This is my third Father’s Day since Elena died.
Kim and I measure so much in terms of these big events.
“Oh,” Kim will say, “that was before I met you.” Because we were married a little over a year after we started dating, she might also say, “That was before we were married.” I also think of that year before we married as “the year I gained thirty pounds.” But, that’s another story.
We call the time we spent married without kids as being “before we had Maggie.” Yes, we don’t tend to say “before we adopted Maggie.” I’m not sure why.
The two and a half years that Maggie enjoyed as an only child are “before Elena was born.”
Of course, now we are in the period “since Elena died.” Maggie is a different sort of only child. The time that she was not an only child is now often referred to as “back when Elena was alive.”
We use other ways to mark periods in our lives. There was the time we lived on 128th Street in Cleveland, the time Maggie was at Boulevard School or Heights Montessori, the time while Kim studied for her qualifying exams, or so many other good times.
Last weekend we were marking one of these times at a party for one of Kim’s cousins who had just graduated from high school. Her younger sister, Kim’s Goddaughter, now has her driver’s license. She was a baby when Kim and I got married and now she has her driver’s license.
The last time I was in this party room was at the party for her first Communion. Elena wasn’t yet two and was running around outside with her cousins. Kim’s relatives kept telling us that they had seen “a little Daniel running around outside.”
These are the memories that sneak up on me. I’m surrounded by family at a happy event and feel the absence of Elena working the room and entertaining and shmoozing. She would never stay still. She was never quiet. Energy flowed from every pore.
But back to the high school graduation party we wandered around and talked to cousins and friends and then sat and ate with some of Kim’s relatives.
As we walked out to the car, Kim asked, “did you notice?”
“Notice what,” I asked back.
“All three of the men at our table had lost a child,” she said.
“Really?” I said, “All three of us? I only knew about me and Pete.” Pete’s daughter recently died of cancer.
“Yeah,” she said, “Charles lost an adult son.” She told me the story.
“I didn’t know.” I thought a minute and asked, “did the other two notice that?”
“No,” she said, “but the women at the table all did.”
All three of us.
When I was younger people used to say “death comes in threes.” They may still. Two famous people would die and some older person would say “death comes in threes.” When a third person would die, they would nod wisely and say, “see.”
After Elena died, two other young girls in Shaker Heights died as well. Halle died in a car accident. A third young girl took her own life as a result of depression. I suppose there were people who said, “see, death comes in threes.”
For each family death just comes in ones.
For Halle’s family it came in ones but three at a time. The same crash that took her life also took the lives of her grandparents. I see their graves now from the bench on which I write this. I’m sitting roughly on the spot where I’ll be buried some day looking at the Elena’s stone with Halle’s and her grandparents’ markers just beyond and back a row.
Even if deaths come in threes — their three is not the same as our three. The grouping is in the eye of the beholder.
A couple of months ago Mark’s mom died. Less than a week earlier Paul’s mom died. Shortly afterwards Jimmy, a friend of a friend, died. Deaths come in threes.
I can’t imagine anyone else who knew the three of them. No one looked at any of the deaths and saw it as part of the same set of three. Paul had his own set of three. His sister died just after Elena and his dad died six months before. His mom was the third to die in such a short time. Three deaths that came one at a time. One at a time but they add up to three deaths.
Death comes in threes. Which three depends on who is telling the story and when they start and stop the tale. I have finished collecting my stories for the book. I started with the first post and finished on the first Mother’s Day. It is the first time I read what I wrote. I remember thinking all of these things but didn’t remember them being in such a short time span. I decided to include all of the posts in between and not to edit them.
Maggie has asked to illustrate the book. She continues to amaze me. She makes decisions that are right for her. She asked if she could draw the pictures for the book and yet she was comfortable telling me that she would rather not visit the cemetery with me today. It’s one of the many things I love about Maggie — she is her own person.
She told me that she didn’t want to go while we were shopping after I took her to flute lessons. She stopped to try on hats and to look at purses. She made an offhand comment about something I could tell Elena at the cemetery later.
