A path through the land of the grieving

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It's quiet at the cemetery today.

That isn't always the case. I've witnessed a lot of activity while sitting next to my father's grave this month. 

"Still never a dull moment, right, Daddy?" I told him on one visit.

I didn't know I would be the type to have one-sided chats in a cemetery. Then again, I didn't know we would lose Daddy at 56, just one month after he was given his cancer diagnosis and one week after an ER doctor told us over the phone that it was terminal. 

It doesn't seem right to have certain conversations when someone you love is just starting treatments and keeping a positive attitude seems very important. In our case, he slipped away from us while his doctors were insisting that he was doing fine, so there wasn't time to have "the talk" like he had with his father.

So yes, I talk to him at the cemetery. 

I talk to him because the funeral did little to dissuade me from the feeling that he is still out there somewhere. The man we buried is certainly the man we saw die, but he wasn't the man I lived with for 22 years, lost at 34 and will love until my own dying day.

I don't know how the rules of the afterlife work. I don't think of him as some kind of guardian angel who goes with me everywhere I go, but if someone in heaven were to tell him, "Rocky, we've got your daughter on the line," I know he'll want to be on the other end. So I keep talking. 

One day at the cemetery, I wanted to talk about fairness. This wasn't fair, I said, and that wasn't fair. Life and death weren't fair to you, and they weren't fair to me and nothing about any of this is fair.

"That's how it goes, Sissy," I heard him say.

At times, I've looked around at the graves that stretch as far as I can see, and I wonder about all the stories like ours that are out there. Has anyone ever sat beside a grave and thought, "This happened exactly the way we wanted?" Probably not.

You hear some things over and over again when you're coping with a loss. I can tell some people avoid talking about it, possibly because they think I'll cry or that they will somehow be reminding me that he's gone, as if that thought doesn't cross my mind every 30 seconds or so.

I can talk about his death, but not too many people have asked about his life. So here goes.

Donald Williams Jr. was known as Rocky because of broad shoulders he had as a baby. The nickname was inspired by Rocky Marciano, not the famous movie, which came out when he was 12.

In high school, he played hooky with a few other guys and went to Warrior River Bridge to see them film a scene from "Hooper." His principal, Wilburn Hudson, came out and told them to get their butt back to class.

He got so angry when I didn't place in a kindergarten beauty pageant that his father had to tell him to settle down before he got kicked out. I wouldn't trade his greasy hat that he put on my head in a favorite picture of us for a crown anyway.

He liked monster trucks and trains, George Jones and KISS, Buford Pusser and "Convoy."

There wasn't a piece of equipment ever made that he couldn't run better than the guys around him. He was a logger, a mechanic, an excavator and a coal miner. 

He loved my mother. They raised two children together and lost another, their first, in 1985. She looked just like him and they died on the same day, 35 years apart.

He liked to kid around and had a comeback for everything. His only piece of life advice to me growing up was "Kick the mean boys in the shins" (a George Clooney line from "One Fine Day").

He was loved, and he deserved less pain and heartache and more time.

Zac lost his mother less than 48 hours before I lost my father. (I don't like any of the terminology for death. We didn't misplace our parents.)

When people ask me how he is doing, my usual response is that he is handling it better than I am. Maybe it's better. Maybe it's just different.

The best advice I've been given is that whatever you are feeling is okay and normal and no one gets to tell you how to grieve. 

I have known people who have endured unimaginable loss. After this nightmarish summer, I now understand that pain is the common denominator in all death. You don't get doled out more or less if you lose someone young or old, one at a time or two at once, in a moment or through a process.

Death doesn't ask if you're ready for this or how much more you can take. Death doesn't heap tragedy on some people and not others because they're capable of handling it. Sometimes that's just the cards you get dealt. 

Death continues to touch families all around us. This week, it came for the Eagle's own Rick Watson.

Somewhere, I suppose, there are still people whose lives are going on as usual with beach trips and family movie nights and political rants on Facebook.

Here in the land of the grieving, it is both lonely and feeling more crowded by the day.

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Jennifer Cohron is the Daily Mountain Eagle's features editor.