This past weekend here in Canada was the Victoria Long Weekend. Unlike most people I know, who skip town in favor of lakeside cottages or beach houses, I stayed in the city. With my upcoming move to a new apartment fast approaching, most of my spare time is spent sorting through my worldly possessions and packing those of most use and significance into boxes.
However, yesterday I took a break from all of that to go visit my father’s grave with my mother and oldest sister. His final earthly resting place is in the Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery (which, as it so happens, is just across the street from the apartment I’ll be living in come the end of June), which is located on the northwest side of Mount Royal.
An old and beautiful cemetery, its sweeping expanse of manicured slopes is populated by countless gravesites. The cemetery is so old and so huge that there are countless graves that have been left untended for years – decades, even, in some cases. There are also various sections of the cemetery dedicated to specific cultures, nationalities, and religions, and there are even numerous famous historical figures laid to rest within these grounds. To get to my father’s, we drive up the winding asphalt from the main gates and make turns at landmark graves – marked by towering marble sculptures too ornate and monumental to be referred to simply as “tombstones” – before driving by the potter’s field adjacent to the section where we laid my father to rest.
When we visit my father’s grave, we clear away encroaching weeds and crabgrass, and always try to leave some kind of bouquet when we depart. Most of the time, I end up wandering in between the rows of marble markers, gathering daisies and clovers and other field flowers to bring to him – just as I did when I was a little girl.
Yesterday, I noticed for the first time in three years that, two sections over, there stands a long hedge of lilacs. We had a light purple lilac in the backyard of the house in which I grew up, and the sight of any lilac, regardless of its colour, reminds me of my childhood. Upon wandering over to the lilac hedge with my sister to pick a few stems to leave on my father’s stone, we discovered a new section of the cemetery: a field for military veterans.
A monument stands at the top of the field, rising up over rows of granite plaques bearing names, ranks, and regiments. Yet for all the glory that might lie at rest in this part of the cemetery, it is a lonely and forgotten place. The lilacs in the hedge and the carpeting of deep purple groundcover flowers are the only blooms to be found in this section of the cemetery. Walking in between the rows of engraved stone markers, we soon saw that one row on the left side of the monument was almost entirely overgrown.
But the turf was surprisingly easy to pull up off the brass markers, and all it took was a sweep of a hand to brush away any remaining dead foliage and dirt. When we were done bringing these stones back into the sunshine we laid a small spray of lilac on each one before returning to our father’s tombstone to say a decade of the Rosary with our mother.
You can argue that we had no reason to tend to that row of granite markers, because we have no idea who these men and women were. We are not related to anyone lying in that small section of the cemetery and we probably don’t know anyone who is, either. In a cemetery full of hundreds, if not thousands, of untended graves, what difference would it make to clear ten small granite plaques?
The thing is that every life leaves in its wake some kind of legacy. Some legacies touch only a few people and that is by all means significant. But the legacy of a soldier touches more than just a few lives, and goes beyond immediate family and close friends. It’s a legacy that impacts entire nations and their future generations…a legacy of freedom and virtue and the goodness of mankind, a legacy of a good life sacrificed for countless others.
As I walked back to my father’s grave I felt a peace and stillness in my heart that I could not explain. I still don’t know what it means for me, but it was still there when I woke up this morning. Maybe it’s because I was able to touch a part of Canada’s history in such unlikely circumstances, or maybe it’s because in a beautifully strange and inexplicable way I am still, deep down, a little girl wandering in sunshine as she gathers flowers for her dad and learns how to love and honour all life as he did.
Whatever the case may be, it is indisputable that in lonely corner of a vast cemetery, picking flowers to lay on my father’s grave, I was surprised by joy…and I cannot wait to see what such joy might illuminate in my future.