Saturday, April 30, 2011
Ashes to Ashes
A handful of cousins will join my sister, brother, and me at the graveyard in our hometown this summer, to lay my parents—the last of their generation—to rest. We tried to do this last year, but it just wasn’t time—plans were blocked, schedules didn’t flow, flights weren’t available. Hindsight: it wasn’t time, emotionally, for any of us. So, my folks’ ashes rested in two cardboard containers, at my brother’s house in Colorado, until we were ready to let them go.
Intuitively, we know the time has come. All the arrangements have fallen into place seamlessly; cousins’ schedules were cleared so they could join us; the motel where our folks stayed in their visits back to Iowa had rooms to spare.
My folks were crazy about their kids, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren. If ashes in a box could smile, they’d be grinning from corner to corner at this mini-reunion. In my writer’s mind, they are very much present in my life. Hence, the following series of vignettes:
For a year and a half, my wife and I sat on our youngest son’s mantle, in two small cardboard boxes, waiting to be buried. People would think ashes—cremains as we’re now called—can’t hear, but they would be wrong. A Hospice nurse told me when my wife lay dying in the family room, with the sun streaming in and the birds chirping and squirrels chattering back and forth just outside the window, that hearing is the last sense to go. I’m thinking she had no idea how true her words were.
The same is true for speaking—oh, not with words anymore, a charred larynx pretty much puts an end to that—but by thought form. My wife has the loudest thoughts of anyone I’ve ever known.
“Who was that on the phone earlier?” I thought to her. “I wasn’t paying attention.”
“The eldest. Seems they’re making plans to lay us to rest in the cemetery back home as we’d requested,” she thought back to me.
“’Bout time,” I thought. “Just sitting around collecting dust is depressing. Besides, it’s so loud above ground, a person can’t get a decent rest.”
“You talk. You used to sit upright in your chair with the TV blaring, paper held open in front of you, and fall into a dead sleep.”
“It was different then,” I defended. “I wasn’t as highly attuned.”
“Yes, no one told us about that. Wonder if there’s anyway to forewarn the kids?”
“Some things just aren’t meant to be known before their time, mother.”
* * *
“FedEx? I don’t want to travel FedEx. You’ve seen how those men drive—get bounced around all over creation and back. I thought he was driving. Nice new Saturn, now that’s the way to travel,” she thought to me.
“Too long a trip to take on his own. You know he’d try to drive straight through, probably fall asleep at the wheel, wind up in a ditch somewhere. Then, where’d we be?”
“You’re right. These boxes aren’t made for running into ditches. That could be a real mess. Why can’t we fly on the airplane with him?” she thought.
“He’d have to buy an extra seat—seems we’re not in the luggage category,” I thought.
“Well, that’s good to know.”
* * *
“So, do we get to use your grandmother’s grave or not?” my wife thought to me.
“Apparently. The eldest explained to the funeral home people that Grandma never made it home to use her plot. Divorce wasn’t popular back then, and she wasn’t welcomed back home after she ran off—even though her grave was prepaid,” I thought.
“Terrible waste of money,” she thought. “I’m glad we can put it to good use.”
* * *
“Ah, the younger generation. Just listen to all the ‘do you remember when’ stories the kids and their cousins are telling each other. I truly miss that,” I thought to my wife. “And listen to those sweet harmonies on ‘I Come to the Garden Alone.’ We sang that after their cousin died years ago, didn’t we?”.
“Certainly did. Not a dry eye in the house. It’s good they plunked us right down in the middle of everything so we can hear,” she thought.
“Especially since I don’t have my hearing aids with me.”
“You never wore the darned things anyway. I spent the last decade of my life yelling at you,” she thought to me.
“That you did, dear. That you did.”
* * *
“Oh for goodness sake,” my wife thought to me, “tell me they’re not really arguing about who gets to put us in the hole? Or maybe it’s who has to put us in the hole.”
“I hope it’s not going to be one of those ‘you’re the oldest, so you should . . .whatever,’” I thought.
“Or, ‘I’m the middle child, I never get to . . .whatever,” she thought back to me.
“We never did resolve that issue did we, mother?”
“What issues is that?”
“Well, there’s the eldest, and the youngest, but what does that leave us calling the middle kid? There you go—there’s no proper name for her position,” I thought.
“Let’s just caller the middlest, and be done with it. I vote the middlest lay us in the grave,” my wife thought.
* * *
“Now what?” I thought, as our boxes sit in the heavy warmth of an Iowa summer morning. Our children and their cousins sniffle and blow their noses. The singing has stopped, and the only sounds to be heard are the calling of the crows and the distant hum of a lawnmower.
“Sounds like they’re afraid that putting us in the ground will be the end of something,” my wife thought after listening really hard.
“Good grief,” I thought, “don’t they know there is no end? Just the next version? That we’ll still be watching over and listening in, along with all the ancestors, for eternity? A little dirt certainly isn’t going to change all that.”
“They may not be ready for that one,” my wife thought.
* * *
“Hold on, dear,” I thought to her. “Here we go.”
“Ahh,” she thought, “it’s so much cooler here. Time for a nap,” she thought.
“Good night, dear. Rest in peace,” I thought to her.