Earlier this week, I told my kids that I was going to go to the cemetery on the anniversary of their father’s death. “Do any of you want to come?”
Austin and Tommy enthusiastically agreed. “I want to come too,” Claire said softly.
I was happy. A year ago, she refused to go to the cemetery. She thought it would be too sad, and though she couldn’t quite explain it, she worried about re-living the moment her father’s body was put in the ground. But when she finally went, on Shawn’s birthday last summer, she found it to be a place that was calming for her. She still doesn’t go every time I do, but at least the fear is gone.
The anniversary of Shawn’s death arrived on Wednesday and I woke at 4 am, unable to sleep. I cried for an hour before I got out of bed and it didn’t get much better throughout the day. I cried in front of the 9th graders I taught during first period, though I hid that fairly well. Then I openly cried in front of a class of 12th graders who quietly waited for me to finish. At the end of class, a number of them came by my desk to give their condolences. (As a side note, I do not care if my kids earn perfect grades or are great athletes, but I want them to be able to do just what those kids did – give a smile or a kind look or maybe even a hug to someone who is hurting.)
When I finished teaching for the day, I went and picked up my kids. I told the ladies at the front office of their elementary school why I was there. “I can’t believe it’s been a year already,” one of them said.
“I know,” I said, truthfully. “I don’t know how it’s possible.”
My kids were excited to get out early, and a number of staff members hung around them as we gathered their things. It was comforting. So were the hundreds of texts and emails I got throughout the day. I knew that I wasn’t the only one missing Shawn.
On the way to the cemetery, the kids started talking about their dad. “I’m glad we’re going to Guapo’s tonight for dinner,” Claire said. “Dad loved that restaurant. He told me last year that he wanted to have his birthday party there with a lots of friends and huge ice cream sundaes. He wanted to get a helicopter to fly him there and have a tambourine band play music!”
I laughed out loud because that sounded EXACTLY like something Shawn would say to his kids.
“I want to say something!” Tommy yelled. “Did you know that Shawn had a car that would go super duper fast?”
I told him I did remember that car. I also thought about how Tommy always calls his dad “Shawn.” It’s never “Dad” or “Daddy.” It’s always “Shawn.” I correct him every time (“Yes, Daddy had a really fast car”) but he still uses Shawn’s name when he tells stories or recounts memories about his Dad. I figure it’s just a phase. But it always breaks my heart a little bit.
When we arrived at the cemetery, Austin said from the backseat, “mom, what’s happening over there?”
It was a burial. About two dozen people surrounded a plot just a few hundred feet from Shawn’s grave. “Maybe we shouldn’t get out of the car,” Claire said.
“I think we’ll be okay as long as we’re quiet,” I said. “No yelling or running around.”
We went quietly to Shawn’s grave. “It’s sad to be here,” Claire said, looking at the burial going on nearby. “It reminds me of being here a year ago.”
“Me too,” I said. It was hard to be there in that moment. I put my arms around her.
We walked around the cemetery for a bit, playing a game where we tried to avoid all of the goose poop. Then out of the blue, Tommy started screaming. “What is this white stuff?” he yelled, putting out his hands.
“It’s SNOW!” Austin said. The first snow of 2019 – and it was coming down in big, fairytale-like flakes. “Tommy, you know what snow is!” Austin said, laughing.
All three kids started dancing around. The burial was still going on in the distance, but there were my three kids, dancing in the snow. Tommy was spinning around and around and the other two tried to catch the snowflakes on their tongues.
I was crying and I was laughing. I wish that I had taken a photo, but in the moment I just wanted to be right there with them.
We went back to the grave and held hands. “We miss you, Dad,” Claire said.
“We love you, Dad,” Austin said.
“Shawn is there in the ground,” Tommy said, pointing.
I hugged them. I felt such love for them in that moment, and such despair as well.
How is it just me holding hands with my three babies? Just me. He should be here, seeing them grow up and dance in the snow. How is he missing this? How is he gone when Tommy is still so little that he doesn’t understand that snow comes around every winter?
We got back in the car and drove home. The car was quiet. The kids were mesmerized by the snowflakes.
Tommy broke the silence. “I want Daddy to come back,” he said.
I was so shocked, I couldn’t say much. “You want Daddy to come back?” I repeated.
He looked out the window. I tried to catch a glimpse of him in the rearview mirror. “Can Daddy come back?” he asked.
“No, baby,” I answered. “Once you die, you go to heaven and you can’t come back.”
We drove home in silence for the rest of the ride. Everyone was pretty overwhelmed by the trip, I think. It was improbable that the four of us had survived a year together without Shawn, but there we were, together in the car driving home from the cemetery.
I looked back at my baby. He was looking out the window, but he turned and smiled at me at that moment. Then he quietly looked back at the snow without exchanging any words with me. I had no idea what he was thinking.
But he said one thing I’ll never forget that day.
He said, “Daddy.”
Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.