Thursday we were going home to South Dakota to bury my Dad in the place he wanted to be after dying. After weeks of mourning and making plans, we traveled the snowy roads back to the house I helped Mom and Dad build. The day mirrored my mind–kind of blurry and monochromatic with loss and the grief that holds its hand.
After a warm supper with my Mom, I laid in bed in the same room where I slept until noon on my college weekends, where Chris and I slept as newlyweds before our move to Missouri, where we brought all the things one travels with when three young children are coming home to visit Grandma. Memories of my childhood with Dad flitted through my mind and landed on the building of this house–how I helped put down the puzzle of underlayment, nailed up sheet rock, taped and mudded and sanded and mudded, hammered down the shingles, and stained the siding a red-brown color. Not too long after that, my Dad left and lived in places as far away from South Dakota as one can get–Florida, Texas, California.
I rose with the sun the next morning as the blue-dawned snow turned pink.
Dad’s ashes had arrived from Oklahoma in a plastic-lined plastic box–the size of which made one wonder how a person’s body could ever fit into it. So I had built him a box. I measured scraps of rough cedar board–pulling out the tape, making the pencil mark, letting the tape slowly zip back into its circle of yellow, squaring up a line, and pulling a handsaw through the line. As I sawed and nailed, I thought about how glad I was and how right it felt that Dad was coming home. I finished the cedar box by nailing a horseshoe on the front of it to honor the farrier, horseman, and father who had taught us so much about horses, building things, and hard work.
A small gathering of relatives and friends shared memories of Dad in the Fireside room of the Lutheran church. His old cowboy hat sat atop the box, his dusty cowboy boots on the floor below. I thought back to the many times growing up that I had polished his boots and with a tinge of guilt thought I should have polished them one last time. An even smaller group of us progressed to the rural Danish cemetery where Dad’s folks, sisters, and ancestors are buried. The pastor prayed in the cold, windless afternoon and consecrated Dad to this Earth and to Heaven.
And right beyond the evergreens lining the cemetery along the road is the shelterbelt and old red barn of the homestead where my Dad was born.
The memorial service continued at my sister Sam’s place as we ate, looked at pictures, told stories, laughed, watched the moon rise and the deer graze, and remembered our lives with Dad.
We lost our Dad for many years after he moved away, and even though we were all adults when that happened, it nonetheless affected our lives in many different ways. For me it was sad that he didn’t really know our kids or they him. He did make sure to say that he loved us and loved them when we talked on the phone, so that’s a gift we can accept with grace. So we build our lives with the gifts he has given us and sand out the rough places that don’t quite fit. There is something sacred in the process of being born, living life, learning lessons, and leaving this earth once again. It is remarkable that Dad has his resting place half a mile from the farmhouse he was born in—a true and joyous coming home for going home.