The sun warmed my shoulders and a breeze ruffled the flags that stretched out along the horizon. I laid the red, white and blue bouquet next to a pot of yellow roses, and Sam stuck a pinwheel into the ground that soon spun in a blur of colors as the wind reached it.
Tombstones jutted in orderly rows like soldiers standing at attention. The Washington State Veterans Cemetery in Medical Lake is a beautiful spot and my father-in-law’s final resting place.
For 18 years, my husband, sons and I have paid Memorial Day weekend visits to my father’s grave at Fairmount Memorial Park. My father-in-law’s death two years ago added this new destination to our pilgrimage of remembrance.
While Fairmount is rich with Spokane history and the graves of notable citizens, it isn’t a place where I want to linger after visiting my father’s grave. However, the open space and silent peace of the cemetery in Medical Lake calls to me.
Derek and the boys shared memories of Papa while I wandered among the headstones. The epitaphs often make me smile and leave me wishing I’d known some of the people buried here.
There are the traditional remarks “Always in our hearts,” “Weep no more for I have gone, I have entered heaven with a song,” and “Here lies a good and decent man,” but the writer in me loves the unusual.
For example one marker reads, “Sure happy it’s Thursday.” I paused at that and wondered about the fellow that lies here. Did he die on a Thursday? Was that his favorite day of the week? Then there’s this: “I’m so glad you got to see me.” This one makes me smile because my dad often said the same thing.
“The Defense rests,” obviously marks the grave of an attorney, and “If you stand here long enough you’ll hear a fish story,” speaks to the deceased’s favorite pastime.
I showed my sons one that I especially like, “Wife, grandmother, chocoholic,” but Zack, 18, said my epitaph will probably say, “Shut up! I’m on deadline!”
I’m glad I won’t be around to worry about it.
I found a couple other epitaphs I liked better than Zack’s idea. “It’s good thing chocolate pie is plentiful heaven,” has appeal. But my favorite is, “A book on a shelf is useless. Live long and prosper.”
The boys wandered off as I continued my headstone perusal. Not all of the epitaphs bring a smile. Some of them whisper with loss. “To the man I adore, to the man I love, to the man I’ll cherish forever.”
And this, “I’ll love you forever and wait patiently to see you smile again.”
But one headstone stopped me in my tracks. “You had no peace in life; I hope you found it in death. Rest easy.” The poignancy of the words took my breath away. And then I heard it – a soft sound caught on the wind – the sound of sobbing.
I looked behind me and saw a lady in a pale green jacket pressing a tissue to her mouth. She walked haltingly among the graves and the sobs she tried to stifle echoed in the stillness of the cemetery.
Derek and the boys were gone. There was no one else nearby. Separated from this stranger by a row of graves, I continued walking, but I’d lost interest in the epitaphs.
Her weeping shook me. She was too far away to call out to, besides I didn’t know what to say in the face of such raw grief. When I reached the end of the row, I looked back.
I watched as she lowered herself to her knees beside a grave and my own knees felt weak. I saw my family waiting for me in the car, but I stood still – torn between joining them or approaching the solitary woman who knelt and wept so heartbrokenly. I didn’t want to intrude, but it didn’t seem right to ignore.
Finally, I turned and walked to the car, her sobs still floating in the air around me. I pressed my face to the window as we drove past and breathed a silent prayer.
On Memorial Day when we honor the memory of veterans like my father and my father-in-law, who served our country with distinction and honor, perhaps it’s equally important to remember those they’ve left behind. Widows, children, parents and friends, whose lives are forever marked by the absence of those they love.
And if by some amazing chance the woman in the green jacket is reading this column, I hope she will forgive my reticence. I’ve found the words that eluded me on Sunday and I just want to say, I’m so very sorry for your loss.