it, but we’ve cared way too much for far too long about what other people think and there is so much beauty coming.
I don’t know how long I am there, but it’s awhile. I stay, silently waiting until I feel finished. I want to feel better, but I don’t really; not yet. I am sad and I hate feeling sad, but I’m learning to let myself feel it instead of trying to fix it. Finally, I lay my roses on the headstone with the three words and the name of someone so dear to me that I could never capture the love I feel in a million words or a million years. I am grateful. I am exhausted. I am loved.
I do not for a minute understand the way life twists and bends and turns. I only know that every single stretch of the road we are on is significant and sacred. The beauty. The battles. The sorrow. The triumphs. These are the days ordained for me, and this is the story He is writing. I can trust Him with the pen as I allow myself to fully feel and live all of it… all the way Home.