I would have liked to visit his grave over the Memorial Day weekend, but Rolling Thunder kept me away. It’s bad enough that Dad is buried at a major tourist attraction, but couple that with the circus atmosphere of thousands and thousands of bikers rumbling and blatting through the cemetery (and feeling entitled to stop traffic as they do so, thanks so much), and I’ll just make my Memorial Day visit at another time.
Yesterday I had to go into town for an audition. When I got finished, I had a couple hours before my rehearsal call at Signature, so I drove over Memorial Bridge and into the cemetery. Dad is buried in the southwest corner of Arlington Cemetery. The day we buried him, a little more than six years ago, his grave was in the front row of his section. So many of his compatriots have died since then that he’s now in the ninth row back. It always takes me a minute to get my bearings so I can find him.
When I approached his grave yesterday, I saw that someone had visited it recently. There was a bunch of wilted peonies in the grass in front of the stone, and something else. Tucked into the crease of earth at the base of the stone was a shiny new Titleist golf ball. I touched it with my forefinger. It was warm from the sun.
My father was an avid golfer. He took up the sport in middle age and pursued it with varying degrees of triumph and anguish until the end of his life (in fact, it was when he suddenly stopped playing that the family realized that he was getting ill). Based on the peonies and the ball, I deduced that my younger brother John had braved Rolling Thunder to visit Dad over the weekend. John always leaves something at the grave – if he’s arrived at the cemetery empty-handed, he’ll find a pine cone and put that at the base of Dad’s stone. Sometimes I’ll do the same.
Back in the days when Dad was newly buried, the gravesite was as raw and rocky as our hearts felt. It seemed wrong not to bring something to relieve the dry misery of it, whether it was flowers or a little flag or even just a pine cone. I remember visiting with my brother and his boys on one of those early days. My nephew Sean picked up a pebble from the fresh dirt and somberly asked if he could keep it. It seemed like such a good idea that a year later, when I was about to go to San Francisco for a show, I took a couple of little stones from Dad’s gravesite with me. First I just kept them on my bedside table. Then I started carrying one with me. I had one in my pocket when I visited Muir Woods; on a whim, I poked it into the bark of one of the giant redwoods and left it there. I dropped one into the water off the Golden Gate Bridge. I threw another one into the ocean near the Cliff House. My sister Margaret carried one down into the Grand Canyon and left it on a pretty riverbank. As long as Dad’s grave remained barren, we carried these bits of it around with us, little hard pieces of our grief, which we left in places of beauty.
Over the years, the grass came in, covering the rocks and raw earth at Dad’s gravesite. We stopped taking the little rocks because eventually, we couldn’t find them any more. The new growth overwhelmed them.
Yesterday the grass was so lush and green that the Titleist ball was as bright as an egg against it. It made me happy to see it there, not just because I knew my brother had left it. It was the realization that while our grief at Dad’s death is still present, its nature has changed. Instead of small, cold stones clawed out of the raw earth, it’s become round as a ball in spring grass.
Smooth and warm.