BREWTON—There are springtime flowers everywhere this morning for Father’s Day. The flowers hang on lamp posts, bridge rails, and they surround the welcome-to-town sign. You can smell them in the air and they make you feel sort of grateful to be here.
I love flowers. They do something to me. It’s hard to smell a flower without smiling.
The town itself is quiet today. It’s an average afternoon in a city of historic storefronts, mills, stone churches, and muddy trucks. The downtown is framed by railroad tracks that cut straight across a pretty mainstreet. There’s Belleville Avenue, with its Greek revival homes that photographers love to put onto postcards.
Today, I’m at Union Cemetery with my wife. We are visiting someone. She arranges a vase of pink Peruvian lilies for the grave of her father. I’m standing several hundred feet away, giving them space.
People need privacy at cemeteries. I’m a big believer in that. I’m a big believer in lots of things, but when it comes to grief, I believe in leaving people alone.
So I walk the maze of headstones, reading names. There are stones for babies, elderly people, politicians, and various Alabamians dating back to 1879. I see a monument for a man who was lost at sea. Another for a woman who died from influenza. Flowers are everywhere. Roses, lilies, daisies, bright plasticized begonias.
There is a big variety in the stones, too. Simple markers and fancy ones. They are adorned with flags, flowers, potted plants, photographs, hankies, cowboy figurines, throw pillows, candles, or letters.
I have no kin in this cemetery, but I’m searching for my last name just the same. I always do this, I don’t know why. My wife says it’s morbid, but I’ve been looking for my name in graveyards since childhood.
I’ve done this everywhere from New York to South Texas. Among the places I’ve found my name were Portland, Little Rock, and Pittsburgh.
We Dietrichs get around.
I see my wife across the cemetery, still clipping flowers with shears, arranging them on her father’s headstone. I can tell we’re going to be here a while.
I am inspecting a headstone from the 1800s when all of a sudden my phone vibrates in my pocket. It’s an old friend texting. He is messaging to say that his wife had their baby last night.
My God, I am a terrible friend, I didn’t even know his wife was pregnant. This just goes to show you that this social-distancing stuff has really taken a toll on friendships.
Soon, he texts pictures of a baby, wrapped in swaddling Auburn University blankets. The text reads, “WAR EAGLE!” All caps. He does this to tick me off.
He and his wife still don’t have a name for the child yet because they never agree on anything. His wife could say the capital of Georgia is Atlanta, and my pal would answer, “Oh yeah? That’s what YOU think!”
So I sit on a park bench to take it all in. Life. Death. Flowers. Auburn. And everything between.
A few days ago, I got an email from a woman who told me that her daughter died. She said she found a book on the girl’s nightstand after the funeral. The daughter was halfway finished reading it when she passed. So one night, the mother picked up the book and finished it for her. Then she emailed me because it happened to be a book that I wrote.
The email moved me deeply. In fact, I read and reread it about a hundred times. Then, I went into the kitchen to read it out loud to my wife. She happened to be on hold with Customer Service at the time.
Her cellphone was on speakerphone, and I could hear that godawful hold music playing. I could tell she was not in a good mood, too. Nobody is ever in a good mood when listening to hold music.
So I started reading the woman’s email while the phone blared corporate instrumental Muzak. Halfway through reading, the hold music stopped and there was a guy on the line saying, “Hello? Ma’am? Hello? This is customer service, is anyone there?”
My wife said into the phone, “I’m sorry, sir, hold please.” Then she told me to keep reading the email.
“Hold?” Phone Guy said. “You’re asking ME to hold?”
“But, ma’am, this is customer service.”
My wife spoke into the phone doing her best Perry Mason: “Listen, sir, I’ve been on hold for two stinking hours this morning, you can hold for one minute. It won’t kill you.”
“Okay,” the guy said.
So I finished reading the email to both my wife and the customer service guy. And when I finished reading, I think I heard sniffling on the other end of my wife’s cellphone. But we can’t be sure.
I suppose that today, here among these acres of stones, I keep thinking about how momentary life is. And about how much more beautiful this makes it. I suppose I’m thinking about how often I forget that our time is here is brief.
I see my wife in the distance. She is done beautifying her father’s resting place and is walking to the car. I catch up to her. We embrace because no matter how old we get, we’re both fatherless kids on Father’s Day.
My wife hands me a flower. It is a Peruvian lily, from the bouquet on her father’s grave.
“Here,” she says. “For you.”
I smell it. Mostly out of curiosity. But also because flowers have always reminded me of the people I love. And it’s hard to smell one without smiling.