A Father's Songbird
We walk among them on mornings of remembrance. Marble and granite masses cast shadows of varied shape and size upon thick, soft, uniformly trimmed emerald grasses. Each stone is a meeting place between present and past. We go to converse with the absent and to revive fading glimpses of a person's story. We go to affirm and give purpose to lives lived.
Affirmations are placed with significance around the stones in the form of toys, love letters and pebbles. We enshrine a life's meaning with fresh bouquets of lily, rose, tulip and daisy. Each pebble, each blossom, each ribbon, each flag says what is too much for words. Each gift is an unspoken gesture of what rests within the heart of the one offering it.
Engravings upon polished, hardened surfaces attempt to briefly reawaken the dead from their eternal sleep. But monuments are insufficient by themselves in capturing the monumental. Birth and death dates, poetic quotes and scripture passages, military rank and service, tributes to being devoted parents or spouses--all these inscriptions attempt to do much, but do very little. Such little surface space--even upon the massive monoliths of the most prominent dead at rest here--and so few words of meaning. So much left unsaid. So much still alive within the heart.
It's beautiful here. Simple yet complex. Chickadees and wrens chirp paradoxically about life among the dead. Bright red cardinals joyously serenade the innocence of a Spring morning. Perhaps their songs speak more about the dead than do our poor, cliched inscriptions. As the sun warms, blossoms open and honeybees awaken to their work. Perhaps noticing these daily on-goings, too, speak more about affirmation of a person's life than do our gifts and bouquets of remembrance. Perhaps all of the living that goes on above ground becomes the collective message from those lying beneath it. Surely, our cemeteries are meant to be stone gardens that preserve the memories of those now gone, even if memories themselves gradually decay with each generation's passing. That is why there is far more living, it seems to me, than dying going on here. Everything appears vibrant in sight and song. Flowers blooming. Bees pollinating. Hummingbirds humming. Peepers peeping.
Even the dead are still living amongst the memories of ambling visitors to these solemn grounds. Even those we never knew. A brief visit to the grave of a stranger is itself a meeting that brings forth life. There is a curious invitation that occurs, a subtle curiosity that happens when reflecting upon the unknown lying beneath. The person is not revived, but the idea of that person is revived. And in that idea, if we listen carefully, we hear the solemn song, and that song joins in the chorus of all the others who have come and gone. This chorus always sings more of life than death.
Yes, each life is a song, because each life is a story, just as each story of the dead now lives on in the living, just as each of us is a living story. And each song seeds itself within us and sprouts into a desire for our own stories to live on through others. We hope, like they hoped, that we will not be forgotten. We hope, like they hoped, that we will still have something to say even after death. That is important, it seems to me. Stories instruct, and how a person lived is itself an instruction. And we seek to continue to have an impact on this world even after leaving it.
The strength of our memories of dead loved-ones draws us to these places, like a flower draws in a bee. The plaque or marble stone offers us a place to land for a moment, to be nourished by the lives they lived, and then to be sent on our way to pollinate others in the world, to integrate the lessons from the deceased into our daily lives. Their stories, like all lives do, followed the way of the flower--from seed, to seedling, to blossom, to decay. And we become the honeybees that carry their stories from one bloom to the next. Their voices long absent are now heard in a fleeting morning song, and we become the songbirds who sing for them.
This kind of thinking happens when a person still grieves over the loss of a loved one.
I came to this place to visit my father, who died three years ago. I came to gain acceptance and to eliminate some of the increasing afar-ness since his death.
He passed on Father's Day and was cremated three days later. His ashes were placed here in the Scattering Garden along with many others before and since. In the center of the garden is a granite monument with columns of plaques on all four sides. Like the others on this list of scattered ashes, the only commemoration of my father's life is a 2"x3" bronze plate. Upon this plate, the stamped inscription reads: “Arthur Andre Chartrand, June 24, 1932 - June 19, 2016.”
That’s all there is. Nothing more is revealed about the intricately complex life of this man, my dad, who others knew as "Andy", "Mr. C.", "Sir Knight", "Cupcake", and "Arthur."
For those who knew my dad, his death was fitting for Father's Day above all other days.
Of course, he wasn't perfect. He had many faults, as all of us do. But he had admirable strengths that deserve more than this damn plaque.
He loved my mom in a way that was easily visible and genuine. He taught me why it is better to love than to be loved, why it is still better to be more in love with others than they may be with you. His heart had the capacity to give of himself more than he would ever get in return. He loved my mom perfectly though he was imperfect in how he showed it sometimes and that became more difficult as his health failed.
