Sunday, April 5, 2009

Ashes

Today is my dad's birthday. He would be 62 years old.

Ten years ago on what would have been his 52nd birthday, I, my brother, my dad's wife, and a couple of my dad's closest friends gathered to scatter his ashes in the ocean where he loved to fish.

There are certain events that stand out in my memory like a series of photographs. That day is one of those events.

Everything surrounding the gathering was strained. My own marriage was in shambles and I was planning to drop the bomb on my husband after this trip and leave him for good (I ended up being sweet-talked with promises by him into staying, but I did leave him a few weeks later, only to return, and then a few weeks after that, to finally leave for good . . . but that's a whole other story). My brother and his wife (who was also there) and I were estranged and had been for some time, but we were thrown together to say our final good-byes to my dad. And things had always been strained between my dad's wife and me, during the entire 17 years they were married. I think she never was able to accept my dad's kids from his first marriage, especially since she wanted kids of her own and never had them.

All of us from "down south" as my dad called it (meaning Southern California, as opposed to Central/Northern California where he lived during the last several years of his life) made the 5-hour drive up to Ben Lomond for this occasion. We stayed at my dad's house by invitation from Robin, his wife. It was bizarre - there we were all in the same house but most of us not even on speaking terms with one another.

On April 5, my dad's birthday, a friend of my dad's was going to take us out on the ocean in his boat so we could scatter his ashes. The day dawned with rain and wind that grew more fierce as the morning wore on. My husband stayed behind at the house with Kevin, who was only 2 at the time, while we made the trip to the coast. I remember being in the back seat of my dad's car while my dad's friend and Robin, my dad's wife, were in the front seat. I don't remember who was in the back seat with me, but I remember my stomach being in knots during the entire drive, and I remember Robin talking about how she was going to have a will drawn up to make sure that when she died, her neices would get everything. My dad died without a will, and we, his kids, got nothing monetary when he died. I don't know what I expected. I know that they were pretty well off and I think my dad would have wanted his kids to get something, but left to Robin, it's not surprising that we got nothing. Still, I remember thinking how absolutely crass and hurtful it was that she was talking about who she was going to leave her money to at a time like that, with me right there in the back seat and still reeling from my dad's death.

The weather was horrible by this time, and we were driving down the winding mountain road at a snail's pace. It became obvious that we were not going to be able to take a boat out onto the ocean in that weather. I think there was some discussion about what we should do: abandon the plan to scatter his ashes on his birthday and come back to do it when the weather improved? Or make our way to the harbor anyway and decide then?

We arrived at the shore and everyone got out of their cars. It was freezing cold and pouring rain. Clearly we couldn't go out on the boat. What to do? Somehow it was decided that we would just scatter his ashes off the pier.

The next picture I see in my memory is of us gathered around a hole cut out in the pier. There was a wood railing around it, and looking down, the ocean sloshed around wildly about 15 feet below. Robin had a boom box with music she wanted to have playing as we scattered his ashes, but I don't recall the song. I'm sure the stormy weather drowned it out anyway.

My brother had the box of my dad's ashes in his hands. How was it, I wondered, that the 6'1" man I knew as my father could be reduced to fit inside a box that could be held in my brother's hand? He opened the box, and inside was a clear plastic bag that contained the remains of my dad. It seemed completely inconceivable that the man who had always seemed bigger than life to me was reduced to what looked like sand. That was my dad. That was all that was left of him, all that was left of the bear hugs and the big hand I held so many times.

My brother opened the bag and let the ashes fall through the hole in the pier to the water below. It somehow felt like we were cheating. This wasn't what we had planned, and it seemed like a sorry excuse of ceremony to say our final good-byes. I'm sure my dad would not have cared. He was the type of man who never wanted a fuss made over him, and he was uncomfortable being the center of attention. He probably would have chuckled over the fuss that was being made. As his ashes fell to the water below, the wind and rain whipped like mad, and a strange thing happened: my dad's ashes were whipped around by the wind and rain and suddenly it was in my hair and clothes and on my skin. And in a strange way, it seemed right. I wasn't creeped out or disgusted. It was my dad. Maybe that was his final embrace. We dropped roses into the water after the ashes and stood there for a while watching it all be churned by the ocean and disappear.

We drove back to my dad's house afterwards, and I still had his ashes clinging to my hair and face. I didn't want to wipe any of it away. It felt like he was with me in a way. When we got back to the house, I didn't tell my husband about it. It belonged to me, it was my secret, my memory, and I didn't want to taint it by sharing it with someone who was causing me so much pain. I kept it to myself for a long time. And when the time came for me to wash my dad's ashes out of my hair and off my skin, I watched it swirl down the shower drain and said good-bye.
~~~
This rocking chair and teddy bear are two of the few things I have of my dad's. The rocking chair originally belonged to my dad and my mother when they were still together. The teddy bear was my dad's from babyhood. It's stuffed with sawdust and is torn and threadbare, which makes it all the more precious.

3 comments:

Tricia said...

Wow! Very powerful.

Leigh Anne said...

i have no words...just emotion. amazing story lisa!

Liz said...

Very powerful and honest. Thank you for sharing this story... Thank you for sharing your dad.