It is a small group that walks on this chilly spring day through the quiet of a German cemetery. Custom dictates my spot close to the head of the small procession. Here, my family and I buried my father more than twenty years earlier. I had just turned 21 when I followed the coffin with my name on it, the name my father and I shared. The thick coat I wore kept out the cold wind, but did nothing to take the icy chill off my heart. I felt frozen inside the way the graves around me lay frozen in the bleak December light.
My thoughts are on this long gone day as I follow the same path, but on this day it is my mother’s ashes I came to bury next to my father. The group of mourners is much reduced since the last time. My parents had been active in social clubs and ran a well respected business in our small town where everyone knew me as my father’s son. I was a lovely surprise in my parent’s life at a time when they did not expect to have another child. Not understanding this as a young teenager, I resented being raised by people my friends’ grandparents’ age. I resented that I was going to lose my parents when most young adults can hope to spend decades with them.
The intervening years burnished our lives and brought to the surface what had been covered. My sister raised her three children to become bright, talented, sometimes troubled teenagers and divorced her husband. My mother’s social circle withered away. Drink and progressive dementia, who can say what came first, had taken her memories, her friends, her independence and finally the essence of who she was. In the end, my sister and I caught only occasional glimpses of the mother who raised us. The end was long anticipated, yet wholly unexpected when it arrived.
When my sister’s call reached me in my office in California, I knew what it was about, still could not believe it. I had seen my mother just six weeks earlier on the latest of my now more frequent visits. She was frail, skin and bones. I helped her eat a few bites of ice cream. One of the last things she was interested in eating. I think she knew who I was, but talking about my life so far away had become impossible. To her I was a boy of ten or twelve and she had trouble recognizing him in the grown man sitting next to her. We talked a little about the blue sky and the sun dancing on the snow outside the kitchen window. Then it was time for me to go. It was time to fly back to California and to wait for the call.
I am thinking of my mother’s life on that walk through the cemetery. Her youth that was cut short by the world war. Her first love that did not return from the battlefield. Her struggle with suicide and depression. The death of her first child just days after a premature birth in post war Germany. The death of her three siblings, including her beloved, oldest sister who took her own life. The delight my parents felt when my sister was born after they had given up hope to have children of their own.
I am thinking of the road I have traveled, to a life so far away. I am thinking of my soon to be husband Jeff, who flew half way around the globe to be here with me. I am thinking of how impossible it felt to come out in this conservative small town, where everybody seems to know everyone. I am thinking that I had to put nine time zones between me and the people closest to me until I could say: “I love men.” I am thinking of the catholic priest walking just in front of us. I am thinking of my cousins who I have not seen since my father’s funeral, just a few steps behind us.
I am thinking of all of this and then I reach over to take Jeff’s hand. I walk the rest of the way through the cemetery to my mother’s grave, side by side, hand in hand with my man. All along, I remember how cold I was twenty years ago and I notice just how much Jeff’s love warms my heart today. On this mournful day, I need our love to show. I need it to say: “So much has changed and it is good.”
This article was first published at Frontiers LA.