He wasn't perfect at being a father either. He made his share of life-altering mistakes. But he put forth effort, he sacrificed, and he was consistent. He had something that is rare in parents today. He encouraged us to play sports, to be involved in activities, but he did not rely on activities to teach us values. He had a sixty-year view of raising men and women, and this took time in the home, even though he and mom had very little of it.
Values are only briefly emphasized in the home today because children and parents are not home together much. Parents are placing far more effort in using soccer, baseball and after-school programs to teach kids values. They base this upon the "idle hands" argument. In many cases, it is a rationalization for doing other things of perceived importance to improve their lives and to provide opportunities for their children. But what greater priority is there than time with our children? Much time away from them is necessary just to pay the bills. But the rest of the time away has more to do with parents' wants than a child's needs. We fail to see that few young children prefer hectic schedules away from home over time with family in the home. They haven't developed a value in chasing things or status yet. What they need and want is to be loved, and time with us. Time with us and love. They want to be with us. And wants are really needs to children.
Besides, home is the primary nesting foundation of a child's character. We know this, yet we aren't as willing or as capable of making time at home significant enough to have its impact. Our lives aren't quiet enough for the patience of emphasizing character, even if all it requires of us are short conversations before school or at a regular dinner table. We have delegated those opportunities to others--to coaches, to teachers, to aftercare assistants, to babysitters. Once these opportunities are given away, they cannot be gotten back. Just as soon as we schedule a child's life away, we place his or her growth of character into the hands of others. But some important lessons must come from parents, and parents are equally held accountable for exemplifying these lessons. When we do make time, we become better people as a result of accepting responsibility for being role models to our children. And, children become better people as a result of having a role model in the home.
My dad knew this. He lived this kind of thinking, and his thinking was reaffirmed by witnessing it in other cultures as he travelled the world and had to spend lengthy stretches away from us.
And he did travel. Thailand. Brazil. Europe. Three weeks after my birth he spent two months in Ethiopia. Naturally, he had stories, and a lot of them. He had lessons from families in far away places. And his return home instilled a wonder and yearning in my own heart to venture further and further out into the world.
He became a storyteller.
So, on this day, standing in front of a plaque that gives little voice to his life, it is fitting to share one of his stories.
Andy was borne into a Quebecoise-Metis family as the only son among seven daughters. At an early age, he proudly bore the weight of the family name upon his shoulders. He was the pride of his father, Nap, and the joy of his mother, Rhea.
He was an athletic boy with dreams of becoming his boyhood hero, Jim Thorpe. In those early years, he had the back and legs to carry the strength of his name. He was fearless in hockey and football. He dove off bridges into snowmelt rivers. And he could beat all the school kids in long distance and sprint races.
But his strength quickly diminished by the time he was thirteen. Stricken with polio, his parents followed the doctors' advice and had him placed in an infirmary--a thirteen-year-old placed in a building for sick people--isolated from his friends and the boyhood home he knew. He was lonely, angry and terrified from the news that, even if he recovered, enough damage had been done. He'd never walk again.
This sent him downward. He carried a weight too heavy for most thirteen year olds. What happens to a teenage boy once such an irreversible reality is forced upon him? Denial? Anger? Bargaining? Depression? His life would never be the same, and it was just getting started. I know he blamed God, and even hated Him for a time. I know he felt sorry for himself. I know there were times he didn't want to live anymore.
He had so many typical boyhood dreams. The war had just ended and military enlistment was high among men seeking manhood and desiring glory. He had relatives that served in the Great War and he was at the impressional age of nine-years-old when Japan invaded Pearl Harbor. The idea of being a soldier in those days was not just hallowed duty but the most direct path for man-making. But that dream was now gone. Also gone was his dream of becoming a decathlete, hockey star or football player. So, too did the vision of being a pilot with the wilting effects of polio. Nothing shatters boyhood dreams quicker than a crippling or disfiguring illness.
But spontaneities of circumstance often have a way of impacting each of us differently depending upon where we are and who we are when these circumstances occur.
At perhaps the lowest point of his adolescence, the infirmary caught fire. As the nurses and orderlies began evacuating patients, young Andy refused. He wanted to be left in the inferno to die. But muscle atrophy had settled in and he had little strength to fight off the head nurse.
She was a big lady with rough skin and a hardened presence. She had a smoker's voice and an attitude of intolerance. He had youth, but his frailty made him no match for her. So she forced him into a wheelchair and pushed him out of there.
“We can’t let our PFC die!” she exclaimed.
Andy liked the "PFC" nickname. He thought it was encouraging. He thought it was the staff's way of acknowledging him as a young man with the qualities of being a good soldier even if that was no longer possible. But their reasons for his nickname wasn’t what he had thought.