“Do you want to go with me?” I asked.
“No,” she said, “that’s ok. I haven’t really been in a while.”
“OK,” I said.
“You know,” Maggie said, “if you were mom, you would have asked me like another ten times if I’m sure.”
“You know better than to talk about mom that way.”
“Sorry. I was just saying you only asked me once.”
“You sounded sure.”
Maggie made me a perfect Father’s Day card. It had a picture of her on the back that lifted my spirits and brought an immediate smile. The card was filled with images and peppered with little comments. It’s like a hug in an envelope. Any time I want another hug from her I just take it out and look at it again. I hope it will carry me through her teen years.
I actually never thought I would be back at this point where I would dare to think about the future again. It feels different than before. But it’s here and many things feel possible again.
It’s Father’s Day at the cemetery. From my bench I watch as family after family stop to leave flowers and spend a little time. Most come and go in a minute. A family with a newly dug grave walk around and around. I remember that feeling.
A woman and her daughter stand motionless in front of a stone for ten, twenty, thirty minutes. Then they slowly walk around reading stones of those buried nearby. Getting to know the neighbors. I remember that feeling too. A man and his daughter walk quietly to a grave. The man crosses himself and they walk back to the car.
No one from any group speaks to anyone else during their visit. We will lay together in this neighborhood longer than we will live in any other neighborhood but there are no block parties.
Death comes in threes only if you stop counting after the third one. But just as I hope that next year will bring me a fourth Father’s Day after Elena’s death, I know that deaths don’t stop at three. I am surrounded by stones — hundreds in this section alone.
A woman and her daughter walk to a stone. The little girl chats away. The mom stops to take a picture. “That’s great grandpa’s headstone.” The girl looks in my direction. She’s the same age Elena would have been. The mom puts an arm around her and walks her back to the car. She spends more time combing her daughter’s hair before they get into the car than on the graveside visit.
Another woman pulls up and gets out of her car with yellow flowers. Elena’s favorites. She walks just past Elena’s grave not noticing the purple flowers I’ve placed. She stops. She places one flower on Halle’s grave stone and one for each of the grandparents on their stone. She leans down and pats Halle’s stone with an open hand as I have patted Elena’s.
I never hear Elena’s voice here in the cemetery. I hear it all the time when I’m surrounded by life and the living. I don’t hear it here.
I suppose that’s a good thing.
Her headstone is so still. I know that sounds so stupid — that’s the way stones are supposed to be. They don’t move in the breeze. If they had feet they couldn’t tap them. But some part of Elena was always in motion. She was so filled with life that the stone isn’t just a marker of her life, it’s a reminder that she’s dead.
It’s not as if I need to be reminded.
This is my third Father’s day since Elena died. I think Maggie is right not to have come with me for my sake as well as for hers. I have these separate parts to Father’s Day that probably are better kept separate. There’s the part where I am a son and can appreciate my own father. There’s the part where I am Maggie’s dad and can celebrate our relationship. And there’s the part where I am Elena’s dad.
Today I called my dad to wish him a happy Father’s Day. He was in line at the I G A paying for his groceries. I think the only reason he took the call was that he thought it was my mom telling him to pick something else up for dinner.
I have spent much of the day with Maggie and will spend most of the rest of the day with her just being her dad. But for this last hour or so I’ve come to sit with Elena.
I wanted to site next to her stone on Father’s Day and finish this book. There will be other blog posts and maybe other books but it’s time to finish the first one. I’ve been putting off this moment since before Mother’s Day — but it’s time.
Baby, this book is for you. I feel your presence and your absence all jumbled together. I try to fill the hole you’ve left with my love for your mom and older sister. It always helps. Some days it’s almost even enough.
But each of us feel your death every day. You have changed many lives by living and others by dying. Many of us were affected by both. None more than me, Kim, and Maggie. In our family, your death is one we each feel in our own way. For us, your death has come in threes.