The weather on Sunday afternoon, September 12, 2004 was hot and the wind was still. It seemed the perfect day for my sister and I to take care of Mom’s ashes.
When Mom died, Dad didn’t know what to do with the ashes. In his view the moment that Mom died we were left with, in the words of St. Paul, ‘the clay jar’. He didn’t want a burial, and he sure didn't want an urn in his apartment, so when the Funeral Director suggested that we might sponsor a tree in the local arboretum where we could sprinkle her ashes, it seemed the perfect solution.
Unfortunately Dad fell and broke his back shortly after Mom died and so the disposition of the ashes had been delayed. And it became obvious that, even as his health improved his emotional state was very vulnerable. We all knew that this next task (clay jar or not!) would be too difficult for him to face, but he was anxious for it to be done. So, about two months following Mom’s death my sister and I went to the arboretum. We had already selected a young Thomas Black Walnut set well back from the road. In our mind we thought it would be better for Dad not to have to see the tree every time he passed the arboretum.
I had agreed to pick up the ashes from the Funeral Home and when they handed me the cloth bag that held a small cardboard box my first thought was – wow, this weighs almost as much as Mom (she always was tiny and when she died she was down to less than 50 lbs). But my second thought, surprisingly to me, was ‘this box contains my mom’. I say ‘surprisingly’ because I know that box didn’t contain ‘Mom’. My heart knows that what it contained was the remains of her ‘clay jar’ but still…… it was a very strange feeling and I was surprised at the intensity of my emotions.
My sister and I drove to the arboretum the next day with hoe, camera, wind chimes and ashes in hand. She carefully raked back the mulch around the base of the tree and then made a furrow in the soil. She said it was like the circle of life and that it would allow us to distribute Mom’s ashes in a continuous flow. A lovely thought.
But first we had to open the box. Not an easy feat! The cardboard was taped tightly shut so we had to struggle a bit with that. Not only that, but prominently placed on the top of the box was a typed label with Mom’s name on it. The two of us looked at each other for a moment then moved on. We finally got the box opened, expecting to find a bag of ashes. However, what was inside the cardboard box was a green plastic box marked ‘temporary container’ and again labeled with Mom’s name. There was no easy way to open the green box and so we had to use my car keys to pry open the top before finally reaching the plastic bag. It was kind of like opening a gift when someone has packaged a small box into a bigger box and then again into another bigger box and on and on ….. a bit bizarre actually.
We looked at the plastic bag filled with gray dust but also containing bits and pieces, some small and others a few inches long. It was surreal. This has been our Mom. Silently we poured the ashes ‘round and ‘round the tree until the plastic bag was emptied. We then sat down on opposite sides of the tree and, with tears flowing down our faces, pushed the mulch and soil to cover what remained of our mother’s ‘clay jar’. After sitting quietly together for a while we hung the tiny wind chime, took a few photo’s for Dad, and left.
Dad died this past summer, at 95 years old, four years to the day after Mom. Following his wishes, which had been clearly and frequently articulated during the previous four years, we arranged the cremation and took the ashes, ready to be scattered around the same tree.
However, it wasn’t exactly the same tree. The spring after Mom’s death we received a call that all of the Black Walnut trees had some kind of disease. We were offered the option of either planting a new, different, tree in the same location or simply choosing a tree in another location. This time Dad was able to participate and he selected a young maple tree that was very close to the road. Funny, six months earlier my sister and I had selected a tree far from view thinking that it would be better for Dad. Yet when Dad had his choice he wanted one he could see as he went by. Appropriate really I suppose, after 63 years of marriage if must have offered some comfort. Disconcerting too though when, on my visits he’d often ask – as we drove by the arboretum – “would you like to say hello to your Mom?”
My brother-in-law, knowing how upset my sister had been when the Black Walnut died, had gone over one afternoon with a shovel and a bucket and removed everything from around its base and placed it around the new tree. Mom had moved!
So, we were now in the position of having to dispose of Dad’s ashes around Mom’s tree. We had learned however from our experience with Mom and so, before we left the house we opened all the containers. We also remarked on how much heavier ‘Dad’ was compared to ‘Mom’.
And then the rain started. So we waited. And we waited. And at about 9pm we set out. In the dark and the wet. Surrounded by mosquitos.
Did I mention it was dark? Did I mention that this tree was right at the corner of the main intersection?
So, there we are, flashlight, trowel, hand rake and a box full of ‘Dad’. My sister was being eaten alive by the mosquito’s as she held the flashlight and I hacked away with trowel and rake around the base of tree.
This had been MUCH easier on a warm, sunny, Sunday afternoon far off from the busy roadway!
All we could imagine was that one of the dozens of cars that seemed to have chosen that particular moment to drive by would report “strange activity” and the police would come to investigate. And so we started to laugh. Each time a car went by we’d turn off the flashlight – leaving me digging away in the total darkness while she slapped at the swarms of insects that surrounded her. Then the car would pass, the flashlight would come on – who knows, we may have been giving off some bizarre morse code messages - and I’d begin to empty the bag of ‘Dad’ around the tree. Each time we turned off the flashlight we laughed harder. By the time we had finally finished our task we were laughing so hard we could hardly stumble back to the car and get off home again.
No ‘circle of life’ or hanging the symbolic wind-chime for Dad. No sitting quietly together in contemplation. No, more like a Monty Python or Fawlty Towers skit. And in reality, because of their personalities, it really was much more appropriate. We imagine that Dad heartily enjoyed every minute of the farce.
But still, after Mom’s ‘circle of life’ ceremony and Dad’s ‘Monty Python Meaning of Life’ ceremony, they’re side by side again. Just as they always were in life. And now always will be. Both in heaven and on earth.