After being evacuated, the young, sickly teenager looked up to the nurse and barked, “Why didn’t you just leave me in there?”
The nurse again responded, “I told you! We like having our PFC around!”
He bitterly snapped back, “Why do you call me PFC? You know I can’t be in the military now?”
She paused for a moment, moved in close enough for him to smell her nicotine soaked scrubs, looked at him and calmly asked, “Do you even know what PFC means?”
My dad answered, “Yes. It stands for Private First Class.”
With a short, straightforward tone, she stood up, grinned and replied, “No, Andy. We call you PFC because it means 'poor fucking cripple'.”
Things changed after that. Anger and depression gradually evolved into acceptance. Acceptance blossomed into perseverance. And he eventually defied diagnoses and learned to walk again.
He would always have one bad leg as a result of polio, and he would never run again and those boyhood dreams remained out of reach. But he would find a hundred different ways to serve the remainder of his life.
He fell in love with a woman who many thought was out of his league, especially given that he had only one good leg. In those days, many looked at people like Andy as crippled and, therefore, as lesser people. He was noticeable when he walked in a room, and people would stare. He would catch people making fun of his walk. That would have been enough to destroy any young man's confidence in getting a girl. But he was crazy in love with the woman and she knew it. He pursued her and eventually won her over. They were married for 59 years and she bore him eleven children.
Andy was a family man not because he had many children. He was a family man because everything about him emphasized marriage and family. For him, marriage was always his priority above all things, even above his children. The marriage was the bedrock to a stable family. He believed in the power of two people who love each other as the foundation to a stable, safe, secure family life. This had its nurturing benefits. Even towards the end of his life, he’d speak about my mom with a gleam in his eye as if he was twenty-six again. To those who knew him, he set the standard high for loving a woman. The way he spoke of my mom from my first to my last memories of him was nothing short of admirable. He never uttered to me an unkind word about my mom.
He also set the example for being a strong father. He was a man of unwavering principles and reinforced those values by how he lived. He believed in honesty, loyalty, family, respect, faith, self-reliance, survival and anonymous service. He would always be in defense of mom when the children tested. He would defend his children only when it was warranted, and instruct us when we did something disrespectful or indefensible. He did not support enabling inappropriate behavior from his children. He knew little good came from that. He taught us all to be self-reliant, independent, and how to survive.
I don’t ever recall a time when he compromised his principles. Sometimes this appeared to temporarily and needlessly create chaos and uncertainty. But as time went on the greater message of consistency and strength prevailed. I imagine that was solidified in him after the infirmary fire. And I believe that he left this world without regretting his fight against the emotional, mental and physical effects of polio. And I imagine the ridicule and aversive reactions he received throughout his life as a "cripple" only made him a stronger man.
He used to say to me, “Son, principles are all we have. Everything else can be taken away from us. If you give those up for something or someone else, you won’t get them back. If you compromise your principles, you become a weaker man and you often, as a result, will do things to hurt those you love and those who rely on your strength, loyalty and honesty. So be honest and loyal, because that reflects your character. Be respectful because that shows others how you value them. Do good things without a need for praise, because that reveals what is in your heart. And have a strong faith, because life will test your principles and you'll need guidance when you are tempted.”
I'm not sure if I can live up to that.
It's a beautiful spring morning and I miss him. The conversations we used to have are now one-sided. I talk to him. And the birds sing back.
His bronze plaque is not good enough. But even if his grave was marked by a massive mausoleum, it would mean very little to me. So much can be told about this man that resides in between letters and dates. His name was a gift given to him at birth. His life was a way of living up to that gift. How he lived up to that gift brings forth beautiful memories in me that are often too painful for my tears. He wouldn't want me to cry over him anyway.
I came here to place a small piece of pipestone at the base of his plaque. Pipestone represents strength and clarity. I found it along a glacial stream in a remote area of Interior Alaska a month after his death. Until I came upon it, the stone had been untouched by man, weathered and shaped by ice, water and animal steps, polished by silt for thousands of years. There is a divinely created purity present within it. By outward appearance, it is an inconspicuous greenish grey rock. Nothing's special about it. Yet it was forged from fire a hundred thousand years ago then carved and polished by ice as if God himself intended it for this commemorative moment.
Here, in this garden of stones, where death is the pervading mood beneath the grass, there is living to do above the surface. How my dad lived--and the lessons his life taught--still live within me. As ancestors of long ago well knew, it seems more clear now that how I live will either honor or dishonor his memory. And I will do my best not to let him down.
I am now the songbird of his song.