The wind had picked up but the rain held off, making it a mostly-sunny day in Scotland, a rare event but a welcome one for March. In early spring, the rain can often pelt you hard and horizontal on a particularly dreich day on the Colvend coast, a section of the Solway Firth that cuts into the land in the southwest corner of Scotland. I was visiting from Vancouver and Mum decided it was a good day to check in on Dad at the graveyard up the hill from her cottage, something I always do when I am home.
Dad’s headstone backs up to an ancient dry-stone wall, common in any farming area of Scotland to keep the sheep in, and sits among gravestones dating back to the 1700’s. He faces the grey granite and red sandstone church which was re-built in 1911, and although Dad wasn’t a regular church attendee he was a member of the church where we grew up, just outside Glasgow. In fact, I have vivid memories of the scurrying around that happened in our house, when there was a rat-tat-tat on the front door on a Sunday afternoon, and one of the family would shout out, “It’s the elder from the church.” The yell was the signal for the four of us kids to disappear as fast as we could upstairs to avoid the awkward conversations with a man that seemed to us to be over a hundred years old and punishing.
Dad died twenty-three years ago this coming December and every season since Mum tends his grave in any weather, like families have done for centuries around the world. It was time to clean off the gravestone and refresh the plants in the ceramic pot that sat on the bottom ledge of the grey granite headstone. Mum likes to have plants or flowers appropriate for each season having been an avid gardener her whole life.
At eighty-seven years old, she drives up the hill now rather than walks and I noticed a rather mischievous look on her face as we passed the public parking spots outside the entrance gate, drove up the narrow road alongside the graveyard, and parked beside the minister’s usually-empty spot right beside the church door. Unlike my father, Mum is a self-professed aetheist and has been known to pontificate about the dark side of religion when she has the chance.
On that particular day in March, the grass around the graves was filled with purple crocuses, and the clouds were scudding across the blue sky. She and I walked over hummocky grass through four rows of stones to reach Dad’s grave, one that will be hers too some day, a thought that always pushes into me when I see the space for her name to be engraved under his. I am glad there will be always be a place in Scotland that I can go to, to honour my parents, a designated spot that can’t be bulldozed away and that the next generation can also visit if they choose. I am one of the lucky ones who had a childhood I want to remember, with parents who knew how to safely and lovingly raise a family.
I picked up the pot and carried it back to the car, wondering how Mum manages when one of us kids is not around to do the lugging. We then drove to the local garden centre to pick out some spring blooms. I enjoyed watching Mum peruse the selection, taking time to choose just the right plants that could withstand the elements of this season. She chose grape hyacinths and miniature tulips and then as she always does she had a right old blether with the salesperson at the till about how great the weather was for spring. We then headed home to plant the bulbs.
Although I offered, Mum wanted to plant the pot herself, clearly an essential part of the ritual of tending. I sat in the sun outside on the little bench backed against the whitewashed wall of the cottage, under the kitchen window, and it was then I noticed the passage of time. Watching Mum’s eighty-seven year old hands covered in soil pull out the winter plants and then carefully plant the spring ones I had a strong sense that although death is the end of a life it is clearly not the end of a relationship. Mum and Dad were married for over forty years and when he died at age sixty-seven just thirteen weeks after a diagnosis of a Stage IV brain tumour, Mum had to quickly learn what an ongoing relationship would look like for her. Tending his gravestone is one of the many ways she goes on living in relationship with him, and one of the tender ways I will continue my relationship with her over time.
When our most precious people die the loving, caring, and even the tending continues. And most of us need it to continue. Making the person central again, even for a few moments or an hour or two, makes it possible for us to go on living in a world without them..
Driving back up to the church a few hours later, I felt a surprising lightness of being, which I attributed to the satisfaction of doing something tangible to mark the changing seasons for my father all these years later, and also that my mother had found ways to go on loving him. Before placing the freshly-planted pot on the grave, Mum hastily brushed off the stone ledge of stray leaves, and ran her bare fingers across the letters bearing his name. She would be back there again before summer.