Birthday and Death Day, Catholics and Customs

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September 2 is a special day for me, the birthday of my daughter and the death day of my father. The cemetery is beautiful. I’ve always had a special regard for cemeteries in spite of the ghosts and the spookiness of all those dead bodies in the ground. Nowadays that means more ashes or urns or however they bury the cremated remains. Charles Dickens begins Great Expectations with a grave yard scene. Edgar Allen Poe wrote about being buried alive in his short stories. The safety coffin was designed for just that purpose, so those wrongly buried could alert the living of their return. The device was essentially a bell on a cord. My fascination with the graveyard has more to do with the headstone inscriptions and the lives they represent. It’s a bit scary and it’s also inspiring. The veterans with their flags next to the tombstones. The family plots. The weathered inscriptions from the eighteen century.  Who were these people and how did they live?

Yesterday I drove to Lakeview Cemetery which is just south on Main Street and the final stop of the town’s Memorial Day parade. You can see the procession of scouts and little league teams and veterans all in a row, onlookers in their lawn chairs. The unlikely name of Lakeview in a capitalist world, the curator was quick to tell us, was that you just don’t see that anymore when cemeteries are overrun and packed. A body of water smack in the middle of it all harkens to days of old, what he called a truly New England cemetery with its big trees and horse drawn paths between the graves. He sold us. I purchased a plot for my father and a plot for us, because I didn’t want him to be alone. It’s not something I had given much thought to, lucky in health most of my life, knock on wood. My father went into the older section on a horse path, near the red maple and the largest hydrangea I’ve ever seen. It resembles a tree with its canopy of nested and tangled branches heavy with white blooms as big as my head. That’s the time of year when we put him in the ground, early September. I will always associate white hydrangeas and the fiery maple leaves with his passing.

My best friend Di wrote to tell me it was a Corn Moon, my father’s death day. It’s an Algonquin name for the moon when they harvested the corn. I missed it. I set an alarm reminder on my iPhone to check it this evening, one day late, though I imagine it will be waning.

My Buddhist mother said the important dates in a person’s life are birth, marriage, and death. After you have left this world, the date of death is most important because it is actually your birth into the next. There are 49 days or seven weeks of prayer for the departed, so mourners can help them transition to their new life, to ensure rebirth in a better world. Sitting above his plot on the bench, covered with lichen, I imagine him near me. I’m not sure why. If he’s gone onto the next world what’s to make me think he’s hanging around. There’s no logic to it. I talk to him anyway.

He’s down there in his leather bomber jacket and Cole Hahn loafers, a pair of khakis and Mickey Mouse boxers, a token to my father’s good humor. My brother sent a white oxford with his company logo, something he thought our Dear Old Dad would want. They couldn’t get his wedding ring off, so that’s on his finger, a platinum circle set with tiny diamonds. I’m not sure where he got the rings though I think maybe a department store or the PX since he was in Vietnam when he proposed. I’m spinning my own band on my finger, also platinum but with gold trim. When they rolled my father out of my basement the morning he had died, I removed the eighteen-karat gold necklace with Siddhartha pendant from his neck. He had been sick from frontal temporal dementia for some years though he knew what was going on, so the doctors weren’t sure. The necklace was a gift from my mother which he never took off. I wear it when I travel as a talisman and to be near him in some way. The living project sentiment onto objects, especially jewelry. Its history is traced back by the wearers, if it doesn’t end up in a museum, or in a dusty attic, or in a pawn shop.

 

***

 

My Dear Old Dad was born a Catholic but many who knew him said he was Vietnamese in his soul. My mother consulted the monks on his burial and we coordinated with a priest for the wake and graveside services. Born a Catholic, die a Catholic, he used to say. As an insurance I suppose, my mother insisted that his plot face east. She instructed me to include a set of silk pajamas, a bag of rice and a bag of salt in his coffin. The funeral director simply took the items. I figured he got all kinds of requests but I felt compelled to explain. It’s for his travel into the next world. New clothes, as well as sustenance and flavor. Rice and salt. Buddhist custom. Maybe Vietnamese custom.

My brother is Christian. The priest provided a great measure of comfort to him when he told the story of Lazarus being brought back to life. For me, saying goodbye to the body was not hard because it was not my father, but a flaccid and vacant vessel, a shell. My cousin wrote me yesterday, eleven years after his passing: He was a giant among men.

Death days are sad. The mourning is tough–just how long does grief last? Six months, a year, a decade. Is it a slow forgetting? At his grave, I remember the once vibrant force in my life, now so noticeably absent. Looking at the headstone with the flag and hydrangea blooms makes the back of my throat swell and my eyes burn. Eleven years.

