My father died in April 2005. In a strange way, his death was expected but not expected. My father had been ill all of my life. He was diagnosed with kidney disease in 1970 when he was 29 and as my mom tells me, she never expected him to live long enough for them to marry or have kids much less last for another 35 years. I had 25 years with him during which time I learned how attitude trumps everything. His medical file was a tome which included dialysis, a kidney transplant and subsequent rejection, steroid-induced diabetes, losing the kidney after 7 years, being given an 80% chance of dying after massive doses of steroids that were injected in the hope of saving the kidney caused massive abscesses in his body, amputation of all of his toes followed 14 years later by both legs, and a host of other opportunistic infections along the way. By the 90s, he didn’t have a belly button from all of the surgeries but he figured out how to golf with no toes.
Yet, my dad had the most present spirit I have ever encountered. Nothing was ever wrong with his lungs and he would shout whatever nickname he had picked for me on the day up the stairs to get my attention. He annoyed the hell out of me to teach me how to handle the annoyances I would surely encounter in the world. But he also taught me how to be present for people and to the world around me. He encouraged my travels and would ask questions like “what did it smell like” when I returned, a question that might never have crossed my mind being able-bodied and able to go where I wanted when I wanted. He lived his life to fullest that he could and everyone had a story about him.
When he died, I was across the world, living in Australia with my boyfriend. I hadn’t seen him for the last 10 months of his life, which he spent almost entirely in a hospital. But him and my mother insisted that I not come home during that time, that I needed to be living my life. Also, I think my dad knew he was dying and didn’t really want me to see him like that. When my mom called and told he had died, I had to deal with the logistics of flying 20+ hours but it also meant I had a lot of time to think. I realized I wasn’t exactly sure of my parents’ funeral plans but I was a bit relieved to find out that my dad was to be cremated and we had a service at a funeral home and a celebration luncheon after.
We had a stand-in urn at the service since my dad hadn’t been cremated by the day of the funeral. A few days later we picked up the quite small urn my mom had chosen, a pendant urn for her to wear, and the remaining ashes in a plastic bag in a cardboard box. A surprisingly heavy cardboard box. I remember looking at it and thinking the physical cumulation of my 6’3 father (who was actually closer to 4’ since he had had both legs amputated within those last 10 months) was in this bag. Cremation doesn’t reduce down to as fine an ash as you would expect and you could still see chips of bone and teeth in the bag. This was my dad. The smile, the laugh, the singing, the hobbly walk that my mom said looked like one of those alien dudes that worked in the office in Men in Black… all of that reduced to dust in a bag.
A couple of days after the funeral, I couldn’t sleep so I went downstairs to my dad’s office in the back of our house and I sat in his chair and thought and cried. My mom heard me and came out to talk. During our talk, she asked if it would help if I got a pendant urn like hers to carry some of his ashes with me. So I did. I actually found a beautiful one on a website that sold urns for your pets. I knew he would find that hilarious. When I received it, we had to figure out how to get the ashes into this tiny tube. It felt strangely sacrilegious for someone who doesn’t believe in organized religion but I rolled up a piece of paper to make a funnel and grabbed a plastic spoon and dug into the ashes. It didn’t take much to fill the vial but it was the most surreal experience of my life. Here I was digging into the remains of my father with a plastic spoon. When I was done, I told my mom I didn’t know what to do. It again felt wrong to rinse it off, for my dad to go down the drain. So she took the spoon and wiped it off and somehow it was ok that the woman who had taken care of him for so long had done it.
I’m often complimented on my pendant and asked if something is inside of it. Some think it’s a mezuzah (a Jewish scroll pendant), someone once asked me if I carry my drugs in it (jokingly, I think). I then have to quickly judge how receptive I think this person is to the idea of carrying human remains around your neck. Most find it… I don’t know…touching, nice. It’s hard to say because I think people appreciate the sentiment but they never quite know how to respond to it. I think that’s part of the reason I tell people anyway… just to see their reaction.
When I returned to Australia after his death, my mom and I also started a tradition of carrying some of my dad’s ashes with us to spread in the places we visited. Like I mentioned before, my dad always encouraged me to travel, see new places, and meet new people. Especially when he was on dialysis, traveling for my dad was difficult. If he traveled outside of the country, health insurance wouldn’t cover his 3 times a week dialysis and each treatment would cost $800. So after his death, we would take one of his many pill bottles, fill it with ashes, and spread them somewhere we thought he’d like. So far he’s in our backyard in New Jersey, Chicken Bone Beach in Atlantic City where he grew up, the Atlantic off of the Bahamas, a garden in Hawaii, overlooking Uluru in the outback of Australia, on a golf course in the Wicklow Mountains of Ireland, off of Table Mountain in South Africa, another garden in Kenya, the Indian Ocean off of Tanzania, and a clifftop in Portugal.
I took my mom to Australia in 2009 since she had never gotten to visit me in the 3 years I lived there. And being a nosy mother, she wanted to see where I spent some of my years. We visited Uluru first and decided to take a Harley tour around the giant rock. When I had spread my dad’s ashes there in 2005, I was on a backpacker’s tour that had graciously stopped the bus for me outside of the park and held all of the other photo-hungry travelers on the bus while I ran up a giant sand dune and spread my dad’s ashes among the red sand. I didn’t really know where we were but I took a photo of the view to show my mom. When we took our Harley tour, we stopped for a rest at a lay-by. I asked our guides if there was another one along that one road into the park and they replied no. Unintentionally, we had stopped at the same place that I had spread his ashes. The dunes had shifted, as they do, so the scenery was different but I got to show my mom the first place I left dad’s ashes.
My mom now has my dad’s ashes in the original small, blue urn but she put the remaining ones from the plastic bag into a clear urn-like vase. When I go to her house, sometimes I sit there and just stare at them. Eight years later and the surreality is still there. This was my dad. When my mother dies, she also wants to be cremated and for me to mix her ashes with my father’s and then she doesn’t really mind what I do with them. I imagine I’ll hold onto them for a while and then who knows. Maybe dish some out to my brother and sister if they like. For me, I feel like I’ve reached the stage classified as closure about my dad. The ache of missing him will always be there but I’ve come to terms with not being there at the time of his death and I also know that to wish for him to be here today would be to wish him the pain he was in this life for the sake of my emotions and that would hurt more than missing him. Maybe I’ll realize that I’m getting more closure every time I bring a bit of him on my travels and the day that I decide to let go of both him and my mom will bring up emotions I didn’t anticipate. My father helped give me a great foundation and it was scary to have part of that ripped away at 25 but it taught me so much about myself that I wouldn’t change anything. I think by the time both parts of my foundation are gone, I’ll still have that dull ache but nothing but gratitude for what both of my parents instilled in me.
So almost everyday and everywhere I go, I physically and emotionally carry my dad with me. To me, keeping his ashes isn’t preventing any closure. I think of it like my wedding ring. My ring symbolizes the strength and commitment of my marriage. If I lost it, I would be upset but it is not the essence and substance of my marriage and would not lead to its destruction. It is humbling to see this pile of ashes that was the physical embodiment of my father and to realize how much more than that he was, how much more we all are. Sometimes I wonder if the lessons that I’ve learned and my characteristics that I attribute to my father are really how it happened. I definitely remember some lessons he taught me: don’t work too hard if it means you’re not enjoying life, being brutally honest can be done kindly, and there’s always something to laugh and smile about. I like to think that when I spread a bit of his ashes in all of these places, I’m also spreading a bit of that spirit.