Through the wintered hickory trees my father spotted the Watson Cemetery, one of the two cemeteries near Lake Nacogdoches. “Hey, can we see that place? Do you know how to get there?”
My stomach dropped, because one, I hated graveyards—I choked at the thought of my own passing—and two, I knew this was an invitation for him to talk about family and death. Still, my car dragged onto the rotten acorn-laden dirt up to the unlocked gate. We stepped out and explored eight rows of graves, family names of Ferguson, Forney, Ham, Whitaker. Three mounds of fresh dirt, week-old flowers. On stones from the 1800s, artificial silk petals or nothing at all. Cliché epitaphs. A broken ceramic angel rested in pieces between two plots.
We traipsed gently around the dead, hovering on the edges of the invisible box beneath the ground. Somehow we were comfortable with silence—I’d never been a small talk person with my father; he always lofted a question and I’d give a short answer. Static wind was our only conversation, a consolation to the ones under the earth.
It was an indescribable feeling, knowing our bodies will disintegrate like the people below our feet. That somehow our lives will recycle, interchange names, skin, colors, voices. The only thing we leave of ourselves is written in stone. We burn our light for others to see beyond us.
My father recently made an account on Facebook, and I immediately blocked him from everything when I accepted his friend request. All my self-portraits, photographs with friends, posts about my mundane life, he cannot see, because I refuse to let his saccharine comments go public. He had this ability to make any subject an overwhelming sentimentality, and I despised maudlin conversations. Some days it was to check in with me and my brother when we lived together in Oregon—“have you decided where you’re going camping?”—some days a nostalgic reminder of my childhood—“The picture of a trail through a forest of green trees and misty air was a favorite of mine. I walked a trail very similar just below my apartment in Issaquah every day—crying. That was a wonderful place to walk and be alone. I really hope one day Emily you get to return there to live. And you will remember. Everything.” Every time that red notification button appeared, I braced myself for the annoyance of whatever he was about to say.
Last July amid two other conversations, up popped that red dialogue bubble as I sat in my furniture-less living room, the afternoon sunlight warming my fingers as I opened the message.
“My cousin Gary passed away this past weekend. He was a few years older than me.”
I can’t tell you how much this destroyed me.
I can’t tell you that after all these years of him irritating me with his overbearing sappiness, I would one day find his Facebook account inactivated. The absence of “Hi, Emily!” The octuplet messages of me ignoring his recount of childhood, his love for my brothers and I—“my children,” he always said, always referenced us in third person. In all the ways that I was stoic and heartless toward him, I still loved my father. The idea of being without a parent, even if I barely connected with him the way he supposed he connected with me, was like an endless day of being lost in the grocery store—you called out for him, searched through the aisles, stayed put because if you don’t move, eventually someone will find you, yet you never found him again. In a way you remain a child all your life, and when you lose a parent, you lose a shred of innocence. I dread that day, and for a while it seemed like my parents were in a reverse situation where they would lose me first—I once planned to exit the grocery store while they tried to find me, never thinking that I had checked out.
There was a snow day in seventh grade. My father and I hung out in the living room of his second wife’s house, snow outside the windows absorbing the overhead light. I sincerely do not remember how a good conversation turned heavy and dark, and I only remember us crying, something about the divorce between him and my mother, something about my depression worsening. Three months prior to that day I was called into the counselor’s office for suspicions that I was suicidal—I was, but I didn’t dare tell my parents—you know how dramatic kids are at thirteen years old—and ever since then, my father won’t let me go.
I think he realized, as did I much later, that at one point I was going to let him go. He constantly wrote my name in messages, texts, and I put my aggravation aside long enough to understand that he was frightened there might be a day where he will never again say my name to me. That I won’t be around to hear the name he and my mother fought over. That the product of his failed marriage was the only reason he kept living after all the pain he had been dealt since his first divorce.
Grandpa Townsend was 92, and his wife—my father’s stepmother—was in a hospital refusing to eat. His brother and sisters were taking care of him, despite my grandfather not knowing where his wife was.
“I guess she is wanting to die now,” my father wrote. “I’m not sure why Jan, Ellen and Stan have not told Dad about Bee. Maybe because he wouldn’t understand. Maybe because they think it would upset him too much. Where Dad thinks she is, I have no clue. That he does not seem to be panicked about it tells me his brain is not working too well… no offense intended.”
I replied, “oh.”