I tell my dad about Norah, my youngest, who is seventeen today. She learned to drive and took the highway the first time; she has her license. It’s aged me. I talked about the pandemic and the crazy state of the world. I tell him that mom turns eighty this Labor Day weekend and my brother’s family is driving up for the celebration. I’m speaking out loud but only the wind hears me. It shakes the branches of the red maple. There’s a faint smell of hydrangea. A lone car drives by.

 

The bench beyond the hydrangea “tree” on the right is my father’s plot.

 

***

 

Three months after my father died, I saw him.  He was bald and young, walking along the concourse corridor. Yes, there he was. He had on his black frame coke-bottle classes, a short sleeve button-down, his trademark work shirt. He was walking with a purpose and I was on the phone with the damn airlines, stuck at my gate for who knows how long, phone to my ear, wanting to yell out. DAD! Hello DAD! I was mute though, tethered to a dreaded audio queue and a burning, desperate need to get out. How long had I been there, where were my children? My mom was there and she hadn’t been sure about dad; maybe we had left him at the other gate. But, there he was. His skin was smooth, wrinkle free, the gleam of his head made him look young, the age he must have been when I was in grade school. He smiled then and turned his head in my direction. I’m here! I’m here! I screamed but no words came out. I was standing at my full height. And, like that, he was headed away, down the concourse.

It was a dream and I think I knew I was in a dream. He wanted me to know, he was good. Things were OK.

 

***

 

I read Maya Angelou’s Letter to My Daughter last week. It’s a memoir-come-life manual, written in lyrical short chapters about everything from sex at sixteen and the birth of her son—which she described as the greatest day of my life—to vulgarity and humility and her southern roots. In a two-page chapter titled Mrs. Coretta Scott King, Angelou details her relationship with Martin Luther King’s wife, a thirty-year correspondence through cards, flowers and phone calls. King had been assassinated on Angelou’s birthday. The parallel to September 2nd is striking:  a death day and a birthday, a bond forged through grief and joy.  Angelou ponders death, how she is “besieged with painful awe at the vacuum left by the dead.” She concludes that she doesn’t know everything. When she is filled with rage over death, she consoles herself by focusing on what she learned or has yet to learn from her departed love. She closes with this: What legacy was left which can help me in the art of living a good life?

 

It’s like the paradox of the book that changes when we read it at different times in our life. It’s a paradox because the book hasn’t changed, the words and all, that is the same. It’s us, we’ve changed. Maybe death is the same. The lessons I learn from departed loves change as I change. The vacuum and rage created by death–that time, the days and months when loss was so immediate—would not let me breathe or see. A decade after losing my father, I wonder about his legacy, what he’s left me.

Dear old Dad, D.o.D. as he signed his notes, was funny. I sat down with a dozen of his letters last year, tied neatly in a bundle, and written in hand on copy paper, detailing the weather, his routine, the family, and commentary on current events. He so fully rises up to me in his written words. A hard worker, with his hands and with his mind, a faithful correspondent. A man of often unspoken love, a man of his generation and his geography, rooted to New England stoicism and a hard-knocks childhood in the Irish tenements of Boston. He kept an emotional distance, but was no less warm and loving and thoughtful. Maybe his greatest legacy was his gift of freedom to my mother’s family, some forty plus Vietnamese he helped escape, to begin a new life, to secure them the blessings of liberty in a free country. His life’s passion had been Vietnam, its people, its history. It made him who he was and it also broke him. I’ve learned and seen what it means to give yourself over to something so completely, to risk it all on one turn of pitch and toss. And to lose. He left Vietnam and he left the government, everything he had built, the last cultural attache to South Vietnam, a profession at the top rung of the ladder.

I think on other departed loves through this altered lens, a turn in the kaleidoscope that lets me see the colors and shapes of their lives in a new way. When I get up from the bench and leave my father’s plot, I walk out along the horse path, touching the ground gingerly so as not to step atop the graves of others. From my blue mini-cooper parked on the back-entrance road, the hydrangea tree arches over my father’s headstone, a rainbow of blooms, nature’s shelter. Fall is nearly here. I need to get the chocolate-dipped strawberries Norah requested into the fridge and set-up for her birthday. I used to hide these visits from her. Now I send photos to her and the family. It’s ok to be reminded of it and maybe, like Angelou and King, she will embrace this special day which she shares with a special man, her grandfather.

 

The flag is posted by the VFW for my father’s foreign service in Vietnam. (Photo taken by author 9/2/2020)

About mylinhshattan

MyLinh B. Shattan is a writer who has worked in the private sector, taught at college, and served in the U.S. Army. She holds a B.S. in Mathematics from West Point, an M.B.A. from Florida Southern College, and an M.F.A. in Writing from Queens University.