I told her we were going to visit the uncle she’d heard about. We pulled into the cemetery, admiring the fountain and duck pond by the entrance. When we got out of the car and she looked around, she asked, “Where are we?” I suppose that being surrounded by gravestones on a hot July afternoon is a striking sight if you’ve never experienced it before.
We walked to my brother’s headstone, a modest flat slab in the ground. She was distracted by the hundreds of flowers all around, picking up a pink plastic petal that had blown off of a display. I pointed to the stone and said, “Your uncle is buried here.” We knelt down and I pointed to the letters of his first name, which nearly match the letters of hers. I started pulling grass back from around the edges of the stone, and she eagerly chipped in. My tears came easily, as they do when I visit his grave, but I had on sunglasses and my daughter didn’t notice. After a minute or two, she ran off to look at flowers. She picked some wild dandelions and brought them to me and her mother.
This made her upset. “I picked it for you,” she insisted.
“Well, can I leave it here?”
“But it’s yours!”
With some cajoling we convinced her to let us arrange the dandelions on her uncle’s grave, but she seemed hurt that we didn’t want to carry the flowers back to the car with us. She had a point.
I’ve always been really clear that the grave of my brother is not where my brother is. It marks the place where his bones are, but a padded box filled with the bones that once gave his body structure is not my brother. I go to his grave every year (or less) not to visit my brother, but rather to visit some geographical location that is symbolic of all the memories I carry of him. My brother isn’t his grave any more than Jesus is any particular crucifix.
The recollections of him aren’t really him, either. Of course, what is really him is gone. That’s what death does to us, it erases the essence of who we are from this plane of existence. It removes us from our own narrative. From our loved ones’ narratives, too; but those narratives continue. The cruelest truth of death may be that the narrative doesn’t end with us. It keeps going and we are forced to revise a narrative without someone we love. That is where my brother is: in the ongoing narrative of my life, of the lives of others who loved him. My brother is in the work I do with others, in the ways I love my parents and my spouse, in the hopes I have for my daughter. Clearly, for she carries his name, even though I am under no illusion that she is anything other than her own unique person.
I was reminded of this in her insistence that we take the dandelions with us. Her uncle isn’t at the grave for her any more than he is for me. To her, my brother is with me. Particularly in the stories I tell of him. She knows that is where her name comes from, she knows that I once had a brother. It gives her a little practice at playing with the idea of emptiness and want. She knows what a brother is, but, like me, does not have one. Training wheels for grief: she can roll around the idea that there is something in the world she doesn’t have, watching me carry that burden with (hopefully) some grace and gratitude.
Maybe we shouldn’t have left the dandelions on the headstone. We could have honored my daughter’s gift to us as her parents, as the source of stories and growth and protection. Those of us who have suffered loss certainly want to honor our predecessors who taught us how to live. I want to pass these things down to my child, and to her children after her. But I don’t think those who went before us are the only ones who teach us to live. After all, the narrative doesn’t end with us.