On Memorial Day, I was sitting in a coffee shop working on an article that needed attention. Things were going well. I’d found my rhythm with the piece, and I’d reached the 2/3rds mark. Home stretch, here I come.
But I must have needed a little breather because when my phone dinged to alert me to an email, I allowed myself to pull my eyes from one screen to look at the other. And what I saw stopped me in my tracks and left me with tears streaming down my face.
My father’s name on his newly-instituted grave marker. It was the first I’d seen it. Yep, right there, on that high stool, in the middle of that buzzing place.
Try as I might, I couldn’t turn off the faucet. Oh, I wasn’t a total puddle. But it was raw and real, my reaction to the sight of my father’s name then and there, and I was frozen for a while in powerful emotions that ranged from gratitude to sheer grief.
The plan in January when he died, and when they announced the special celebration for all veterans buried there on Memorial Day, was that my mother, sister and I would gather to honor Dad. But as the date got closer, I knew it wouldn’t work for me to come. So I had to relent and let them honor him without me.
The night before, a good friend texted to see if we’d be in the area for the memorial event. He’d be there, he said, helping direct traffic as a National Guardsman. What were the chances he’d see my father’s marker? I figured he’d be too busy too look, and I certainly had no expectations he should.
But there it was…that name, his name, my father’s. What a powerful visual to see it behind the little flag, a bit lonely, perhaps (the headstone is forthcoming), but stark and proud at the same time. A name that represents a person who, for so many moments in my life, meant so much to me.
It took my breath away, and as I’ve been reflecting on that soul-grabbing moment, I can’t help but think again on the power of words, and in particular, a name.
The last time a name meant so much to me that seeing it caught my breath was when we miscarried our third child. We named him, and had his name sent in to the Shrine of the Holy Innocents in Washington, D.C., where an order of religious sisters added it to a list of others who’d died before taking their first breath. He’d be prayed for daily, along with the others, and to solidify it all, they sent us a certificate with his name on it.
Gabriel Salonen. It was one of the rare times we’d see his name written out, the first in print. But seeing it made him real to me in a way that hadn’t been possible before; not when he slipped so quickly through our world and into the next.
At the moment of seeing it for the first time that way, his name seemed solid, strong, enduring, and, somehow, everlasting.
That’s how I feel about my father’s name, and the person it symbolizes. He’s gone now. I can’t touch him, see him, talk to him. It’s a stark reality with which I’m still coming to terms. But seeing his name on Monday reminded me of the solidity of him and who he is and was and what he still represents to me.
We cannot take this for granted, this name thing. It’s vitally important that we are named, and that we call by name those we love.
Just a couple words on a paper, or a grave marking, or a certificate…that mean everything.