My Father’s Grave

There it was. My name etched in stone. On the back of my father’s grave. My father’s grave. My father is still alive, yet he has a grave.

His headstone is in a family plot east of Idaho Falls, Idaho. It’s a remote pretty cemetery, the kind of Rocky Mountain Cemetery I’m accustomed to, with simple headstones in long rows with plenty of space, lush green grass everywhere.

As I walked through the rows, I realized that times and customs are changing, even when it comes to how people die. Headstones like this, family plots, are a thing of the last generation. Now everyone, for the most part, seems to be getting cremated. People are being sprinkled into lakes and on hillsides, or kept in vases, or put into pots for plants to grow out of. (Just this morning, I saw a headline about the state of Washington legalizing the compositing of human remains as another alternative. I mean, there are 8 billion of us now…)

My relationship with my father is difficult to talk about. It’s hard for me to even make sense of internally, and I do therapy for a living. It’s a big void, a question mark in my center. And this cemetery brings that to life more acutely than even being around him.

My last name is Anderson. It is the last name of both of my sons. It was my father’s name. He had five brothers and one sister; I’ve only met half of my aunt and uncles, and then only once. It was my grandfather’s name. Justin Anderson was a sheep farmer in southern Idaho, and I met him a few times when I was a child before he died. And Justin’s father was… I don’ know. My knowledge pretty much ends there. But there is my grandfather’s grave, just down he row from my father’s. My grandmother Alice is there. A few of my father’s brothers. And then cousins, children, infants, names I’ve never heard or seen before.

In some ways, I respect my father’s choice to purchase a headstone. It shows foresight. He chose the stone himself and paid for it. He had it etched with his name and birth date and the names of his children. It mentions both of his wives by name as well, acknowledging that those marriages took place, although he is divorced from my mother and not living with his second wife. He paid for the plot of land as well. When he goes, he will be buried near his parents, his family, the ones I never knew.

I look like my father. I have the same build, the same coloring, the same grey on the temples, the same baby face. Once when I was 22 (I’m 40 now), I was living in the mountains of a rural area of Idaho and performing as an actor in a dinner theater for the summer. A man and his wife attended the play, and afterwards they approached me. I’d never met them, at least so far as I remembered. The man asked me if I was K. Anderson’s son, and I told him yes. Then he introduced himself as my uncle. He said I looked just like my father. I had the same walk, the same laugh, the same way of carrying my hands, he said. I asked a few questions, bid farewell, and then went home and cried that evening, because that void at my center made no sense.

It still feels that way now. Yet my name is still on the back of his grave.

In the early 1970s, as I understand it, my father had the mad urge to leave his home, his parents, and all that was familiar, and buy a cattle ranch in the rural Missouri Ozarks. Idaho sheep farmer to military man to school teacher to Missouri cattle rancher. A strange symmetry, I supposed. My mother reluctantly consented. They sold their home, packed everything they owned, loaded up the five children, and left the potato fields of Idaho for the green, lush, Mormon-hating country of small-town Missouri. He never bought that ranch, but they did start life over. He took a job in a cheese factory, and stayed for years. I was born in Missouri in 1978. My little sister followed in 1982. We were the sixth and seventh children in the family line. (Years later, both of us would come out as gay. Maybe we can blame Missouri.)

As I understand it from my older siblings, my father was a pretty happy man. He smiled and laughed, played hard, spent time with his kids. But by the time I came into the picture, something had changed. He grew sad and serious. Sometimes angry, but never happy. He seemed haunted. He was hot water, forever waiting to boil, and stuck at that temperature. He worked, he cried, he grew angry with my mother. Mostly he sat silently. No board games. No tickle fights. No camping trips or tossing the ball in the backyard. A serious, sad, haunted man who was doubled over in half due to the stress of raising and providing for seven children. A man who bit off far more than he could chew, who followed all of the rules of Mormonism yet somehow couldn’t experience any of the happy things. A stranger in my home.

I adapted. I wrote stories and played games, collected toys and made treasure hunts for my mom and siblings. I excelled in school. Dad was around but never seemed to notice or care much, and so I just got on with the process of growing up.

