“What do you want on the headstone?” The funeral director was going down a list of decisions we needed to make for my father’s funeral, and I thought I was doing fine until that one. As a veteran, my father had arranged to be buried with my mother at the National Cemetery in nearby Riverside, California. In fact, my parents had already made almost all the arrangements, so we didn’t have that much to decide. Except… “The National Cemetery only allows names, dates, and a twenty-two-character inscription.”
Seriously? We were supposed to sum up their lives in twenty-two characters (including spaces and punctuation)?
You have to understand. I have nine brothers and sisters. That means ten different opinions on what those twenty-two letters could contain. At first, we went for historical accuracy—“Those damn kids!”. Then a score card—“1 wife+10 kids=32 grands”. We tried channeling my mother’s… unique… humor—“OK boys, let her RIP”. We even thought about the texting approach—“(-<-) & shhh @ last”.
It wasn’t that we hadn’t thought about our parents’ legacy. In fact, just days before he died I read my Veterans Day blog post “Do You Know A Hero?” to my father. The last time I saw him smile was when I called him my hero.
With both Memorial Day and Father’s Day coming up for the first time without my parents, I was thinking about that grave and the beautiful cemetery around it. My brother just sent me a picture of the headstone, with the sedately accurate 22-character sum of their legacy “Welcomed Laughed Loved”. I pictured him there, surrounded by fellow veterans. This Memorial Day, I’m so grateful, once again, for my father and all those who answered their country’s call. And especially, I’d like to thank those who gave up their lives so that others could have their family members long enough to argue about those twenty-two letters.
So how do you say hero in twenty-two characters? In Riverside National Cemetery, it’s written two hundred thousand ways.