Tears blur my vision as I stare vacantly into a sea of darkness. Whispered voices offer words of condolence, but I fail to absorb the words. On occasion, hesitant eyes meet mine then swiftly turn away—not wanting to look into my grief. They are unaware that my tears are not for the dead, but for the living.
When everyone leaves, I fulfill my vow to speak to the dead. Alone in the room, I approach his empty shell—finally face to face with the source of my rage. My only regret is that his eyes are not open to see my resolve and to meet my fury. An ocean of hatred erupts from the depths of my soul and I pour out the fullness of my wrath upon his lifeless frame. Decades of pain and years of grief overflow with a vengeance. When the fire dies, I speak with firm bitterness and finality the words I’ve rehearsed for years beyond measure: “You’re dismissed.”
When the time comes for the burial, I have a strange eagerness to see the casket lowered and to watch in triumph as each pile of shoveled dirt seals the ground above. Tentative hands toss flowers on the fresh gravesite. Mine will offer none.
A white rose in the midst of red captures my attention and jolts my memory through a door I’d resolved to close. A garden of white, a girl in blue—her young brother close beside her. She reaches for a rose but her fingers encounter a thorn. Blood pours from the fresh wound, her dress soiled by the red flow. She cries. A door slams. A bottle crashes to the stony path beneath. The glass shatters at her feet with a painful blow. Her brother cries in fear. They were not meant for the garden.
Drunken hands pull the helpless children through the door of the garden shed. When it is over, the boy is terribly bruised and the girl irrevocably scarred. After the fury subsides, the father leans on the doorpost and casually says, “You’re dismissed.” As he always did after his “lessons” were complete. As if they were schoolchildren released at the end of a painless lecture.
When the memory fades to black, I find myself alone by the mound of death that was my father. Determined to forget, I turn without a final glance or longing sigh. I do not shed a tear.
Free at last? I do not feel the release I expect. The cocoon that engulfs me does not release my fragile frame. I am not adorned with the wings of a butterfly, but instead buried deep in the grave I sought to leave behind. With my father. Alone.
Years pass and I am still alone. My children do not visit, and I do not call them. The divorce papers were signed long ago. I’ve lost more jobs than I can count. Each day I sit by myself, looking out the window at a garden of white roses, numb to the world—the familiar bottle of liquor in my hands. I am a trapped in a cage, unable to find release. A bitter woman. Freedom eludes me. I am my father.
Days turn to months. Emptiness threatens to suffocate. One morning I reach into the medicine cabinet for the bottle of pills—intent on swallowing every last one, when a vaguely familiar sound breaks the silence of the house. The phone is ringing. It hasn’t in years.
A somber voice greets me. Another death in the family…my brother. I can’t remember the last time we spoke. He’d abandoned me at the funeral years ago-- left me to care for every detail. Even in death, he’d wanted nothing to do with my father. But that wasn’t the breaking point with my brother.
About three years after the funeral, he’d called me—asked me to lunch. There was an unmistakably new glow on his face, a fresh warmth in his eyes. He talked excitedly, as he hadn’t talked since the garden. Something about freedom and healing. Something about letting go. Something about a relationship with God. I’d called it religion, and I didn’t want anything to do with it.
My brother had done the unthinkable: he’d forgiven the monster and asked me to do the same. That was the last I talked to him. He called, he wrote, he persisted…until he finally gave in to the silence. And now he’s gone.
At the memorial service, I approach the casket hesitantly—not sure if I want to see. I finally look at his face and find what I wanted—and didn’t want, to find. Peace. “Those who follow godly paths will find peace when they die,” the minister had quoted the Bible during the funeral service. And he added, “Those who forgive find freedom as they live.”
Freedom. Elusive freedom. My brother had found it—I do not doubt. He was going to the grave a free man. But I, living—was bound to the grave. I gaze into the casket one last time, but I do not see my brother. I see myself. I lay there—dead…a white rose on my chest. He is standing outside the casket looking at me, beckoning me to come.
Days pass, but the memory lingers. I finally know what I must do.
In the garden behind my house, I choose two perfect roses. Avoiding the thorns, I cut them carefully from the stem. Holding the flowers weakly in my hands, I walk to the one place in the world I vowed never to see again.
My brother chose to be buried next to my father. Alone at the gravesite, I lay one rose on my brother’s grave, and tears finally come. The floodgates open. I can’t remember the last time I cried. I am cleansed from the inside out.
When the tears subside, I kneel at the foot of the grave—head bowed low to the ground. I whisper to my brother, hoping he’ll hear, “Class is over. You’re dismissed.”
I lift myself from the ground and walk to my father’s grave. The stone is small and insignificant—overgrown with grass and weeds. Clearly there was no one who cared to visit over the years. Still I know what I must do. I lay the second rose on the stone and whisper, “I forgive you.”
A dead man will not hear me whisper such words. He can never benefit from my forgiveness. But I hear myself. And my casket is lifted from the ground. I shed my grave clothes and walk home a free woman.
The pills are still near the medicine cabinet where I left them, waiting for me. I empty them into the sink and let the water run freely. Closing the door, I see my reflection in the mirror. I recognize the warmth I had seen in my brother’s eyes, and the peace from his face. “I forgive you,” I whisper to the reflection in the mirror. “Class is over. You’ve finally learned your lesson. You’re dismissed.”
I walk to the nightstand next to my bed and find the phonebook with my children’s numbers. Tonight their phones will ring, and they will hear a new voice. And I will finally rest in peace.