“I want to buy plots for your mom and me,” my dad said one day over lunch at our favorite Chinese restaurant.
“She doesn’t want one,” I said, breaking off a piece of crab Rangoon. This wasn’t the first time he had brought up the subject.
“I know, but it’s bothering me that we don’t have a place to be buried. Will you help me?”
I looked across the red pleather booth at my dad, his grey and black hair smoothed to the side, the collar of his dress shirt peeking out from under his sweater. At 93, with the only wrinkles on his face gathered around his blue eyes, he looked at least a decade younger. His four-times-a-week workouts at the YMCA gave him not only strong legs but also a sense of pride.
Each time he asked me for help with the plots, I felt my throat tighten, thinking about my life without him. Finally, after making the same request for more than a year, my sweet yet determined dad wore me down. We left the restaurant, and I officially became his accomplice.
His reason for purchasing the plots was simple: He wanted to know that everything was taken care of before he died. I assumed he would eventually convince my mom of the need to plan ahead, but she waved him away each time he broached the subject.
“Not interested,” she said. My superstitious mom from Mexico believed that securing a plot meant death was imminent. She also thought that being left-handed was bad luck and shooed me out of the kitchen throughout my childhood when I stirred a sauce the wrong way or let the rice simmer too long.
As the middle of five children, I craved time alone with my dad, a busy pediatrician. Years later, I got my wish. Whenever I came to town, I took him to lunch at the same place where we shared chicken with vegetables and egg drop soup and where he practiced the Mandarin he had studied years earlier.
The more time we spent together, the more our relationship changed. He was still my father, but instead of focusing on my life and issues, a habit from childhood, I pressed him for details about his past. A few years before, he agreed to let me videotape his life story. He shared memories from his childhood in Poland to his time in Auschwitz to his life post-World War II as a physician in the Midwest. I wanted to learn more about his relationship with his parents and sister before they perished and how he managed to maintain a positive outlook after the challenges he faced early in life.
When he first asked me to schedule an appointment to purchase the plots, I wondered why he chose me over my siblings. Did he see me as more trustworthy? Was it because I was a former professional organizer and obsessive list-maker? I had helped him set up automatic payments and showed him how to convert his credit card points into gift cards a few months before. Even so, I wasn’t expecting to be the one to assist him with making burial plans — I thought my mom would eventually give in.
As we waited in the lobby for the woman in charge of the cemetery to meet with us, he said, “I’m not going anywhere soon. But I want to know that everything is set.” She led us to her cubicle, and after she pulled up a map of the cemetery, we weighed the options. Did they want to be far from the street or under a tree? Would they want to be buried near my late mother-in-law?
Finding the perfect burial plot was like searching for the ideal Airbnb rental in an unfamiliar city. But this wasn’t for a single weekend; it was for eternity. I felt self-imposed pressure to find the right place for my parents, especially when my dad left it up to me. “It doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “It’s for you guys.”
He signed the paperwork, and on the way to my parents’ house, I saw my dad’s furrowed brow and suspected he was thinking: How will I tell my wife? I sympathized with him. My mom never shied away from expressing her opinion, but I was familiar with his ability to calm her down. He never kept anything from her, but this was different. His need to secure a final resting place outweighed her insistence that making burial arrangements would lead to disaster.
Every few weeks, I asked my dad if he had mentioned our secret mission to my mom. “Not yet,” he always answered. Then, one night, while setting the table in my childhood home, I overheard a conversation in the kitchen.
“Your father is losing it,” my mom said.
“He seems fine,” my sister told her.
“He thinks he bought two plots.”
I looked at my dad, then back at my mom. There was no need to ask him whether he had told her.
“We did buy two plots,” I said.
“What? Why didn’t you take me with you?” she asked while glaring at my dad.
“I asked, but you didn’t want to go.”
Prepared for a lengthy argument, my mom surprised me by asking about my children. She never mentioned the plots again.
Less than a year after our stealth mission, my dad’s health quickly declined, and his trips to the YMCA stopped. Instead of living an active lifestyle, he led a sedentary one in his gray chair surrounded by his paneled family room. One afternoon, he fell on the back deck. After a short hospital stay, he was sent home on hospice care and died three days later.
A few days after the funeral, I took my mom to the cemetery. We stood at my dad’s gravesite, a mound of dirt heaped on top with a small white sign — a temporary marker until his bronze one arrived — stuck in the ground. As I read his name, I recalled his words: “This is for the family.” The knot in my stomach loosened. I pictured the look of relief on his face more than a year before as he signed the contract confirming the plots and felt my shoulders relax. Being part of his systematic approach to death and knowing he trusted me with a vital task eased my anxiety and grief.
Still, I wondered whether I had chosen the right place for him to be buried. Then I noticed the building nearby — it was a YMCA! And when I glanced beyond his grave and spotted slides, tunnels, and a sandbox, the space felt perfect. I smiled at the thought of my dad, who dedicated his career to caring for children, eternally resting near the sounds of little ones playing.
Featured image: Marc Bruxelle / Shutterstock
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