Why I Took My Sons to a Graveyard


“What about this one?” Finn asked, walking up to a faded gravestone.  The weather had done its work on the old marker, and we could barely make out any of the writing.

“No,” I said.  “It doesn’t look like it. I can’t see any signs of military rank on this one.”

We walked on.

Every year since they could walk I’ve taken the boys to a local cemetery on Memorial Day.  This has happened even when we’re on vacation for the long weekend somewhere.  I get little flags from the grocery store, and we make plans to “go for our cemetery walk,” as Finn calls it.

We look primarily for people who died in a war, as this day is intended to honor.  Memorial Day used to be called Decoration Day, the day when everyone would come to the cemetery to mark the graves of those who died in war.

Today it seems like it’s mostly for buying goods like mattresses on sale and vacationing.

I’m not against those things, of course, I love a good bargain and rest.  But, if we’re going to get the day off of work, we should probably use it as it was intended, right?

Sometimes we can’t find people who died in battle, though, and so we’re OK just putting the flag next to any grave of someone who served in a war.  Here in North Carolina, that also means we put an American flag next to folks who fought in the CSA, indicating they fought with the Confederate States Army.  Our oldest cemetery here in Raleigh, established in 1798, has a number of those.

There’s a little irony there, of course, marking the graves of those soldiers with the flag they didn’t fight under.  But there’s also a lot of hope there, too.  Having all my roots in the South I know what it’s like to not love that part of your heritage, and seek to redeem it somehow.

Perhaps we can help them do that in a small way on this side of the grave.

Plus, it’s a good opportunity to learn.

“The Civil War was when we fought against each other, right?” Alistair asks.

“Yes,” I say looking down. “Because,” Finn continued, “sometimes people disagree and then they can’t work past it and so they fight.  And that’s bad.”

“It is,” I nod.  “Some things are worth fighting for…but I hope that never happens again.”

“That’s when the slaves were freed, right?” Finn wonders.

“It is.  People used to think some people could be used as slaves just because of how they looked, and that’s wrong and evil.  We fought over that.  Some people still think that way, which is also wrong and evil.”

“Martin Luther King worked hard so everyone can live together free,” Finn went on.  We’ve been reading a lot about MLK lately.

“Yeah,” Alistair chimed in, “people used to not be able to be friends or eat together and he changed all that.”

“He worked hard to,” I said. “It’s crazy to think you couldn’t do that, right? We still have to work hard to make sure everyone is treated fairly.”

“Yeah, that makes no sense,” Finn said, elongating the ‘o’ on that ‘no.’

We find another grave, from World War I.  Alistair plants a flag.

“Dad, who won in World War I?” Finn asked.

“Well, we won that war,” I said, “working with other countries.”

“And we won World War II, right?” he continued.

“We did.  You great-grandpas fought in that war.”

“Wow, we won a lot!” he said.

“Well,” I hedged, “in war, even when you win it feels like it hurts.  You’re glad it’s over, but it hurts.”  I’m trying to be honest.

“Yeah,” Alistair said, “because people die, and that’s always bad.”

“Yeah,” Findley said, “which is why we put out flags, right?”

I patted his head, “Right buddy.”

We stumbled across a small marker.  “Hey Dad, is this one?”

“No, buddy.  That’s a grave for a baby.  They were too young to be in a war.”

“Oh,” Finn said, “that’s really sad.” He knelt down by the grave and ran his finger along the simple moniker, ‘Infant Son.’  “How did the baby die?” he asked.

“I’m not sure, buddy. It doesn’t say.  It just says that it didn’t live past a year. Sometimes that happens.”

“Are people under our feet?” Alistair asked.

“They are. Which is why we’re careful,” I said.

“Can they hear us?” Al asked.

“No,” Finn said, “when you’re dead you can’t hear anything.”

“Right,” I said.

“Everything dies,” Alistair offered truthfully. “Everything that lives, dies.”

“They do.”  We walked on.


“Yeah, Finn?”

“It’s a pretty day to be here.”

He knelt by a grave and put a flag down next to the one we had stuck there last year, one of the few that survived.

“It is, buddy.  You can learn a lot about life from a grave yard, right?”

He nodded, “It’s why we come here, right?”

But he didn’t bother to wait for my answer…he knew it, anyway, and they walked off together to find another person to honor.


He Grabbed His Hand

209BE421-BAD3-47FE-8761-060B88C7F2DCIt’s 1:30am and I can’t sleep.

This is, unfortunately, typical in these days. I’ve read the articles about how the shelter-in-place, going on 8 weeks now, is affecting all of our rhythms, clouding our brains.

It is certainly that. That, and the massive poison ivy rash I’m nursing now for a second week. I wake up scratching absentmindedly, and when I come to, I can’t undo the wake.

But tonight there’s more.

Today my 5 year-old’s preschool, a place that has worked hard with both of my boys, but especially intently with my feeling, perfectionist, bright young guy, had a drive-up graduation.

We are so grateful they did.

Our buddy regularly notes that he misses his friends. He regularly expresses some hesitation about next year: a new school, no familiar faces, a new routine…and routine is everything to this guy.

And so the cheering teachers, the gifts, and the fact that he won the “science award” because, well, you’d be hard pressed to find a kid more enthralled by nature and facts, the kid was having his day.

It was great.

He smiled ear to ear. He had me redo his hair three times (and immediately asked if he could mess it up again after the brief ceremony). He waved and told everyone what he’d been up to and held tightly on to his little diploma.

But he did it from so far away.

I could see it: he wanted to hug them and be hugged. He wanted to give a high-five and fist bump and he wanted to do more than just show up; he wanted to be there.

But he couldn’t. We can’t. Not yet. And for our little guy who feels a lot but is not very touchy-feely, for him to want to do that…and you could see it on his face…and not be able to, well, it’s just another tragedy of this whole mess.

Even if we can be together in these days, it’s mostly just showing up, and not a lot of being, together.

And it made him sad. And it makes me sad for him. Well, and for me. Because those teachers deserved the hugs and high-fives and much more! Our guy is a handful.

And so, as we were standing there, and this little boy just wants to hug someone, to celebrate some joy in a span of weeks that have been marked, even for his little heart, by some anxiety and the daily question, “when will the virus be over?”, as we’re standing there, he reaches over and, without looking, grabs his big brother’s hand.

And he just stands there, holding it.

He just stands there talking to everyone, answering questions, saying thank you, drawing strength from the one place lately where he’s been able to not just show up, but also be and interact: his constant companion.

He grabbed his hand.

And tonight, thinking back on it, I am proud of both of them. For him, because he knew what he needed in the moment and did it. And for his brother, for letting it happen.

And even though I’m up late tonight thinking about all this, I’m not doing so out of worry, but more out of awe and wonder.

I somehow think that today showed he, they, are going to be alright in spite of all this, if they keep doing just that: hanging on to each other, drawing strength, not just showing up, but being there, together.