And then, in 1990, when I was 11, my mom made the boldest decision of her life, and she left. She went back to Idaho, after nearly two decades away. My dad stayed behind. And I remember being relieved. The world made more sense without him around.

Life got complicated for all of us after the divorce. My mom remarried, but he was mean. My dad ended up in Las Vegas. Months would go by without a phone call, and there were no visits. There was always a birthday card, and another at Christmas. Kitschy greeting cards from the grocery store with a check for one hundred dollars inside, and a short sentence. Surprise, Dad  or Happy Birthday, Dad. That was it. Those small gestures of love meant very little, though, without the relationship to accompany it. He remained closer to my five older siblings, yet put no effort into me or my little sister. When my stepfather grew violent, my dad had nothing to say. When I starred in community and school plays, he wasn’t there (except perhaps once, when he was in town). He didn’t know my friends, my interests, my struggles. And then there was the time I heard my mother tell him over the phone that his children wanted to see him. And my dad responded that he had no children.

When I grew up, I made a few passing attempts to get to know my father, and I sensed some gestures in return. He wrote a few letters when I was a missionary, and I wrote back. He took Sheri and I on a bizarre trip to Europe; he and I shared a room for two weeks, and never really spoke. He showed up at my wedding. My older sisters always encouraged me to put more effort in, to try harder, to seek understanding. He’s different than you think, they said. He tries and shows love just not how you can see it, they said. Maybe he can’t express anything to you, they said.

Maybe, I would think back. But the man whose name I bear can’t tell me the names of my own children, and that tells me everything I need to know. Four decades in and not much has changed.

My father just turned 80. I’m 40. I drove down with my partner to celebrate dad’s life, meeting the rest of my siblings there in Las Vegas. Conversations were superficial. He seemed genuinely happy, in his way, to see his children there to honor him. He told a few terrible jokes. He thanked everyone for being there. I left silently, overwhelmed by the experience.

A week later, I got a card in the mail. It was more than a sentence this time. “Thank you for coming to surprise me,” he said. “I’m glad we can seek common ground, despite our differences. Love, Dad.”

Our differences, I thought. What common ground, I thought. I set the card down. And again, I cried.

But at his grave, I didn’t cry. My name is on the back of his headstone. Etched there, permanently. I’m sixth in a list of his children. And one day, a death date will be carved into the front, and my father laid beneath. But my name will already be there, unchanged, like it has been all along, even before I knew about it.

Once, a therapist asked me how my father had impacted me the most. And I surprised her by answering that he made me an incredible father to my sons. I show interest in them, I said. I listen. I tickle and sing, dance and play, travel and teach, set boundaries and enforce routines. I’m there. Every day. There are no question marks in their center spaces. When I tell them I love them, they roll their eyes and say,  “Dad, we know! We love you too!” I’m there, and he wasn’t. He taught me to be an incredible father, I said, by never teaching me anything at all.

grave

Homeless

Nun

“This is my brother, Chad!” Sheri said excitedly to her co-workers. She marched me into the call center where she worked, introducing me haphazardly to the employees who weren’t on the phone. “He just flew in from Utah!”

“Chad, it’s nice to meet you!” one of them extended her hand. “I know all about you. Sheri tells me everything. I love your blog!”

I smiled as Sheri rambled on a bit. She talks quickly, full of nervous creative energy constantly. Moments later, she showed me her “fidget” drawer, full of objects she could play with so that she could stay focused on work calls and reading assignments for college. “We have an hour before I work, so I’m gonna show him around a little bit. I think I’ll walk him over to where the homeless guy lives, and then maybe over to the monastery. Then I gave him a list of things he can do tonight while I’m working.”

Sheri gave that weird laugh she sometimes gives although nothing funny had been said. Members of my family do that sometimes, give off a laugh to perhaps fill the silence or to avoid something awkward, though the laugh makes it inevitably more awkward every time. I smiled, remembering how I’d had that habit all through my school years.

