“Your father finally sent me half of your brother’s ashes,” my mom told me.
It was a surreal kind of phone call. My puddle jumper plane from Long Beach had just landed at Sea-Tac airport on Thanksgiving evening. I had just stepped off the ladder and onto the tarmac to await my checked bag and turned on my phone. As soon as the screen turned on and connected to the network I had “Mom” appearing on my screen silently.
“Hello, Mom!” I answered.
My mom and I don’t talk often. Before Paul died we spoke even less. However, she was the only one from my family that called me to wish me a happy Thanksgiving.
Conversation is one of those things that you can’t predict. Even with no visual cues, you’re navigating the eddies and the jetties of tone, the phrasing, and silent pauses. She told me that Reinhold had made his annual trip up there for Thanksgiving. He drives the 7 – 8 hour trek up I-75 from Georgia to Ohio to spend time with my mom. It’s expected. It’s routine. It’s mom. It makes him happy. On this particular trip my dad had apparently decided to release half of Paul’s ashes to my mom in the care of Reinhold.
It made me pause. For the last two years his cremains had been sitting on his old bed in the bonus room in the upstairs of my dad’s house. The couple times I had visited since his death, I would see them and get a twinge of frustration and grief. How was that a way to honor him and his memory? Then I would breathe in deep and remember Reinhold at the funeral telling me that body wasn’t Paul anymore. And so those cremains didn’t hold what made my little brother unique any more than his empty body did.
I asked my mom, “So are you going to give them to grandpa like you said you would?”
After Paul died she told me that she was going to take her part of Paul’s ashes and give them to her father. She wanted to see him finally deal with grief. When his own mother died he didn’t have a funeral for her, and my mom wanted to give him Paul’s ashes to take out on his boat in the gulf and give them a proper send-off. Neither of her parents came to his funeral.
“No,” she replied.
Two years later after much thought she had come to another decision. My mom explained that there was a time she helped Paul move into his basement apartment up there in the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina. They went to a bluff of some kind (I can’t remember the name) and he had a reaction to the area.
He acted afraid. He sucked in his breath and wanted to back away. “Almost as if he thought he was going to fall over the edge,” my mom told me. “It was as if he knew he had to go over.” So she decided that she would make sure that at least some part of him did. I liked the sentiment and thought that if some of his sediment made its home in North Carolina it would satisfy him because that was the last place he chose to call home.
“You know he came to visit me on the night he died,” she continued. She described how she was in bed and felt as if there was this jolt, this inhale, or this call that came from him as he passed on. “Although, I don’t think he’s around anymore. He’s gone.” My mom sounded so forlorn in those last two words.
“No,” I responded in agreement, “I don’t think that he would be that interested hanging around and watching our petty little lives.” When Reinhold came to visit me this last July he asked me if I thought Paul was watching us from heaven. I told him the same thing. Why would Paul stick around just for us when there are better things out there to see?
But she was right. He’s gone. It’s strange that I find it necessary to remind myself of that fact. He’s gone. He died. All we have left now are his ashes and dust, now being divided and scattered.
Well, maybe not all gone. When he was alive he spent so much time connecting with people. Making friends and making family. I see the faces of the men he befriended in the military and the pictures of their kids to whom he became “Uncle Paul.” I see them and I am happy that even for a short time he was a force in their lives as well but I’m also sad for the hole that remains.
I suppose there’s something in the ritual of the funeral. Something to the act of looking upon the empty shell, scattering the ashes, and saying goodbye. So even after we’ve reminded ourselves that our loved ones are gone, why do we still cling so hard to what was and what should be instead of facing what is? Well I say “we” but here I am selfishly talking about me.
Ashes and dust; it’s all that remains.