Set in Stone

Set in Stone

August 5, 2018 0 By Nancy Oehlert

(“Set in stone” – a term used to emphasize that something is fixed and unchangeable.)


Knowing that someone is gone can be a hard thing. Missing them can make for some rough moments, particularly on special occasions when they most certainly would have been present. But seeing their name ’set in stone’ on a grave for the first time is jarring.

 I cared for my mom and dad in their last nine years of life. It was an absolute blessing…and absolutely exhausting. If you’ve ever been a caregiver, you understand. These were precious souls. If you sat and made a list of all the qualities one could hope for in a mother and father, that was my mom and dad.  When it comes to parents, my brothers and I won the lottery. 

I don’t know why we were so favored, but I’m thankful. Sometimes I wonder why my brothers and I were so blessed? The older I get and the more people I meet, the more I realize how uniquely beautiful our parents were. And I miss them both terribly. 

Mom and dad both died in the last year and, honestly, the ‘special days’ haven’t been as difficult as I expected. Perhaps it’s because I anticipate those days and it mentally prepares me. I don’t know. If I’m a bit unclear, forgive me. I’m still new to grief, a ‘rookie’ of sorts. 

While the ‘special days’ run fairly smoothly, the dailyness of grief, that is another matter entirely!  For example, most mornings breakfast is just breakfast. My husband and I relish this time together before we start our day. But every now and then, with no warning, no predictability whatsoever, we’ll catch each other’s eye and look to mom’s place at our table and just lose it. There’s no warning and no preparation. Grief catches us off guard. Other times, I can be going through a routine day filled with all the routine things necessary when something simple or small will trip me up. I’ve shared with a few friends how I laughed and cried simultaneously after being caught off guard by a refrigerator magnet that belonged to my mother. Yes, I got ‘taken down’ by a  refrigerator magnet! 

There have been few times when I’ve spotted an older gentleman with a handkerchief in his pocket, and I’ve pictured my father standing there. This sounds crazy, even to me, but I miss hearing him clear his throat! Those who knew my dad would understand. Dad had an unmistakable, booming bass voice. I can still hear it in my head, and I’m afraid that one day I’ll forget how he sounded.  

As they say, life goes on. There have been a few situations in the last year where my husband and I have had to make big decisions.  My parents, who were known for their wisdom, are no longer here to offer their counsel. But I’ve caught myself picking up the phone to call them. And as quickly as I reach for my phone, realization hits me and I draw my hand back. These are the moments that fill my eyes with tears and de-rail my thoughts. I never knew or understood before that grief is palpable, as if your heart is being crushed in your chest. I get that now. 

Dad passed away first, with mom at his side and holding his hand. My brother and I came into the room just as he was going. If you’ve never been with someone when they leave this world for the next one, let me assure you that there is something beyond this life. And being with someone at that moment makes an indelible impression on you. It’s hard to describe with words but is very much like being in the room when a baby is born. Isn’t that odd?

I’m sure that the experience is as unique as the individuals involved. That stands to reason. But it’s left me with no doubt that there is something real, very real, beyond this life. I was raised in a household of faith and can’t remember a time when I did not believe that. But now, I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I’ve experienced it. 

Ten months after losing Dad, my mother was in her last days. As I cared for her, I was a bystander to conversations she had with people I could neither see nor hear. Usually, it was with my dad, her partner in life for 67 years. One morning I remember distinctly, she woke and was very lucid. That was happening less frequently, so I made a point to sit and talk with her. She told me she and dad had had the best time together. She laughed and smiled as she talked about it. They sat on a bench, held hands and just talked for hours. She couldn’t describe to me the place where they had been, only that it was beautiful. My father had been gone less than a year, and I was missing him terribly. I wanted so much to talk with him, or at least know what he had said. And mom tried, she really tried to recall their conversation so she could share it with me, but she couldn’t. All she kept saying is that it had been wonderful. 

It wasn’t many days later that I began to set alarms throughout the day and night to wake me so that I could administer mom’s pain medication. The nurses told me it wouldn’t be very long. In my mind, I kept replaying the scene of her holding my dad’s hand as he passed away. I was so thankful that she was with us and I could be there with her. One day, I rose to the alarm, checked on her and went to go draw the medication, by the time I returned, she was gone. I saw her face and knew she was gone. Her expression was so like my father’s, I just knew. Her hand was out as if holding onto something, and her eyes were upturned with a look that I can only describe as ‘anticipation’.

There was no hint on her brow of the pain she had been in just moments before. It was the same with my father. After decades of constant pain from a back injury, there had been no hint of discomfort on his brow as he passed. I remember thinking how smooth his face looked, like that of a much younger man. And now, mom had that same smooth forehead and brow. Peaceful. Restful. Happy. 

I went and told my husband, then returned to her beside and texted my brothers. We had been in almost constant contact for a few days, and I had to let them know. Then, I laid my head on her hand and I sobbed. 

I visited the cemetery where my parents were buried for the first time since their passing just a few days ago. I now have a better understanding of the phrase, “set in stone”. I’m just naive enough that I had not anticipated any type of reaction when I saw the headstone. I knew it was there. My oldest brother had sent a photo of it. I knew they were gone. I was with them when they left. I thought I was prepared.  But seeing it set in stone made it more ‘real’. Seeing their names with the dates of their births and their deaths set in stone was jarring. I stood there and stared at that stone as the reality of loss hit me on a whole new level. Carving something in stone is permanent. Final. Unchangeable. It brought fresh grief. 

  I often think about the lives that were lived between those dates. They were lives filled with challenges, changes, and choices.  Lives with struggles and fears, victories and joys. Lives not filled with the riches of this world, but rather with riches that come from investment in the next world. Their treasures are in Heaven. And these two lovely people, who are among my greatest treasures, are now in Heaven as well. 


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