"There are lots of walks that people make in their lifetime. Some are important, some are not. Some of those walks are tougher than others, and some seem like they take forever, because you know you can't wait to have what's at the end. Some are painful, some are joyous. Some are profitable, some will end with you losing everything."
September 8, 2000. The day I lost a piece of myself, a piece of my identity.
This past Saturday marked twelve years since my father looked me in the eyes for what seemed like an eternity, then closed his eyes and died. Those of you who need more detail than that can find it anywhere on this blog; my posts are littered with tributes and stories of dad.
We've had our kids now for over a year. They've heard stories of Brian Sloat, their Papa, the entire time we've had them. As I stated in a blog a few weeks ago, to them, since he is not tangible, he is not a real person. He's a myth, a fable, one of the hundreds they've had told to them since they could understand words. Brian Sloat might as well be Harry Potter, Huckleberry Finn, or the Cat in the Hat.
The question of taking them to see him, his grave, and exposing them to so much of my pain, has weighed heavy on my mind for the last year. I've often wondered if they could handle it, if they could understand what they were seeing, and if not, understand when I explained it to them.
This, in a sense, was giving them all of me. In some selfish part of my mind, I didn't want to do that. To me, it represented the final barrier between them and myself, the last wall in our relationship, and I struggled mightily with knocking it down.
Saturday morning, I covered a story for the paper. It was a 9/11 Remembrance Walk in Muskogee. In his speech, a man named Oscar Ray said the words, "I'm pretty sure that when the families of the victims remember their loved ones, they smile."
He was addressing a crowd of people about 9/11, but all I could think about was dad. I climbed in my truck, cried, and tried to compose myself, but then I got the standard issue text from my mother on this date.
"I love you."
In that moment, I made a decision. I decided that I was going to take the kids to see dad.
The cemetery hasn't been mowed in a while. The grass stands up taller than I've ever seen it, and Alicia commented on it as we drove in. I killed the car, and waited just a moment to compose myself for what I knew was going to be one of the harder walks I'll take with our family.
We got out of the car and Aven looked around, saw a crabapple lying on the ground and said, "Those are cow apples, right dad?"
Our son. The little boy who takes nothing seriously...just like me. His mind was a million miles away from what was taking place, and I envied him. His innocence, once destroyed, is now slowing coming back. He no longer has to worry about mom and dad, and because of that I think he is truly carefree.
Aven walked on my left, and Keeli walked on my right, and Alicia walked behind, selflessly giving me this moment with our children. Slowly, we stepped through the tall grass and around the usual tombstones, some standing, others flat in the ground.
It was The Walk.
There was no arguing with God this time. There wasn't space in my head for it. All I could think about was my obligation to try and make sense of this for our children, to help them understand what they were seeing.
I thought about Aven tripping over a tombstone and how awful that would be, and I thought about Akeeli crying, because she always cries when she sees me cry.
Our daughter, ever the empathetic one. The one who provides comfort in company, the one who wants to make sure you know that your sadness is hers too. She is beautiful. She is radiant. She is too smart for her own good, and I worry ceaselessly about the day when boys come knocking on our door.
The Walk was a short one, because our children distracted me. It was a good thing.
We arrived at the headstone, and looked at the name Sloat engraved on it. The tears came.
Through choked words and ill-timed snorts, I explained to our children that my father, the greatest man I've ever known, was not there. His body was there, but he was in heaven, enjoying the company of his brothers, and now his mom. I explained that we would see him one day, and that I really wished they could have met him.
Then the words came:
"I hope I'm half the dad he was."
Keeli cried, because Keeli cries. Aven asked why we didn't bring flowers, because Aven can't focus on one thing more than ten seconds. Alicia took a few pictures, because I had asked her to. I know I didn't want them then, but one day I will.
I asked them all to leave me alone for just a few minutes, and they did. I stood there, shaking, hot tears sliding down my face, but I didn't fight God. I didn't tell him how unfair it was. In fact, I didn't address God at all. I talked to dad.
I know he can't hear me. I know that my sadness isn't something he can feel or hear or see. If he could, it wouldn't be a happy moment for him, and Heaven is a place of eternal happiness. I'm okay with that, and I talked to him anyway.
As I talked, the wind rushed through the cemetery and whistled through the trees. While most would attribute that to something supernatural and impossible, I was reminded of a King of the Hill episode where Kahn's grandmother said she believed her deceased husband was reincarnated as the wind that blew through the meadow at that very moment. Bill Dauterive looked her in the eye and said, "My god, that's the most beautiful description of a haunted meadow I've ever heard."
I blinked through the tears, smiled, laughed, and walked back to the car. It amazes me how God put our family together.
September will always be a terrible month, and I'll always be glad when it's over.
But now, instead of September 8 holding pain and nothing else, I can remember it as the day when our kids met my dad.