December Dirt

Thirty-five minutes.

That’s how long it took me to bury my dad’s remains after his funeral earlier this month. I don’t know if that’s fast or slow because I haven’t buried a lot of bodies. At least ones that are substantially larger than, say, a hamster.

It’s not that I was in a hurry. In fact, it was just the opposite: I’d told the undertaker to leave the grave uncovered because I wanted time to come back at the end of the day. Alone.

Dying is a surprisingly social affair. It requires a lot of gatherings and group discussions. There are final decisions to be made, forms to be filled out, and funeral potatoes to be baked and served. For an introvert, like me, that means my energy reserves were constantly drained from the sheer act of being present. I hadn’t had the capacity to emotionally process the imminent end of my father’s life for days. Weeks. Months.

After the service was over, then, and the guests had all departed and stepped serenely back towards the warmth of normality, I found a shovel, made myself a chai tea, and headed back to the cemetery. I wanted time to sit in the upturned earth beside my dad’s grave. To linger there at the very edge of life and death. To feel the promise of a new year in that cold December dirt. And to mourn.

Thirty-five minutes.

That’s how long it took from the time I started shoveling to the time I finished positioning the grave marker. I didn’t even get to finish my tea.

I buried him next to my sister, who died from breast cancer in 2005. It was the first time in over a decade the three of us had been together, so I used the opportunity to reminisce about what it was like growing up in the Ard household. The conversation was, thankfully, entirely one-sided, but I imagined them there with me, sipping their own hot drinks and watching me work. My sister would be yearning to say something about my balding head while my dad looked for a shovel so he could help properly bury himself. And I imagined them smiling as I recapped some of the tender and wonderful and hilarious and loving adventures we’d shared. Because that’s what it was like growing up in the Ard household.

Thirty-five minutes.

That’s how long it took to realize the futility of my endeavor. That no matter how slowly I shoveled or how badly I didn’t want it to be true, the time on earth with my dad was over. There would be no more conversations. No more adventures.

My dad turned 79 this year and would’ve celebrated his 60th wedding anniversary with my mom in June. He worked hard for over 50 years before retiring in 2012. When I was young, he taught me how to catch fish and mow lawns and ride bikes. He taught me to laugh and to be kind. And he never stopped teaching me to how to be a good father, husband, and grandpa.

My dad loved me, unconditionally, and always told me I was capable of doing hard things. So on December 2nd I did the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

It took thirty-five minutes.

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