My parents were marked. I should say the place where my parents resided was marked on the map. How nice. Since my car was in a paid parking lot, I asked if I would have to pay for the time there. The woman behind the visitor's desk stared at me as if she thought I might be an idiot or just plain stupid. She advised me that I would not have to pay. I just needed to take a little piece of paper that she now handed me and present it to the parking attendant. She suggested I ask the traffic attendants what to do from there. What I wanted to suggest to her would not at all have been polite. But at least the thought of this brought some twisted comfort.
So, I took my map with a mark indicating where my parents would be found, a piece of receipt paper for the parking lot attendant and the yellow card with "No Touring" on it. The lovely lady told me to keep it visible in my front windshield while I was driving in the cemetery. The card would allow me to park along the road and visit my parents without being towed. Maybe she meant to write, "No Towing."
"Dragon lady," I muttered under my breath.
My friend put his hands on my shoulders and told me that things were going to be okay and that he was glad to learn that family members did not have to pay to visit their loved one's graves. We both got back in my car, drove to the parking attendant to hand him my receipt that allowed me to leave the lot without paying and onward we went to find out what entrance I was to take to make my way to somewhere I really didn't want to go in the first place.
To no surprise to me, I was instantly lost. There were people on both sides of the road and walking in the middle of the road as well. Some looked at me as if I had no right to take up the road. The only right that I wanted was to make it to a headstone, marked with a certain number and two people's names and leave before I threw up.
Seeing a cemetery security car, I immediately began to follow the vehicle and waited until it stopped to ask the driver for some help. After looking at the map I had been given, the woman smiled and told me not to worry. She said she would be happy to help me find my way. Thank you, God for that woman.
The security officer drove around, I followed and we ended up in a place where she pulled over and told me that I could park anywhere I needed to and asked that I just keep the yellow card visible in my front windshield. I was beginning to sweat. And it wasn't from the heat of the day.
My friend and I had an entire lot or area or whatever it was called in front of us. Somewhere, with all of these headstones in front of us, we would find my parents. Neither of us spoke a word. We simply began hunting for a number. After 20 minutes or so, I began to get frustrated, irritated and began to feel a tear trickle down my right cheek. I hated this place. I hated everyone who was walking around. I couldn't sense that people were there in reverance but more to stare at white headstones. And I couldn't find my parents. My friend assured me we would find the right headstone.
Finally, I found my brother, who had been killed in the Vietnam War. He was a helicopter pilot, who had been shot down and killed by enemy fire. But where were my parents? Was I in the wrong area altogether? What now? I fell to my knees, my eyes welling up with more tears. I knew that President Nixon had the flag at the White House fly at half mast following the death of my father. I also knew my father was granted permission to be buried with his eldest son, known as "M." But what I still didn't know waswhere my parents were.
I didn't want to be walking around this cemetery any more with all of these spectators witnessing my emotional breakdown. And my trip to D.C. had turned into an emotional roller coaster, far from where it was ever intended to become. My friend walked close to me, letting his hand gently touch my shoulder. He walked around the headstone. There they were. The headstone had been used for my brother and both my parents - one side for my brother and the other for my parents.
I moved to the other side of the headstone, knelt down and took my right hand to place it upon the words etched on the headstone. I don't know that it really was for any other reason but to get as close as I could to two people who should still have been alive. Neither one should have been here. All three of us should have been anywhere but here. I can't begin to capture in words, the gut-wrenching agony of my physical and mental defragmentation. I felt as if I were in limbo and unable to comprehend my feelings, emotions, even the realization that my parents were here in front of me in the only way I would ever have the ability to see, hear or know them. This was all I had. This was all that was left.
Now, I began to understand how much I ached for my parents. I also knew how I hated to feel the seams of my emotions, like 20-foot swells of ocean waves crashing again and again and again against anything in the way. I would not let myself to fall apart publicly. I asked my friend to allow me to have some time alone. Without a word, he understood and decided to walk up the hill where the Kennedys were laid to rest, to blend in with the tourists and allow me the time alone with the white marble headstone that represented my parents.
I looked at the names and read them in my mind - Merriman Smith and Gailey J. Smith. I finally let the tears fall from my eyes. he dam burst and it was a needed relief. After a few minutes, I decided to talk to them both, as if they could actually hear me. I asked for their prayers. I asked for their love and shared an odd laugh with them as we all knew the truth. The truth, as we knew it, wasn't something anyone else knew, or at least had all the pieces to yet. It was one of the reasons I was writing my book. The story would allow parents and those planning to be parents to fully comprehend the meaning and responsibility of a life both mother and father are to watch over and guide.
Maybe going through this day, the parking lot, the visitor's desk employees and the hundreds of men, women and children milling around these sacred grounds without much real understanding of what was all around them was necessary, and even important, to moving forward with my story, my book, "Lies. Betrayal. God."
A few minutes later, I heard someone trying to get my attention.
I turned around to see a large red tour bus and a man in the driver's seat motioning for me to come speak with him. I got up and walked toward the man. He asked me if I was related to the person buried where I was kneeling. I told him I was.
"Wasn't he a famous news photographer," the tour bus driver asked with a smile as if he knew something that would surprise me by his attention to detail with the many men and women buried here.
"No, Merriman Smith was Dean of the White House Press Corps.," I said. "He won a Pulitzer Prize for the written account of the death of President John F. Kennedy."
"Oh. Okay, thanks," the bus driver said eagerly with a smile, now having another bit of trivia to add to his tour bus tales.
Could I have expected anything more? It was 2010 now. My father received a Pulitzer Prize for the written account of the death of John F. Kennedy, an event that happened almost 50 years ago. And my father received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1967 from then President Lyndon Johnson. Known as 'Smitty,' my father ended each press conference with, "Thank you, Mr. President." This was even the title of one of his five books he authored. Dad had been on such TV shows as Meet The Press, Face The Nation, Reporter's Roundtable, Who Said That?, and The Tonight Show.
No, I thought to myself, he wasn't a famous news photographer. But as we all know, life is meant for the living and not for those long departed, no matter what their contribution. At least that’s how I felt. But not remembering the past, and the people, including my father, who did some extraordinary things in his day...well, maybe these individuals should be respected and recognized every once in awhile, including this century...just for a moment.
And maybe, sharing the behind-the-scenes of a family’s journey, the unexpected and never expected, would put many things into perspective. Some knew and some didn’t of my time putting the various stories down, one chapter at a time. This was going to be another painful journey for me to complete. To many, the contents of my book wouldn’t be believed. But I knew all was true. I had lived it. I still was living it.
I saw my friend headed back my way. I touched the headstone once more. It was time to go.