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."
What had my mother done? And why? My father's death had blasted her, yes, but this was weird. If there were to be an inscription, wouldn't she have requested it be for his highest honor, the Silver Star? I returned to the grave and looked around some more. Several men had been buried that same week. Had my father's stone been mixed up with someone else's at the place where such stones were made? And now that the mistake had been discovered, should I fix it?
If I didn't, who would?
What was my duty here, to my father, his memory, the truth?
I had finally come to this cemetery to pay respect, a ritual gesture of amends and an expression of the fierce love that I suppressed for so long, only to find someone had screwed up. I felt baffled and sad and convinced I had to do something. But what? Inform the authorities? Request a new stone? Solve the mystery? For whom? And why?
The force of my emotions surprised me and seemed to collapse time. I was the grown daughter left behind to carry on the family business, but at the same time I felt like that child who always wanted to do what was right, which was expected, demanded, of all us postwar Marine kids. We got this sense of responsibility with our oatmeal. We stood at attention, not because we were told to do so but because that's how our parents stood and we wanted to be like them. We practiced saluting, and felt sparks when we held our hands over our hearts. All children love order and ritual; we were awash in both. We used the word duty unselfconsciously, because it was an everyday fact of life. Our world turned on it. That's why it made sense to me at age 11, the day after my father died, to decide it was my duty not to cry for him, to be strong. He had always wanted me to toughen up. This wasn't just an abstract, macho desire; it was the core of his being. The son of a coal miner, he was 17 when his mother died, 20 when Corregidor fell and his commanders surrendered him to the enemy. He turned 21 in a Japanese slave-labor camp, and was 29 when he was shot at Chosin Reservoir.
His life remains unimaginable to me, but that is what he lived through. He couldn't have survived those horrors without his toughness, his sense of duty.
But a child's notion of duty unchecked, unexamined, can turn into a harmful habit of mind. So can an adolescent sense of rebellion. Like so many of my contemporaries, I had for years turned my back on the notion of duty, especially the military kind. A hundred years before our country sank into the morass of lies that was the Vietnam War, Benjamin Disraeli wrote that duty cannot exist without faith. The war of our generation had undermined our faith in that kind of unswerving devotion to ordered discipline. For us, to spurn duty was harsh gesture of disdain.
Now that I've grown older-and up-I've relearned the pleasure of order, rediscovered the beauty of the commonplace and the appeal of heartfelt duty. People my age are returning to the churches they left 30 years ago, and adapting their faiths to a rediscovered need for ritual. At last we understand what Victor Frankl meant when he said that happiness cannot be pursued, it must ensue.
I don't know why my mother never took us back to visit the grave. Maybe it was simply because she was always afraid to drive California freeways. Or maybe she believed it better that we just put it behind us, that if we never revisited the cemetery, the ragged ends of our grief would disappear, much as new sod eventually knits invisible the edges of a grave. Of course, that's not the way grief or memory works.If only she had brought us to the grave, she might have been able to have the headstone fixed right away. It would have been her responsibility, not mine, and properly so. But knowing my mother, seeing the stone only would have added to her pain, so I cannot wish it had happened that way.
I want to feel good about my decision to leave my father's headstone as is. Sure, feeling follows action, but sometimes it's best just to do nothing at all. I will not assume a childish, false sense of duty. I hope that is right. It comforts me to know that the Bhagavad Gita says it is better to perform one's own duty imperfectly than try to do another's perfectly. The time for action has passed. I have let stand the small untruth, knowing that in time the sea air will gently, inexorably, buff it smooth.