My dad died a year ago July, just shy of three years after my mom left us behind. They each lived a wonderful and rich life, nine decades long, full of children, grandchildren, and even one very special great grandchild Miller, named after my mom. About six weeks after my mother broke her hip and leg, the doctor took us four kids aside and explained that she wasn’t going to get better and that we needed to find a way to tell our father. After more than sixty years of marriage, it was hard for us to imagine our dad without our mom; it was impossible to think about how he would manage. But manage he did and surrounded by family and especially Miller, he did pretty well for a while. Then age and creeping Alzheimer’s began to take its toll and our father eventually passed, at home, peacefully, surrounded in his bed by the four of us.
My siblings and I were at our best during the last few years of my parents’ lives as we cared for them and each other, preparing for the turn of a generation. Selfless, sweet, and gentle. I know I am a lucky person to be a part of such a family. Lucky in a way, I suppose, but our parents were of course responsible for all of that.
Last July, after the service for our dad, we travelled together to the cemetery in which my grandfather had purchased six grave sites. I had visited the cemetery many times before. To lay my grandparents to rest, an aunt and an uncle, a cousin here and there. My dad seemed to know everyone at Beth Israel and the storyteller that he was, he would begin his tales as we walked past the various plots. Stories about Uncle Seymour and camp. The sad tale of Seymour’s children who both passed early and tragically. Girls he used to date. Schoolmates who weren’t as smart as he was. My brother Rich and I drove my dad out to the cemetery just a month or two before he died, when his memory had really faded, and he just burst out with one incredibly detailed story after another. Beth Israel was a special place for him.
We arrived to bury him and slowly walked over to the plot of six graves. There were three each in two rows. His mom and dad in row one, next to each other. And my mom in the middle plot in row two, with a space to either side waiting for my dad. The men who had prepared the grave were huddled under the shade of a nearby tree, resting until the service concluded so that they could cover the coffin and bring their day to a close. But something seemed amiss, clearly off. The grave they had dug was snuggled right next to the love of his life for certain, but the wrong one. It seemed my dad was about to be lowered into a spot right next to his mother, leaving his wife, our mother, all by herself. All I could think was “my mom is really going to pissed off if we let this happen”. A couple of us walked over to the workmen and asked if they were sure they had dug in the right spot. They pulled out a map and confirmed they had done as instructed. No mistake there. A little uncomfortably, we asked the Rabbi awaiting if he happened to be hungry and might go grab a sandwich and give us some time to strategize. A cell phone call later to the cemetery marm and a further checking of records confirmed that indeed a mistake had been made and if we would be patient, a second hole would be prepared.
I suppose some families would have been less than gracious at this turn of events, but we’ve always been pretty good at rolling with whatever comes along. And roll we did. In fact, the extra hour or so we had together became a really special time for all of us. A time just to be with each other, full of love and caring. And of course, the story of wrong plot became a great tale to tell. MY dad would have loved that one. A man, even in his death, torn between a good mother and a good wife.
In the Jewish tradition, the headstone is laid months after the burial and the family gathers once again to celebrate the life lost. Today was that day and we all came together at Beth Israel one more time. I was not the first to arrive. I saw my older brother and his family across the lawn. I walked directly over to the place my dad had been buried, next to my mom of course. Her stone was the first to cross my path, but then, as I glanced around to find his, I came up empty. As I had been the child charged with ordering the marker, my first thought was sheer panic. Had I somehow dropped the ball and forgot to send the check in? Were we going to have to go through with the service with no gravestone? And then my eye wandered just a few feet away and I saw it. “Edward William Schall, 1918 – 2012”, carved into granite, on the ground. Right next to his mother. Wholly crap! How was this possible? I know for certain we had buried my father in the right hole. We had all been there. We had all been telling the story for more than a year. Had my day’s connection to his mother been so strong that in the intervening year he moved himself six feet sideways ? Did he really leave my mom lying out there all by herself? Some cajones that man had.
Of course, the real story was not so dramatic. The cemetery lady apparently forgot to make note of the last minute switch a year ago and when the gravestone company came out to lay the stone, they had the same bad map that started this whole mess in the first place. It made for a bit of awkwardness as we gathered around an unmarked plot in prayer and remembrance, while his marker stood a few feet away looking over us all. Yet, it was a beautiful day with my beautiful family. Next time we visit, I trust it will all be fixed. No big deal. Unless of course, something else is going on and my dad gets restless again.