“Bee has always been very adamant with Stan that she did NOT want to be a part of Dad’s funeral—planning or otherwise. And as she expected he would die first, she basically explained that she was too old to accept responsibility for his funeral, etc. That he was our responsibility, not hers.”
“That’s dumb ugh.”
I don’t know if he ever senses when I don’t want to continue a conversation. Because right when I feel it’s obvious I want to change the subject, he immediately launches into a lengthy citation of resentment against someone and narrows it down to his love for “[his] children.”
“She pushed us 5 children away from our father for 20-25 years—restricting our access and interaction with him—even alienating him from us—yet at the finish line washed her hands of him and us. And honestly, it is a source of pride to me that through all that has been done to destroy the relationship I and my children share—I never sold you kids out. I paid whatever price had to be paid to show you my unconditional love. And it cost me greatly. My dad did NOT do this for his 5 children. He paid the price of keeping her happy—at the expense of unconditionally loving his children. I forgive him for his selfishness, but I chose differently. I paid the price for my children he was not willing to pay for his children. I think my dad figured 20 years ago that Bee was his meal ticket—not his children. When he was near death 3-4 years ago Bee was honestly ready to throw the dirt on him and let him die. Stan, Ellen and Jan came to the rescue and got him help. He survived. She didn’t care but his children did. Now she is throwing in the towel and his children are again there to show him their love. Honestly Emily, he totally underestimated his children and overestimated Bee.”
The only time I remember my relatives going to see my grandfather was for his and Bee’s birthdays in Kingsburg, California. I don’t think he ever traveled to Visalia or Sacramento for his kids’ birthdays, and they certainly did not travel to see my brothers and me on our birthdays when we lived in Washington. Grandpa Townsend was an impersonal person, the assurance that we’d get a gift card in the mail on important days, and all that was expected of us was to return a thank-you.
A couple nights later, moonless and overcast, Bee died in her hospital bed, while Grandpa Townsend still didn’t know where she was. My father dropped the news over, you guessed it, Facebook.
“15 years ago I remember him telling me of his loneliness…and his point was that all his friends were already dead. And he was right. Now that Bee is dead he probably thinks all his friends are more than dead…but he has forgotten that he has children and grandchildren that, though he did not appreciate them as perhaps he should have, they are still there and care about him.”
I put my father in his father’s place. If my brothers and I didn’t bother to check in with my father, undoubtedly he’d be lonely as well. He constantly reminded me this even now, how he wanted a roommate, a companion of a sort, a face to see at the dining table after an isolated night alone. My older brother worked at the same company as my father, but once it was four o’clock he went home to his wife. My father had no one to return to.
His loneliness was obvious, and it hurt. It hurt in ways that I hadn’t expected, somehow much deeper than a sorrow from losing someone. Watching someone in pain was worse than acknowledging the incident that released the pain. And sometimes it hurt knowing that there was a strong possibility of this pain from loneliness also happening to me.
For a weekend in October I flew to Colorado Springs to visit my father, who paid for my flight. He had always selflessly tried to arrange trips when I was available, took care of the finances, because he wanted nothing more than to be with his “precious daughter.”
We drove outside Cripple Creek and found the Mount Pisgah cemetery. Yellow quaking aspens shaded the plots, a couple of cars parked throughout the place, though it seemed like we were the only ones there. I panicked beneath the stolid exterior of my body, flipping my shit at the thought that someday we will be underground, or resomated, or urned. I couldn’t look at my father walking ahead of me, knowing his eyes will eventually be shut beneath the dirt, his lungs will stop expanding and deflating. Knowing his fingers will no longer type a sentimental message on Facebook. I unwillingly dredged up an image of my father’s imminent funeral, whenever that may be. For only the second time in my life, I imagined a funeral other than my own, and that terrified me.
My older brother called while we stood at a couple’s plot. I hope my father will not be buried alone. It makes no difference to a dead person, or to generations after us, to be specific about being buried with a certain body. But if I were to believe that everyone who had died was looking down/up on us, I would think they’d like to be buried with someone they loved, so that their body was not lonely in addition to their soul, wherever their soul had gone.
It’s a bit insane to me that people plan for their death. But it’s also insane that I wrote my own will for six years in a row.