Soon we were walking down he hill outside her work at 4 pm, knowing it would get dark in another hour. Sheri asked about my flight in, I asked about her classes, and we discussed plans for the coming days of vacationing together in New England. I enjoy how comfortable I am around Sheri, instinctively. She’s familiar, the sibling closest in age, and the one I had the most in common with.

“So there is this guy who lives underneath the freeway that goes over the dike,” she explained, “and he sets up tables and sells things sometimes. He has this whole section of land to himself. He has like a sleeping area and a cooking area. He is known. People walk through there as a shortcut to the shopping center.”

I found myself smiling. Sheri and I both love random encounters, and we can enjoy most any experience. We got closer down to the encampment and Sheri gave an ‘aww, oh no’ sound. Apparently, the city was changing the local area, taking out trees and building trails. Sheri had heard about it, but hadn’t realized that it might impact her homeless friend. “That’s sad. He’s been there forever. It’s kind of like his home. I wonder where he’ll go?”

We walked by the edge of the area, looking at the concrete pillars covered in graffiti. There were flattened cardboard boxes, a pair of shoes, and a random book, but no either sign of life. “That’s sad,” she repeated, assuming he had already moved on.

We started walking away, back up the hill and across a field toward a local monastery. “Did I ever tell you about the homeless guy from right before I came out of the closet?”

“I don’t think so.”

I breathed in the cold fall New England air, and began telling my story.

“Back when I was Elders Quorum President, I used to have to attend this Bishop’s Council meeting every Sunday morning before church. It would last like 90 minutes, and we’d talk bout ward business, events, members we were worried about, stuff like that. We’d give reports on budget and numbers. Anyway, the Bishop was this older serious farmer businessman guy who was very no-nonsense. One day he noticed that a homeless man had moved into the vacant lot across the fence from the church. There was this giant pine tree, and the man had set up some chairs and boxes underneath there to stay out of the cold. The Bishop was super worried about it.”

We walked up to the monastery as I spoke, and I noticed the stark white statues of the Mother Mary and Christ outside it. Sheri interrupted me, explaining that the church was open to the public, but we had to be silent because nuns lived in the building behind it, and they had taken the vow of silence. I lowered my voice as we walked the perimeter of the grounds.

“The bishop felt we should warn the ward to watch their children around this man. He felt like he could be a danger. He had acted the same way a few months before that when a registered sex offender had moved into the ward, and he had wanted to warn the families not to interact much with him. Anyway, he counseled us to keep an eye on things and said he would get it taken care of.

“During the following week, he contacted the owner of the vacant lot by looking through the records at City Hall. He got permission to go in and chop down the tree. He had the homeless man escorted away and chopped down the tree so no one could come back. All because the man claimed a tree too close to the church.”

On the edge of the grounds, we could see through the tall hedges briefly to behind the monastery. There was a stark white graveyard back there, and one solo nun stood among the graves, arms folded as she surveyed the small plot of land.

“The irony of a church denying a homeless man refuge instead of offering him aid wasn’t lost on me. And then, a few months later, I came out. And I never heard what the bishop said, because I stopped going to church, but I wondered if he worried about me the way he had about the sex offender and the homeless man. I wondered if he had warned people to keep their children from me, to watch me close when I entered the building.”

We walked into the monastery then. It was wide and beautiful, with stained glass Biblical depictions of the life of Christ lining both sides. Two people were there, praying silently on the hard back benches. The old man looked up and waved at me when he heard me enter, then returned to his prayers. A golden shrine of some kind lay at the front of the building, and I watched two nuns leave an offering of some kind and then move off to the side, entering a beeping code into a security device to enter the door that accessed their chambers, presumably. I walked to the front and saw lit candles and a book where civilians could write down the names of those who needed prayers for healing. A note suggested a two dollar donation for the prayer and candle.

Donations for prayers. Vows of silence. Shelter trees being cut down, and the homeless removed from their non-homes. It was all suddenly a bit claustrophobic and I stepped outside, returning to that view of the stark white graveyard, contemplating my old life, and comparing it to the new.