Burial At Sea

My sister was in a rush. Everything needed to be done right away. She said my mother needed closure.

You can rush through the usual rituals following death. But you cannot rush grief.

Still she was determined.

My father was in Hospice for five nights. The family gathered during the day: my mother, my sister, all the grandchildren but one. I’m not sure why that one didn’t come to tell my father goodbye. We each handle death and grieving differently, I suppose. One of our gatherings included one of my dead brother’s sons, two nieces, my sister, and my mother. Hospice pressed us to make plans. We agreed on cremation and scattering my father’s ashes in the Gulf of Mexico. My father loved the ocean.

My nephew, who still had my brother’s ashes, said he thought it would be nice to scatter his ashes at the same time. My father and his first-born son. His namesake. It seemed right. As right as burying a father and son at the same time could be.

My father died in Hospice at 6:00 a.m. Thursday, October 18, 2012. My sister made arrangements for his body to be cremated in time for the service two days later, on Saturday. My sister assigned to me the task of finding a boat to take us out into the Gulf of Mexico to scatter the ashes. She insisted it had to be done on Saturday, November 3, two weeks after the service.

I found Captain Joey on the internet. He captained a fishing boat, and also performed ash scattering services. He had an opening on November 3, but with 11 of us, we would need two boats. He assured me that my mother, who was only somewhat ambulatory, could board.

The weather in Houston on November 3 was stormy. We thought Captain Joey might call things off. But he said skies were clear in Galveston and the trip was on. I picked my mother up. And my father’s ashes. My mom had dozens of gorgeous roses that my ex-sister-in-law had given her the day before. We would be scattering the ashes of her ex-husband, the father of her children, and her ex-father-in-law. A lovely gesture.

We met at the Galveston Yacht Club, where years ago my dad kept his sailboat. We had sailed on these waters many beautiful weekends when he was younger. Before the dementia.

Captain Joey arrived at the dock along with another boat. It seemed at first that my mother would not be able to board after all. There were too many tall steps. The boat moved with the swells. She was nervous. And rightly so. Eventually we gave up and decided to try with the other boat. This time, after making the steps much smaller by stacking seat cushions on top of one another, she made it aboard. She was determined. I was very proud of her. My mother has surprised me many times over the past months with her strength and determination. I love seeing the woman she is. The woman I didn’t see when my father was alive.

It’s odd, the blossoming that occurs.

There were brown pelicans on the dock. My mother told me that she and my dad had often said the pelicans were their relatives. I think they saw the souls in those dark eyes. My mother told me she had worried that she wouldn’t see any of the birds that day. She thought perhaps now that my father was gone, so too were the pelicans.

But there they were, on the dock and pilings. They stood there, blinking at her.

We boarded the two boats, and we headed out toward the ship channel. It was late afternoon, the day before Daylight Saving began. The sun sparkled on the water. More pelicans flew overhead, diving for their dinner. We spotted dolphins. And the wind was cool. It was a little choppy and from time to time, we had to hold on as the boat bounced off the waves.

There was laughter. There was joy.

We went out past the ship channel until we reached the spot. We tied the two boats together and paused, becoming more solemn. The day we made the decision to move my father to Hospice, they gave us the Blue Book. I read it to my mother that first evening, and we cried together. At the back of the book is a poem by Henry Van Dyke. It seemed he wrote it with my father in mind. I knew it was what I wanted to read before we scattered my father’s ashes.

As the boats tossed on the waves, and the sun shone down on us, sparkling on the water, here is what I read:

I am standing upon the seashore. A ship, at my side,
spreads her white sails to the moving breeze and starts
for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength.
I stand and watch her until, at length, she hangs like a speck
of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.

Then, someone at my side says, “There, she is gone”

Gone where?

Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast,
hull and spar as she was when she left my side.
And, she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.

Her diminished size is in me — not in her.
And, just at the moment when someone says, “There, she is gone,”
there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices
ready to take up the glad shout, “Here she comes!”

And that is dying…

I finished reading the poem and gazed out at the horizon. A ship.

We each threw a rose in the water for my brother. My nephews, in the boat next to me, scattered my brothers ashes. We then each threw a rose in the water for my father. The roses trailed in a row on the sparkling surface as my mother reached her hand into the box holding my father’s ashes. She reached out over the side of the boat and let her husband’s ashes slip through her fingers into the Gulf. Next, I looked inside the box. My father’s ashes were beautiful. The color of sand, and they glistened. I was surprised. I thought they would be dark, like the ash in a fireplace. I took a handful of my father’s ashes, and scattered them into the Gulf, imagining them joining up with my brother. My sister and her husband then emptied the remainder of my father’s ashes into the sea. My mother had brought along a wooden chipmunk. I had given it to my parents for Christmas one year, and they had decided it was my father’s chipmunk. My father always had a favorite chipmunk he fed at the cabin on Lake Superior. My mom threw the chipmunk into the Gulf, and it floated away with the roses.

The tears flowed down my cheeks behind my sunglasses. I held my mother’s hand as she cried quietly.

Captain Joey untied the boats, and we headed back to shore as the sun began to set. It was a beautiful sunset, the clouds pink and the pelicans flying overhead, the dolphins swimming alongside us.

And so my father returned to the sea that he loved.


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