a few weeks ago i went back to visit my father’s grave. i hadn’t gone since i was 16. i am 33. before that the only other time i went was for his burial and again the first year after his suicide 20 years ago.
for the most part i have stayed away.
i have observed that other people pay regular visits to graves, taking flowers and cleaning up the space around the tombstone. perhaps going on a loved one’s birthday or anniversary of dying. not me. no flowers, no annual visits – just avoidance. staying away from his grave is obviously symbolic of the emotional wall i have built between my father and me.
my last visit happened when i was 16 and had just gotten my driver’s license. one afternoon i was struck with the idea that i could go by myself to my father’s grave. almost impulsively i got in the car and drove there. i didn’t tell anyone i was going – not my mom, not my sister, not my boyfriend at the time. i felt like i was going somewhere i shouldn’t, like i was sneaking in. as i entered the gates of arlington cemetery i felt overwhelmed with grief. i could barely drive i was crying so hard, the tears pouring down my cheeks, my body wracked with sobs.
when i got to his stone i was doubled over with emotional pain. i wanted to scream at the top of my lungs – but i didn’t. i just fell to my knees, clenched my fists and silently cried, cried, cried. all of the emotions i tried so hard to push away rose to the surface, reminding me of their force and power. it was a wild and windy day, the sun shining so bright and a sharp spring breeze blowing my hair out of place and whipping my jacket around my body.
i remember thinking how surreal it was that his gravestone had been sitting there, every single day of the past three years since his suicide. simply receiving every drop of rain and flake of snow. absorbing the light of the sun and the rays of the moon. while i grew and changed the stone stayed the same. that feeling broke my heart – that feeling of apart-ness, of separation from my dad.
i didn’t tell anyone about my solitary visit to arlington cemetery – a pattern of behavior that would follow me around for years – out of my teens, into my twenties. hiding away that most secret and most awful pain. hiding it from others and hiding if from myself. because saying it out loud would make it real – the trauma, the loss, the abandonment. so i didn’t share it and i didn’t go back. not for another 17 years.
on february 9 my story was published in the washington post. my story and my dad’s story too. from the second i looked at it on the post’s website i knew i needed to go to his grave. something inside of me needed a connection with him. i wanted to share this moment of victory, of growth, of survival. like my last visit at 16, this one was also instinctual, unexpected. i didn’t tell anyone i was going, but not because i was hiding. because i needed the space of this visit to be inhabited by only me and him.
as i drove through the grounds of arlington cemetery, i reflected that he was buried among thousands and thousands of american veterans in a quiet and holy space. the landscape is infused with patriotism – the grounds meticulously landscaped, the american flags snapping proudly in the wind. it struck me that he would have loved it here, that he was laid to rest in a place that reflected his love for god, country and family.
it took me a while to find his grave. i wandered in and out of the rows of stones, scanning the different names as i searched for his. it was an ugly day – misty, cold and drizzling. a bugle played taps off in the distance, bringing back memories of his burial so many years ago. finally his name popped out at me: douglas sidney mcdowell.
at first i didn’t cry. i just stood there looking, my head bowed, tiny raindrops dripping off my hood. i felt the same surreal duality of the unchanging stone and my changing life. but this time i didn’t need to scream. i needed to talk. i reached out my hand and placed it on his stone, pressing it with my palm. “hi dad…hi.” i said out loud. it’s me – amy.”
i began awkwardly, telling him about my husband who he had never met. telling him about the last time i had come to his grave. and then, abruptly, i stopped and yelled, “are you there? can you HEAR ME? ARE YOU THERE?” my voice echoed back off the stone of his grave. and then the tears came. i cried as i told him about my own depression, about getting sick, about wanting to die. i told him about my writing and asked for his understanding as i share openly and honestly about things he couldn’t even say to his own family. “i hope you understand,” i said. “i hope you would be proud of me.”
feeling our moment of closeness slipping away like the raindrops falling around me, i looked hard at the letters of his name as i said, “you are still with me. i still love you. i love you, dad.”
part of me wanted to stay in that place, touching his stone forever. it was the only experience of connection i have allowed myself to feel in 20 years without his presence in my life.
i stood silent for a few more minutes in the rain and then turned around to go home.
but this time i took something with me: the gift of acceptance.
and i left something behind: the burden of shame.