The worst length of my depression subsisted between ages 9-14, from lack of friends and attention, hatred for where I was living, misery from my sappy whiny life story that no one was interested in. I wanted death more than I wanted life. On September 17, 2004-2009, I’d update my will, assign juvenile items to my brothers, parents, the one friend I had. I stayed up to a gloomy sunrise, carefully penning my baby blanket to go to my father, who sentimentally nicknamed it as a “corner blanket” because I had cut a corner when I was four. As I had no witness, I swooped the ink into a fake name and stuffed the notebook paper in a red binder that had pictures of me and my father on our road trips. If he ever found that binder, and I’d been so careful hiding it in my room and through moves between cities, he would be devastated that he couldn’t keep me happy. It would be that random snow day all over again, him asking if I need therapy, counseling, medication, the stupid stereotypical depression shit.
The thing is, I never sought validation from my parents. I needed the world to tell me that it was okay I was alive. Not people who had to love me unconditionally. This is a complicated love, one that I’m still trying to experience correctly, requitedly: a love in which this person doesn’t want to imagine a life without you, a love in which this person can choose to walk out of your life at any moment but actually chooses to stay. It’s not necessarily a love based on conditions or without conditions. You are treated as a choice rather than as an obligation.
“Phone me?” my father texted at 11:46 a.m. on a sunny February Friday, almost exactly a year after our first cemetery visit.
“Hang on, I’m walking to my desk,” he said, out of breath from walking upstairs to his office. “Okay. So. Jan and Ellen are with Grandpa Townsend right now, and they’re saying that he’s going to die really soon. Like, this weekend.”
I was silent.
“They’re already planning a funeral, which will be sometime next week. Your brothers would like to go. I understand if you don’t want to go, I know you have school.”
I didn’t protest nor did I offer to find a flight to Fresno, which was 1,700 miles west of Nacogdoches.
“Grandpa Townsend doesn’t want any life support, the breathing machine. He can’t swallow, talk. The hospice nurse evaluated him and thinks he has 48 hours or less. It is what it is. Life goes on, I guess.”
His quiet pain tripped into mine, all my fears that we will die alone, him especially. If I’m not around when he takes his final breath, if no one he loves is with him, I would feel like I failed as a daughter.
I told him I would go. He thanked me for bending to his convenience. There were many inconveniences already presented, but I was curious to put aside my ascetic disposition long enough to feel something, feel that horrendous feeling of being lost in the grocery store, both of us searching for someone who had left the building without our permission.
My grandfather was buried next to his first wife, as it had been planned since her death in 1989, in Kingsburg Cemetery. Most Townsend ancestors were buried here, and as I strolled through the crunchy winter grass examining their companion plots, I felt an odd sense of curiosity and forthcoming loss. The bright sunlight coruscated onto a wide stone with my great-great-grandparents’ names: Herbert died in 1980, Clara in 1994. For fourteen years Clara’s name had been inscribed with a birth date, the death date waiting to be established. How sad it must have been for her to visit her husband’s grave, knowing she would be the last person next to him forever, knowing she was standing above her final resting place.
The funeral was a strange sermon about shepherds and God and not enough eulogizing my grandfather. My father and his siblings didn’t cry. When the military lady handed my father a clumsily triangulated American flag, he didn’t shed a tear. When they all stood at the end of the service at the casket, my older aunt walked to her car nonchalantly. My younger aunt sobbed, but not hysterically. My twin uncles barely moved their faces. I get that their father was distanced throughout the past twenty years, but they just lost him. They’re orphaned. Even I would have felt sad.
It scared me to question the relationship I had with my father. What if he and I will only be memories of each other for as long as we are alive? What if we are strangers by the end of our lives? All because I couldn’t answer a Facebook message with proper emotion? Because I couldn’t find some unconditional love to give him?
The drive from the Dallas/Fort Worth airport to Nacogdoches was claustrophobic from the tilt-shift narrowing of silhouetted pine trees, the Rorschach ink-blots blurring worn stretches of roads. I pulled over by an extension of country fields on HWY 287 and rolled down my windows, looking up at the endlessly freckled sky. I hadn’t seen as many stars since I was with my father in Sequoia National Park, bittered by the 35 degree chill. I thought about how we are made of stardust, that each of our past lives are wired in the atmosphere, scintillating onto us, and we are gazing at our preceding selves. And someday I’ll be returned to what I’m really made of, a bookmark of this chronicle I didn’t ask to be archived in.
My grandfather was up there, nestled among the constellations of history. I finally acknowledged his death, felt the shiver that didn’t attack from the wind helixing into my car. I knew then what it was like to lose someone, to watch their light bulb’s tungsten filament explode back into stardust. And I could see it through the transparency of my father’s light, dimming just enough for me to look beyond his beam.