My six-year-old scampered back to the cemetery gate as the rest of us piled into the van. I watched her from the corner of my eye as she dropped to her knees and folded her hands. I couldn’t resist quickly snapping a picture. Only God could hear the words she whispered to Him, and to Grandma, gone from us just over a year now. Her straight little back and fluttering curls were a picture of devotion that both warmed and stabbed at my heart. I miss her too, little one. Oh, how I miss her too.
Only seconds later she joined us in the van — children don’t need a lot of time for much better prayers than our long-winded versions. Her face was as joyful as it always is (minus when she’s having a 6-year-old tantrum) and her eyes were dry. She hadn’t been crying.
The Death of Her Grandmother
The death of her grandmother, who had lived with us for the whole of her six little years, saddens her. Yes. But she takes my word (God’s word) that Grandma is in Heaven and she knows that we can still speak to her, and not just at the cemetery gate. Gram is the one she calls on when she’s misplaced her tiny pink eyeglasses. Or when she can’t fall asleep at night. Or when someone in the family needs a saint to pray for them.
Her prayer at the cemetery gate spoke to her certainty that we did leave Grandma’s body there. She saw it with her very own eyes. Cold and hard and not the right color and enfolded in that brown box. But she drops to her knees because Grandma’s ears are hearing still, from another place now.
What a gift to be sex and to live in that certainty. That’s as it should be.
As we drove away I thought back eighteen years to when we’d laid Dad in the same place, just a few feet to the right of Mom’s spot (as seen from the gate). Here in the plains of the midwest, the cemetery and the church it nestles behind are perched at the top of a slight elevation, what counts for a hill out here. From our farm house, three miles northwest, as the crow flies, we can see the church. It’s part of every sunrise.
On a clear afternoon, in fact, you can almost make out the tall white statue of the crucifix, and St. John and Our Lady, in the center of the cemetery plots. My atheist brother pointed this out, the afternoon that we’d left Dad there.
We Could See the Grave
We were in the farm’s living room some hours after the blessings and the parish lunch, changed back into normal clothes. My brother peered out the big east windows, looking south. “Look, Mom, you can see the grave from here.” He probably intended to be comforting, but his voice was tinged (at least to my hearing, and to mom’s too) with his unbelief, with the crumbs that Death leaves us if we’ve no faith. A resting place we can see or visit. Trinkets touched or worn by the beloved. A scent left in a pillowcase or a bathrobe, which effervesce just as our memories of his tone of voice and his face.
“Your father is not there,” Mom said, her voice as cold and calm and certain as steel. Harsh even. A voice that commanded, as Jesus’ voice must have commanded the screeching demons. Silence. As God’s voice must have formed the shapeless void. Fiat.
“Your father is not there” came out of her with all the insistence and desperation of a mother bent on cleansing her child of the Untruth that had lodged itself in his heart and mind, and was keeping him now from his father. Her words stared down his unbelief in the afterlife, willing it away, willing him to come back to Life.
They are together now, Mom and Dad. Alive. Hearing us. Pulling six-year-old prayers into their arms like children on a grandparent’s knee.
Kathleen N. Hattrup is a senior editor at Aleteia. “You Can Still Be a Loving Daughter” is adapted from her “Does Death Truly Separate Us?”, published on Mind & Spirit. See this page for her three previous articles.