The pine straw covered the gravel muffling the sound of the tires. The problem with evergreens is that the straw falls all year. There’s never a time when it isn’t covering the ground. It’s always there in various stages of decomposition, waiting to cling to everything.
But silence is expected in a cemetery, so the bed of needles helps.
We pull in. It’s always tricky to remember exactly where the stone is. I know it’s on the back row, but through the years, the back row has changed a bit. And it’s not like I go regularly.
I pull over, not really wanting to get out. Some tasks just suck.
But there’s also a draw here. A need to know. To understand the man who died almost 24 years ago.
24 years. It’s hard to imagine. I was just 26 at the time. He’s almost been gone longer than he was with me. He’s certainly been gone longer than the time that I was actively living with him. Even having gone to college in my hometown only afforded us 22 years, and I was only in the house for 18 of those years.
As an adult, 18 years seems far more than sufficient time to get to know someone.
But children are selfish and self-centered. We often struggle to recognize our parents as actual human beings for most of those 18 years. And so, we rarely take the time to learn who they are. Besides, we don’t usually assume that we’ll only have another 8 years after high school with our parents.
So I didn’t spend a lot of time wondering about who that man is.
Men of my dad’s generation never spent much time trying to explain who they are to their kids. So while I feel a significant level of guilt over not knowing Howard E. Winn, born on July 20, 1940, I also realize that learning about someone is a two-way street. He needed to want me to know who he was as well.
And I’m not really sure that thought ever entered his big bald head.
I get the spray Clorox cleaner and the bottled water out of the truck and carry it over to the head stone. I also grab the bar brush I brought as I slipped on my gloves. Dad would have laughed at those gloves, but bleach does a number on my hands.
Kye doesn’t laugh. She wanted to come with me. My kid. To see my dad’s headstone. To clean it with me.
This is the kind of moment that I would have run from if dad had ever asked me to do. I avoided moments like this with him whenever I could. And I regret that now. And yet, despite his having spent the early years of my life as a mortician, I don’t remember ever visiting his parents’ graves with him.
But Kye wanted to come. So I let her.
And even though it was late September, it was still muggy out that Saturday morning. So she watched me sweat over the stone as I scrubbed.
While scrubbing away the mildew and the grass stains, and while Kye watched and waited, I realized why I was there.
This is the last way that I have of taking care of the man who took care of me for 24 years of my life.
It’s the last way I have of feeling close to him.
It’s the last way I have to introduce him to his grandchild whom he never knew.
And so I scrubbed, hoping to wear away the buildup on the bedrock of my life as a father, cause despite not really knowing how he felt about things, his approach to parenting taught me much of what I know.
He taught me to kiss knees to make them feel better.
He taught me to listen when my child rambles on for hours and days and weeks about Pokemon, or The Hunger Games, or some YouTube comedy channel she’s watching.
He taught me to be patient when teaching.
He taught me to break up my scary, serious face with a smile every once in a while just to keep them guessing.
He taught me to put an arm around the kid’s shoulders and to just sit quietly in the football stands with him while he cries without being able to verbalize why.
He taught me to clap the loudest of everyone so that my kid knows that I’m in the audience and that I’m bursting with pride.
He taught me to take care of the ones I love.
And as I scrubbed the stone, feeling all of this, the tears start mixing with the sweat, and my kid, who really is the best of me, who leaned over during the inferno scene of Toy Story 3 to rub my arm and say, “It’s okay daddy. They’re going to be okay,” my kid puts her arm around my shoulder as dad did when I was upset in the football stands, and just stood there with me, silent but loving.
And I know that I’ve taught her about Howard E. Winn without even realizing it. The three generations of us stood there on the warm September afternoon, together.
The stone was clean.