A place, under the sun, where hearts of olden glory grow young

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.

My father, my ink, and my inheritance

On the side of my right thigh, more or less in the middle, is a tattoo:  a green infinity symbol, with one side twisting into the word “brave” and the other side adorned by a red poppy.  It is the second of three tattoos that I have, and I had it done in August 2012, some months after I said my last farewell to my father in the Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery here in Montréal.

I was not yet twenty-two when my father passed away on a cold February morning two days after his fifty-seventh birthday.  I was awakened by the sound of the ringtone I had assigned to my grandfather’s mobile, and the moment I heard it I knew that something was wrong.  He never called me from his mobile unless there was something amiss.  The moment I answered the call, I knew exactly what it was, and suddenly there was a tremendous weight on my young, irresponsible, and selfish shoulders:  “Please call your siblings in Vancouver and let them know,” my grandfather said.  “We have to speak with the medical team – they just arrived.”

To be the one to tell three of my four older siblings that our father had passed away was the hardest thing I have ever been asked to do, and it had to happen before I could leave my own apartment and walk the five blocks to my parents’ home in order to do what I could.  But I had no idea what had to be done.  Twenty-one years on this earth prepares one for absolutely nothing, especially when it comes to the task of laying a parent to rest, and all that such a task entails.  The following quote pretty much sums up the entire experience of being a child who is suddenly faced with this ordeal –

 “What happens when the light first pierces the dark dampness in which we have waited?  We are slapped and cut loose.  If we are lucky, someone is there to catch us and persuade us that we are safe.  But are we safe?  What happens if, too early, we lose a parent – that party on whom we rely for only…everything?  Why, we are cut loose again and we wonder, even dread, whose hands will catch us now.”

I have to say, with no small amount of amazement and gratitude, that I was lucky.  I was lucky because I had my brothers and sisters to lean on – emotionally while I waited for them to arrive, and physically once they did.  I was lucky because my grandfather was there to help me console my mother.  I was lucky because my mother had passed on to me some the tempered steel that is her willpower.  I was lucky because I had friends who let me know that I was in their thoughts and hearts, no matter how far away they were.

But most of all I was lucky because I am, after all, my father’s daughter.

Fathers are not only role models for their sons:  they are their daughters’ first heroes as well.  My father’s body – frail and debilitated as it was by Parkinson’s, Ankylosing Spondylitis, and a heart attack – housed an indomitable spirit and active mind.  Some of us have trouble getting up in the morning because we haven’t yet had a cup of coffee, or we went to bed too late.  My father literally had trouble getting out of bed in the morning because his body fought against him every day.  But each and every morning, he woke up and faced a day of intense physical suffering without so much as a peep of complaint.

That is extraordinary bravery and strength in an ordinary life.  And that is always how I will remember my father – as a brave, strong man who, despite his physical afflictions, lived a life of faith, hope, and love for the sake of his family.

I have only a small measure of my father’s profound faith, and mine is shaky at best.  I am cynical and jaded, and have been known in the past to consider love as being both arduous and futile.  But being my father’s daughter means I have more of him in me than I think or than is outwardly recognisable.  I may not have had much time with him, but I have a lifetime ahead to appreciate and treasure his legacy.

It is a simple legacy – but then again, “all the greatest things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word.”  In my father’s case, there are four words that will always come to mind when I think of him.

Bravery.  Fortitude.  Perseverance.  Strength.

And so, on the side of my right thigh, more or less in the middle, is a tattoo:  a green infinity symbol, with one side twisting into the word “brave” and the other side adorned by a red poppy.  It is the second of three tattoos that I have, and I had it done in August 2012, some months after I said my last farewell to my father in the Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery here in Montréal.  It is not a tattoo that was picked out of a book or drawn out of whimsy onto a napkin.  It is a reminder of my father – because to me, José Victor Olaguera was known simply as “Poppie,” and for me, he was a man who was, until his last breath, forever brave.