Upon awakening this morning, images of gravestones filled my mind. I’d prefer to say my half-conscious mind was honoring the service and sacrifice of all those who served in the military, but it wouldn’t be truth. On Memorial Day, more intensely than on other days, I’m swamped by guilt that I’ve neglected my final filial responsibilities for a dozen years.
On a Sunday afternoon in February of 2008, I sat in my parents’ living room taking notes. Until that day, neither of them had been willing to discuss with me their “wishes” (that sweet but fraught term we use to indicate answers to questions such as, “Do you want to be cremated or buried?” and “Where’s the safety deposit box key?”) At ages 78 and 80, neither of them had signed healthcare proxies or deigned to discuss any aspect of illness or death with me, much less their financial security or even what bank they used. A few months earlier, after I’d launched numerous sorties into her heart of denial, my mother had finally agreed to having “the talk,” but my father persisted in angry refusal until she finally wore him down.
The previous winter, he’d had his first car accident, a surprising thing because he was an alcoholic who’d racked up his share of DUIs over the years. Ironically, his accident occurred when he was sober. As he drove through the lot of the local liquor store to buy his tipple, his new snow boot became lodged between the brake and accelerator, and he slammed into a brick wall. He was physically unharmed (unlike his beloved BMW), but the accident injured some part of his psyche and he was never the same afterward. That close call provided the opening for me to discuss with him and my mother their end-of-life wishes. It took more than a year to get them to talk.
“I want my ashes scattered off the coast of Maine,” my dad said.
“Oh, Phil! You can’t do that,” my mom said in alarm, “you have to be buried in a cemetery!” She wasn’t concerned about the laws surrounding the disposal of remains (they didn’t even own a burial plot). She was afraid that if his ashes were scattered, God wouldn’t be able to raise him up into heaven, and she wouldn’t be able to find him.
He looked me directly in the eye and repeated his wish. Exactly a week later, he was dead.
I call his death a “passive suicide.” Apparently, he’d been experiencing symptoms of a heart attack throughout the afternoon and evening, but neither he nor my mother made a phone call. He went to bed while she watched a movie. When she entered her room, she found him in her bed, gray and unresponsive. Instead of calling 911, she called me and said, “He’s making this rattling sound.” I arrived before the ambulance. While my mother looked for her purse so we could go to the hospital, I skirted around their frantic dog and began to pick up pieces of the bed the EMTs had broken in their attempts at resuscitation. I found the highball glass with the hand-painted pheasant on it. The ounce or so that was left in it was straight scotch. While my mom didn’t recognize, or subconsciously chose not to, the symptoms of heart attack, my father was a smart guy in excellent health whose abhorrence of doctors and hospitals probably led him to make the choice to end his life on his own terms. She carried the guilt of not calling for help that night until the end of her days.
Because my mom refused to let me scatter even a few of his ashes in Maine’s waters, his remains lie in Harmony Grove Cemetery. At the burial, Naval personnel played taps and presented a crisply folded US flag. I knew my dad would have loved that because though he’d lied about his age to enlist and his US Navy service was short, it was the aspect of his life about which he felt the most pride. His remains lie under a Veterans’ Administration issued marker:
Philip A. Weyforth
June 20, 1927-February 24, 2008
U.S. Navy, WWII
My mother passed on five years ago, and her ashes lie with his. I have not yet commissioned a gravestone that commemorates both of them. The guilt I feel about my failure to fulfill my father’s wish, and to mark my mother’s remains makes little sense to me.
My family had never been one to visit the graves of friends or relatives; in fact, the last time I usually saw people’s graves was at the burial services. Neither do I feel strongly about where my own remains will lie or how they will be marked. At my son’s request, I typed up a page of my “wishes,” but ended it with: “Don’t worry about doing any of this unless you and Sarah want to. Memorials are for the living. Do whatever feels helpful to you; it won’t matter to me. I’ll just keep loving you and Sarah from whatever spiritual version of energy I turn into after my body dies.” Despite family culture and my own beliefs about memorials, I continue to torture myself intermittently for having failed my parents.
Those five words point to the real source of my guilt: I torture myself “for having failed my parents.” In a wee gleam of clarity, I saw that the only person who cares that my dad’s ashes are in a grave instead of the ocean, and that my mom doesn’t have a headstone is me. I spent my life trying to solve their problems and failing. It seemed that a burial aligned with their wishes was something I ought to have been able to succeed at. But even in death, they’d left me in a double-bind. My father didn’t want to be buried with my mother, and my mother didn’t want to be buried without my father. So, for a little over five years, I’ve been stuck on completing the last of my duties as their child. Do I exhume my dad’s ashes, break the law by emptying them into the ocean, and deny my mom’s wishes? Or do I leave them where they lie next to my mom’s and deny my dad’s wishes? Wouldn’t carving their names together on a stone somehow give lie to the half-century plus they spent together in mutual toxicity? And finally, why do I even care about all this?
This morning, I realized I care because there are parts of me still stuck in the crossfire between my parents even though I’m 56 years old and my mother and father are dead. My mixed-up psyche has internally replicated conditions that no longer exist; I’m still trying to make my parents happy, failing, and feeling guilty at a profound cost to my own well-being. (Cue celebratory music. Enter a nodding psychotherapist with thought bubble, “Geez, finally!”).
Guilt is a strange emotion. We can feel guilty even when we know we’ve done nothing wrong but feel badly about an outcome. If we have done someone a wrong, guilt can linger even after we’ve made reparation, and even if the gift of forgiveness has been offered. It lingers because forgiving ourselves for whatever occurrence makes us feel guilty is one of the most difficult things a person can do. Instead, many of us end up punishing ourselves over and over in some ill-conceived attempt to change the past.
On this Memorial Day, I’ve settled on a solution to my burial-guilt issue that I hope will help me put the past in the past. One of the functions of a cemetery is to help us do this very thing—to say goodbye to the people who have passed, mark their physical remains with a stone or plaque, and walk away through the gates, leaving the past secure within the boundaries. Often, though, we leave parts of ourselves behind and have to do something to rescue them from their burdens. Author Najwa Zebian wrote, “These mountains that you are carrying, you were only supposed to climb.” Sometime this summer, I will cast into the Maine waters my dad’s favorite wool hat that sits on my closet shelf and the contents of the pheasant-painted highball glass I’ve filled with Dewars. This morning, I put in an order for a bronze plaque for my mother’s grave that will match the one on my father’s.
I hope that after the plaque has been installed, I’ll visit the cemetery and, trusting that I’ve finally done enough, rescue the lost parts of myself. We’ll salute Mom and Dad then walk away together, letting the past rest in the past.
“In the end, only three things matter: how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.”
6 thoughts on “Death and the Legacy of Guilt”
This is a really lovely piece of writing, Jazz. Really lovely.
Thanks, Annie! Both for reading my stuff and for the compliment.
What a touching, soulful piece, which, in writing it, I hope brings you closer to peace.
Thank you. I guess time will tell.
What a beautiful, honest expression of the turmoil and grief we face when our parents die. We may bury them but their constant presence is etched in our souls. The two excerpts you’ve included are thoughtful reminders that life need not be as harsh as we seem compelled to live it. You are a wonderful writer, Jazz. Thank you for sharing your work. It always hits home.