My sister and I buried my father’s ashes on a cold gray day last spring. We were at Zion Cemetery in Blaine County, Oklahoma, not too far from the farm my family settled illegally and then claimed in the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889. You can see two sets of grain elevators from the graves of my grandmother, great-grandmother, great-aunts and now my dad. There’s not much else to see other than the ever-changing sky, a tiny abandoned church and an honest-to-God outhouse with a crescent moon carved into the rough wooden door.
It was really cold. Two days before, I had stared in amazement as snowflakes spiraled down outside the window. I had planned to camp out; it was the second week in April and who would expect snow right before Easter? On Palm Sunday, I sat in church and felt the earth tremble; an earthquake, my aunt told me brightly, a common occurrence in Oklahoma these days. A few hours later, the tornado sirens howled; a twister was tearing up the plains somewhere south of town. Oklahoma felt apocalyptic last April.
We scraped some dirt over the urn. A prayer would have felt pretentious. I’m not sure my dad even believed in God when he died. My sister and I held hands and sang a chorus of “Amazing Grace,” the wind snatching the notes off our lips.
It was too cold and I was out of kilter. We poked our heads inside the abandoned church; the windows were long gone, leaving only four walls of rough whitewashed brick and a rusty tin roof. Animal droppings littered the empty structure, huge, bigger than my thumb. The thought of an animal that size was frightening.
Two days later it was Good Friday, bright and warm. I was facing a sixteen-hour trip south, but Zion Cemetery called, and I obeyed my instincts.
On my way out of town, I heard bells. It was noon. My lovely little church in Birmingham has a most solemn Good Friday Service at noon; it begins with the church stripped bare of all its banners and fancy drapery and the clergy lying full-out face down on the floor around the altar.
Again an inner voice whispered, just as I passed a church. I pulled into the parking lot and crept inside, late for the noon service. They were reading the Passion Gospel and a lady in the back smiled at me when she handed me a bulletin. As we read the familiar story of Christ’s trial, persecution and crucifixion, my world and my heart began to settle into a rhythm: powerful, soothing and good.
My spirit was almost light as I left the church, and I stopped at a store to assemble a funeral feast. I got two pieces of cake, some bright ripe fruit, a little cheese, a styrofoam cup of macaroni and cheese. On an impulse I grabbed a handful of chunky, beaming sunflowers.
It took an hour to drive north of town, west down the highway past the grain elevators, then bump down the dirt road to the cemetery bounded by a rusty, sagging fence. It looked vastly different, which makes perfect sense: when the sky is nine-tenths of the display, a vivid blue infinity is a remarkable transformation from a lowering blustery gray.
I had a book with me, a funny one, by Terry Pratchett. I spread out a blanket under a splintery old cedar and read my book and laughed out loud. It felt good to laugh. My dad has a wicked sense of humor and he loved to read. I slowly ate half a piece of cake, savoring the joy of my dad’s sweet tooth and a family tradition of “dessert-first day.” I breathed, deeply: cedar, dirt, sky.
Now my heart was so light I was almost skipping. I scattered a few crumbs of cake a few feet away from the tree and invited the ants to my banquet. I laid the sunflowers in a row on the family graves and they smiled back at me: great-grandmother, grandmother, aunt, aunt, father.
I remembered I had a kite tucked away in my camping gear, and that endless sky cried out for a kite. I couldn’t get it up in the air; I have no talent for aerodynamics. But I tethered the string to the gravestone and it kicked around on the ground, yearning for the wild blue yonder. I sang a song from my favorite movie; it felt so good I sang another song, a Bible-thumping camp song from my father’s youth. I remembered his eyes match the Oklahoma sky on a bright spring day.
I thought, for no particular reason, of things that frightened me and decided to look inside the old church one more time.
I remembered the warmth leaving my father’s hands as I wept and let him go.
I leaned into the empty window frame of the old Zion Methodist Church and heard a storm of wings and wind and watched, transfixed, as a Great White Owl burst from the rafters, paused, as if posing for a snapshot, and whirled out the opposite window, an angel of a different kind.
I laid my daddy’s ashes to rest on Good Friday last year. Today, as Lent begins, I wonder where my journey leads me now.