On Saturday July second we lay my son’s ashes to rest in a lovely cemetery that was designed to feel more like a park than a, well, cemetery. There were several reasons we chose to wait almost four months after his death to do it, although the specific choice of date was both devastating and oddly appropriate.
You see, he loved Independence Day. It was his favorite holiday. It was the fireworks; the thrill, the excitement, the anticipation of what would come next. And he especially loved lighting off his own fireworks, much to his mother’s chagrin.
My dad helped feed his obsession. Each year, he traveled from Louisiana to Michigan to spend the summer with us, and he always made a pit stop in Indiana, where they sold fireworks far more awesome than anything we could buy in Michigan. Brady used to anticipate his arrival with all the excitement of a five year old being offered a double-scoop ice cream cone.
This year, my dad didn’t make that pit stop.
Instead, we buried my son on his favorite holiday weekend. It was, frankly, a terrible day, despite the fact it was a lovely, gorgeous, sunny, not-too-hot day. Reliving the grief all over again when we hadn’t truly recovered from the first time was not high on my to do list. But we did it, because we had to. Humans and our rituals. Somehow, someway, they help guide us toward peace.
There were only a few of us; mine and my husband’s parents, our siblings, Brady’s sister and his cousins, plus his Godfather and another dear friend. His girlfriend and her parents attended too. I hope this provides her some sort of closure, so she can learn to live again. I hate that her first boyfriend did this, I hate that this has scarred her for life.
Our priest said a few words, tried to help us find peace by reassuring us Brady’s in heaven now, and we can visit this place, this symbol of him, anytime we want. (Well, during cemetery visiting hours, anyway…)
And then the cemetery personnel removed the covering from the hole in the ground and asked my husband and I if we wanted to lower the box of ashes. We both said no, then I changed my mind and, kneeling carefully as I was wearing a short skirt, picked up what remained of my son and placed the box in the hole. I didn’t want to get up, didn’t want to let go, but someone grasped my arm and lifted me into a standing position and I walked away, into my sister-in-law’s arms, where we squished my poor daughter between us, while everyone took turns tossing a shovelful of dirt into the hole. One of the groundskeepers offered me a rock they’d found while preparing the site for us and I snatched it up, desperate for anything to tie me to my son.
After that a couple people spoke; one of my brothers read a memorial my stepdad had written; my mother-in-law showed everyone this lovely decorated rock a friend had made for her so that she could carry Brady’s memory with her when she went to Hawaii for her fiftieth wedding anniversary. The priest said his goodbyes, and those who had delayed their vacation plans for this event gradually began to leave. The younger cousins picked wild flowers and scattered them on the grave. Somebody found a heart-shaped rock and placed it next to Brady’s headstone. Those who were left made their way to a nearby restaurant situated on a lake, and we sat and drank and ate and admired the view and enjoyed the friendship, letting the grief ebb away for a little while.
Later that afternoon, we were left alone, my new smaller family of three. My daughter retreated into a book, my husband and I took the dog for a walk. It was a quiet, sad day with no excitement, no fireworks.
On Sunday we loaded up our supplies and headed to the beach. Just us and a couple friends. The adults parked our chairs in the water and kept our coolers nearby, while 80s and 90s music played from my husband’s iTunes playlist. We grilled hamburgers and hotdogs and ate watermelon and stayed until the sun dipped low in the sky.
After putting everything away and showering, the melancholy hit me again. I’m told this will happen on every major holiday or milestone during the first year after his death.
I went outside, lured by the sounds of firecrackers popping and exploding. While everyone else celebrated our freedom, I sat on my front porch and cried, mourning the loss of my son. And, to be honest, I felt a tiny bit of relief that my daughter hadn’t asked about fireworks. I had no desire to see them or buy them or light them off. I wanted to skip over this holiday that, once upon a time used to bring my family joy.
And then my daughter came outside and stood next to me on the porch. Somewhere to the west, a cluster of fireworks exploded high enough that we could see over the tops of the trees. “I want to light off fireworks tomorrow,” she said. “Can we, please?”
Inside I cringed. You see, while Independence Day was Brady’s favorite holiday, it was actually something I had begun to dread, right about the time he was ten or eleven, and discovered the thrill and excitement of lighting them off himself. And now my daughter was asking to do the same thing. It made me doubly anxious because of course my fear for her safety, but now my concern that she was only interested because in her mind, this was a way to keep her brother’s memory alive. She’s been doing that a lot lately, deciding to try new things because Brady used to do them. Fishing and hunting with her dad, mowing the lawn, and now shooting off fireworks.
“I have some left from when Grandpa came up at Christmas,” she said. “Can I show you?” I acquiesced and she rushed inside, returning a moment later with a small box containing poppers and smoke bombs and something called “Poopy Puppy.” Small, fairly harmless versions of fireworks.
“Can we light them off? Please? It’s only a few.”
So we lit off her small cache of fireworks in the driveway, with the bigger explosions in the sky behind us, and I became caught up in her joy, her excitement, the thrill of the moment. I remembered that she is still alive, very much so, and I should enjoy these precious moments. And somewhere along the way, my heart grew a little less heavy, and an emotional weekend managed to end on a high note.
As it should.
Tami Lund is an author, a wine drinker, a writer of happily ever afters. She also writes blog posts about her life because it helps, it really does.