Lucinda Williams is singing on the radio: “Don’t buy a fancy funeral–it’s not worth it in the end.” I took this picture of my parents in front of Dulles Airport in September 1974, nearly thirty-five years ago, more than half my life ago, a full broken heart ago, a heart broken both because of wounds it received and because of distances it enforced.

They had come from East Tennessee to Washington to visit me for the weekend, one of the few times they ever came together. With what hopes and fears, anticipations and regrets they made the trip I do not know. I cannot remember how I felt but I remember that I tried: tried to show them a good time, tried to make everything okay, took them to brunch at the Watergate, where the fine service was too formal for them, I realized too late.

We weren’t entirely easy together, even during the good times, even during the best of times. The years of his drinking and their fighting had taken something out of me, something I did not know was gone, something I did not know how to replace. And on Sunday afternoon, or maybe it was Saturday because we went to brunch on Sunday, “Why don’t we take a drive?” we wound up at Dulles Airport.

Where I took their picture, where I put them in their place, where the distance in my own wounded heart spread out onto the asphalt parking lot. I didn’t know till the slide came back, after they had gone home, what I had done. When I saw how tiny they were, how innocent and hopeful, there for my taking, there for my loving. But then all I could do was fix them at a distance too far for touching.

This picture has stood all these years as silent accusation for what I’ve taken to be my hard-heartedness–but now I see something more. I see them together. They had each other and they understood, and in that they could begin to forgive themselves and were able to forgive me. I see an innocence that had not been lost in what could be the hell of our life together. It had been hell before. It would be again, yet that afternoon the broad light was both just and merciful. I could not see that till just now, through my tears.

When I first determined to write about my Mama and my Daddy in front of Dulles and wondered about a title, I considered, “What you can’t forgive your own heart–may it grow love like roses on a bush.” For a title it’s a bit wordy, but something has grown these sad years. And its aroma is sweet.