I visited my father's grave not long ago, for the first time since he was buried nearly 39 years ago. I wore the string of pearls he would have given me for my twelfth Christmas, my first without him. There was no one thing that prompted the visit. It just felt like the time had come to take care of business too long left undone. A small, ordinary gesture toward completion.

Just the kind of thing that can knock you for a loop.

My father died Nov. 22, 1961, when he smashed into the back of a stake truck with no brake lights on an unlighted back road. He was on his way home. The next day was Thanksgiving. The funeral was the following Monday at Ft. Rosecrans National Cemetery. My memory of that day is sketchy. We sat in rows on metal folding chairs. The grass was thick and green and rolled down a long hill to the sea. The flag-covered casket seemed to float. My father's friend, in his dress blues, tried not to cry when he gave the folded flag to my mother and said the words about honor and country. Seeing my father's friend struggle was unbearable and nearly broke me. I knew if I gave in, my sobs would tear muscle from bone.

We were allowed to live on base until the end of the school year, but then we had to move out. It's what happens to military dependents when the one they were dependent on is killed in combat, or dies more prosaically on a highway, or from a heart attack. It felt like we were turned out. Loss mutated into shame, a not uncommon response in children whose parent has died. I felt set apart, mortified to think I could be the object of covert pity, an assumption exacerbated by knowing the accident had been my father's fault.

Except for holidays or when we had company, my mother, brother and I never again sat down to a meal together, preferring TV trays to facing the empty chair. My brother and I coped by never speaking of our father except obliquely. Our mother learned we didn't want to hear anything negative about him and couldn't bear to hear much of the positive, either, because that only sharpened the edges of our grief, barely contained by the fragile membrane of denial. The habit lived long into our adulthood. I have a 13-year-old letter from my mother in which she told me she had released the gravesite next to my father guaranteed her by the U.S. government. She didn't say why, and I didn't ask, because by then my mother's grief had turned to anger, a white-hot pain at her center I didn't want to probe. It is one of many questions I wish I had asked but didn't, and now I can't, because she died, too.

Ft. Rosecrans lies at the far edge of the sprawl of greater San Diego, beyond a residential neighborhood of hills and bends, past the Cabrillo National Monument on a road so narrow and rustic I feared I had taken a wrong turn. But then I saw them, row upon row of plain white headstones, a garden of stone falling away to the blue Pacific. In the deep quiet I sat on the grass and gingerly patted my father's grave, wondered at the notion of his body under my hand. I let my hand rest, aware of every blade of the thick, warm turf. I felt a nearly overwhelming impulse to put my arm around the gravestone but resisted, knowing the marble would be too cold to bear. At last I wept, for him, for myself, for my mother and my brother and again for myself. As I stood and brushed myself off I examined the gravestone, which I had not seen before. Name, rank, service, born, died, served those two wars, and at the bottom the carved letters NCM.

I looked around. Most of the nearby stones had no such carving. A few had PH, which I deduced meant Purple Heart. But NCM? A mystery. My first thought was that NC meant non-combat and somehow referred to the way he died, a remnant of the old shame I suddenly, sadly realized I'd not quite purged, after all. The first person I asked at the cemetery administration building shrugged. The second assured me NCM meant Navy Cross. The very idea hit me like a fist. That would be a mystery too big to apprehend. My dad had received the Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts, but never had we heard of his Navy Cross, the second-highest combat medal. Why wouldn't we have known? Then a third person got off the phone and spread on the counter an illustrated guide to military medals. "It means Navy Commendation Medal," he said, pointing to the ribbon a few rows down the list. "Those inscriptions are done at the request of the family."