On being ... a long-awaited visit

By Ingrid Sapona

Now that the U.S. land border is finally open for non-essential travel, I’m headed to Buffalo today. There are a few things I have to look after, like closing a bank account and emptying out a safe-deposit box. There are also a number of friends I’m hoping to see. 

But most of all, I’m looking forward to finally “visiting” with Mom and Dad. It’s been 21 months since Mom died and over a year since her headstone was installed next to Dad’s. Though we ordered the headstone in January 2020, it wasn’t installed until that summer. And, because of the pandemic, I haven’t yet seen it. 

Even before the marker was set, two family friends – one who was a beloved caregiver to Mom her last few years – called me to ask where Mom is buried. They had both gone to try to find her but couldn’t. I explained that the headstone hadn’t yet been set. I wasn’t surprised they couldn’t even find Dad’s headstone because the cemetery is huge – 269 acres with over 152,000 people buried there. I gave them the plot number, but because it’s a park-like setting with curvy roads and hills, unless you know where to go, it’s hard to find a particular grave. 

When Mom’s marker was finally installed, I let them know. To my surprise, not only did they find Mom, they each sent me photos of her headstone. I guess I didn’t quite appreciate the love they had for Mom and I was so touched they found her. In fact, this year, on Mom’s birthday they ran into each other while visiting Mom! Though I was sad I couldn’t be there on her birthday, it was nice to think that she had company that day. 

I realize it may sound strange to speak of visiting with Mom and Dad at the cemetery, but that’s how I feel about it. I’m not just attending at their grave. When Dad and Mom died, we didn’t attend at the gravesite when they were actually buried. None of that ashes-to-ashes, dust-to-dust tossing of dirt on the casket stuff for us. Frankly, I couldn’t handle the finality of that. Instead, we had lovely church funeral services for each, but we let the funeral directors look after the actual burials. 

Dad died on November 11, 2005 – Remembrance Day (Veterans Day as the U.S. refers to it). Though I didn’t stop at the cemetery every time I was in Buffalo, I did go often to see him. Maybe it’s because I didn’t see Dad being lowered into the ground that I’ve always felt surrounded by his spirit when I’m there. During my visits, I always talked with him – filling him in on what was going on in my life. If I had an important decision to make, I would explain to him my reasoning. It wasn’t that I was looking for a sign or anything. I think just thinking he was listening helped me puzzle through things. I also made a point of reassuring him that we were all doing well. 

Canada marks Remembrance Day in a lovely, solemn way. In the weeks leading up to November 11th most Canadians wear red poppy pins on their lapels in honour of the war dead. There are also lots of tributes and stories in the news about different ways people honour the dead. This year there was a moving story on the CBC about a Vancouver-area hospice society who set up a “Phone of the Wind” – an unconnected, old-style rotary telephone – in a lovely, secluded section of a park.  In the news piece, a woman whose brother died of an overdose talked about how the phone has helped her grieve. Her brother was cremated and she said until she heard about the phone, she didn’t really have anywhere to go to talk to him. She said her first time speaking into the phone felt awkward, but now she and her young daughter use it every week to talk to him. She describes it as a way to connect and keep his memory alive. Funny enough, this past weekend CBSSunday morning did a piece on a similar phone in Olympia, Washington. Apparently, the idea originated in Japan as a way to help people grieving after the 2011 Tsunami. I completely understand the magic of the Phone of the Wind. I guess that for me – and for the friends who have mentioned that they too visit Mom – being at the gravesite does the trick. 

Though I’m looking forward to the visit, I expect it’ll be pretty emotional for me. For one thing, it will be very different knowing both my parents there. The first order of business when I get there will be explaining why it’s taken me so long to visit and to ask their forgiveness. I worry that Mom in particular thinks all her daughters have forgotten her, as none of us have been to visit her yet. I hope she’ll feel better when I explain that my sisters and I have all been well, unlike so many millions of people around the world who have contracted Covid. 

I’ll also be sure to tell both of them how grateful I am for the wonderful life they’ve helped me craft and for giving me such special sisters. But most of all, I’ll tell them something I wish I had told them more often when they were alive: that I love them more than words can say. 

If you’ve lost someone and are looking for a way to grieve, I hope you find a Phone of the Wind of some sort that helps you heal and allows you to visit with them. 

© 2021 Ingrid Sapona


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