By Brian Keepers
“Memories come at us helter-skelter and unbidden, sometimes so thick and fast that they are more than we can handle in their poignance, sometimes so sparsely that we all but cry out to remember more.”
Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember
The cemetery is difficult to find. Four or five miles off the main high way, you drive through the tiny town of Rodman, Iowa. A ghost town, really, with remnants of past glory. We pass by an abandoned school with broken-out windows like the tired face of a washed up heavy weight champ with a mouth full of busted up teeth and vines crawling up the side like bulging veins. Then an old house on the corner, tilted to one side and crumbling in the back. A few other homes dot the quite town, showing subtle signs of life, but most is but a memory of what once was.
The cemetery is just outside the town. A small island amidst a sea of barren fields. I turn off the car and sit there for a moment. Then we get out and slam the car doors, the sound swallowed up and muffled by a raw northwest wind. I look around. The wide open sky, the flat land that stretches for miles, not a single car in sight.
It takes us a couple minutes to find the tombstone. I thought I knew where it was, but this is only my third time being here. The first time was the day we buried him. I was the first to put a shovel of dirt on the urn when it was placed in the ground. He was 57 years old, my father. Died unexpectedly in his sleep. I was in India at the time with a group of pastors. I don’t remember much about that moment, except getting the phone call. Then getting on a plane and coming home. What I remember most was the drive home from Chicago to Holland, Michigan. The sheet of rain pounding my windshield as the wipers struggled to keep up. Finally having to pull over and just sit until the rain let up. And then the sudden uncorking of my own tears, the release of my own grief. It surprised me, the raw force of my sadness.
I grieved that day not for the death of my father. In many ways, he had died to me long ago. A distant relationship, emotionally disconnected and a history of strain. I grieved that day for the death of what never was and now could never be: a close relationship between a father and son for which there remains in me a deep ache.
I’m jarred out of that sad room in my memory by my daughter’s voice. “Daddy,” she says again. “Somebody’s been here. Look at the flowers.” We kneel down and gently finger the petals. I look at the tombstone and see the words etched on the face of it, so stark and final. “Grandpa died a year before I was born,” my daughter says as she reads the date of his death on the tombstone. “Yes,” I whisper. “You never got to know your grandpa.”
“What was he like, Dad?” she cocks her head, one eye pinched shut in a squint. We are both still kneeling. I describe him—what he looked like, some of the things he enjoyed. Working in his woodshop. Watching the Iowa Hawkeyes. Drinking Pepsi. But truth be told, I’m not really sure. It’s what I grieved so deeply that day on the way home from the Chicago airport, and it is what grieves me still. I didn’t know my father; nor did my father know me.
How does this happen? It does, I know. It’s the complexity of relationships, the mystery and brokenness of family systems. There is no doubt my father loved me, and I suspect he knew I loved him. But how is it that a father and son, who spent most of their lives in close proximity, never really knew one another?
Perhaps that’s it. The close proximity, the way the space between us was cluttered with experiences and interpretations and perceptions of one another that became an obstacle to really knowing each other.
I’m struck by a detail in the Gospel of Luke’s account of the resurrection that is unique to his telling of the Easter story. When the women discover the empty tomb, and the men in dazzling white (presumably angels) announce that he is not there but is risen just as he foretold, Luke tells us “then they remembered his words,” (24:8). No other gospel writer includes this detail.
In the empty tomb, amidst their own grief and utter surprise, they remember. Not in the sense of just recalling words Jesus once spoke (none of it made sense then), but in the literal sense of the word—putting together the pieces of their fractured memory (re-membering) and learning to see anew. Letting go of what they thought they knew to come to a place of discovery and true knowing.
Something like this is happening for me with my father. In his absence, through this journey of loss and grief, I’m remembering him in a way of getting to know this man who was a mystery to me, a shadow on the edges of my life. Not a kind of airbrushing the past or constructing a plastic saint (which is always the danger), but discovering there is more to this man who for too long has been confined to the limits of my own experiences and perceptions.
It’s a remembering, a knowing, that has come through opening doors long shut in my memory and gathering stories from those who knew him. A knowing that comes from place, like kneeling here in front of his tombstone, the place where I buried my dad and where, somehow, something new like resurrection is rising up. It’s a knowing that comes when I look in the mirror and see my father in my own face. I look like him, the older I get. Vanishing hair and high cheekbones, his eyes and lips and smile. Perhaps we are not so different, my father and I. And much to my surprise, it is in losing my father that I’m finally beginning to find him.
Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Fellowship Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.