7lbs of Ashes

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emotional health / mental health


CREMAINS (kri-meynz) – plural noun
1. The ashes of a cremated corpse.
Origin: 1945-50; blend of cremate and remains.

I never really thought much about what might happen to a body after the final dramatic breath had been taken, a pronouncement made regarding date and time of death by a man in a white doctors coat, and family was informed. Like any TV drama, I assumed tears were shed at the news, perhaps a howling, guttural “NOOOO!” was spewed forth by the gal with no frontal lobe controls that had a flair for the dramatic accentuated only by the twelve severe notes orchestrated as to enhance that particular moment with music. An affable camera man, stage left, would then motion for a commercial break.

To have or not to have a funeral was not part of the production. Not my problem after all. Then out of nowhere, POW! Suddenly it was I who must ponder these questions. My father died very unexpectedly in February as did my beloved dog three months later.

My father had already planned to forgo the funeral. Instead he went to the funeral home himself and ordered a graveside burial off the a la carte list of preferable death wishes. He was being considerate too, not only did he die in the dead of winter (no pun intended), but he let it happen at my sister and I’s convenience knowing that each of us lived a good ten hours away. Customarily in Maine if you happen to die in the winter you are cremated, shelved in a box similar to take-out food, I imagine, to wait until your burial sometime in the spring thaw or summer. We chose summer so we could have a little time to heal (forget/deny/drink heavily) before we had to jump back in and do any more reliving of our past. It sure seemed like a great idea at the time.

Naturally, I was more than a little curious about the process of death and its history of disposal and/or storage prior to ground breakage and insertion. Perhaps this was my strange way of distancing father from death, death from body. If I looked at my father (or even my pet) as a noun, a thing, if you will, that just happened to request cremation as its final destination opposed to flesh and bone ground implantation, then it could actually be a scientific type research exploration. Framed in that fashion it could actually be digestible. Somewhat.

Me: “Ok, so we just leave and you’ll deal with the cremation and storage of, er….dad?”
Funeral Director: “His ‘cremains’, yes, we will store his cremains in our storage facility. It’s perfectly normal to do that.”
Me: “’Cre-Mains’? Like cremation and remains? How clever. Well, what….I mean, how does that happen exactly?”
FD: “Well, your dad will be cremated and then the ashes will be placed in a box –“
Me: “Really? Like a square box…that a cake might come in?”
FD: “Well, kind of, but the cremains are kept sealed tightly within the box.”
Me: “What’s the average sized box for a man’s cremains these days?”
FD: “Well that varies with the size of the man and his bone structure. It’s the bones that turn to ashes, not the flesh, which burns right off.”
Me: “Ok, what about my father…kinda tall and thin, probably medium bone structure?”
FD: “Probably about seven pounds, I’d say, give or take.”
Me. “Wow. And how does one “cook” the bones?”
FD: “Extremely high heat…2000 degrees.”

Whoa (I’m thinking)…six times more heat than is necessary to broil a steak or bake chicken. I think I may now become a vegetarian.

Now that the burial for my father is in less than a week I am wondering what we were thinking. I don’t know if I can do this again. His death was totally, completely and utterly painful. It seems unbearable at this point to voluntarily send myself back into that pit of despair. Even graveside burials, it seems to me, should be done with a feeling of joy for the man’s life lived and for his ascent into heaven. I picture families sorrowful at missing the person and some still quite devastated even, but only for those of us still left on earth. Not so much for the deceased who are in “a better place” (says Hallmark). We still have our memories to keep us afloat, right?

Not so much in this case. My reason for percentage of tears shed will be directly proportionate to my life lived with this man who is my deceased father, or rather, his “cremains”. My tears are the same quality and quantity that lived all these years at the prospect of having a father who couldn’t ever be a father to me because he was always so ill. So you see, I’m not so sad that he’s dead, as I am that he never lived like I’d hoped he would someday. I have no memories of good times. All of our lives together were clouded with an agonizing film covering it. At what point would the man snap? How much tip toeing was enough to keep a balance of some sort?

Anything could set my father off. Too much noise, too little noise (what were we up to?); Hunger (why isn’t dinner ready?), exhaustion (leave me alone and let me sleep dammit!), insomnia (who wants to stay up with me and watch midnight moviefest?); the dog (one of you pick up that dog shit! And why in the hell did we ever get a dog? You hear me sneezing all the damn time, don’t you?)…the list goes on and on.

So with that I carry a nagging sadness. I can’t shake off the questions that have brought so much pain to me all my life. While he was alive I was in agony because I couldn’t help him and he wouldn’t help himself. I worried about a man who chose beer over psychotropic medications. A man who would just as soon be homeless than stop the mania from coming between him and his delusional state as FBI Agent Pelletier. Communications came through the static of my walkie-talkies and sent him to many a crack house in Bangor, Maine to bust drug rings with “pot smokers” and “coke dealers”. If not him, who? He would say. It was his calling, after all, and how does one argue with that? Except that the irony of it caught up with him time and time again. The fellow cop was actually a foe. He was a menace. He was the crazy guy in town. Every town has one, you know.

And what do we do? We walk on the opposite side of the street. We whisper to our comrades, “What’s he talking about?” “Who’s he even talking to?” “Do you think he sleeps out here?” “Should we give him money?” “Where’s his family?” Or, we say nothing and we do nothing and we pretend we don’t even see this odd fellow who walks back and forth around town babbling to himself or maybe uttering something unintelligible to others or maybe says nothing at all and just observes the ignorance of humankind.

My utter desolation is for a life lived and a life lost without benefit of the joy that I attribute to relationships. All he wanted was to feel loved and celebrated. Doesn’t everybody? So he did what worked for him. He created a world that could celebrate the “him” he needed to be. He was his very own action hero. Only one thing would make that better, except it worked in reverse and scared us all away. So he lived almost his entire existence with no one to touch him. No hands to hold or people to hug. No one to scratch his back or massage his feet. There was no sincere connection to anyone or anything real. My dog had more of a loving connection to us in those thirteen years than my father did to anyone in his 73. That just breaks my heart.

I wanted to be that connection for my father. I wanted to give him a life he couldn’t get for himself. But I couldn’t fix him and neither could he. The pull to mental illness was too strong and too powerful. It connected him to his tremendous world of delusion where he would always be strong and wanted and important. That’s all he really wanted to be. I couldn’t do that for him. But as I watched him die I did touch him. I went far beyond my comfort zone and caressed his beautiful mane of thick, silvery hair. I held the hand that hadn’t been numbed by the massive stroke that made him sleep so many many hours at a time. I silently touched his soft, smooth skin and applauded his handsome good looks.

“That’s my dad”, I thought. He is real. A life that never really got to live. He hadn’t been fully alive while in his body for so many years that it became a complicated grief for me. I can’t celebrate his life and I hate that he died before he got to appreciate any personal connection of genuine value. But it’s more about me then, because he is where he is most likely at his best, most appreciated and celebrated self. Heaven must have a special place for folks who live a hell on earth not of their choosing.

Left behind are the ashes that are too dark and clinical for me. I almost resent the idea of lowering a man to a 7 lb box of ashes. That’s what his life came down to in the end. A tightly sealed box of ashes sitting in a back room or outside shed somewhere. The same fate as my family pet, ironically named “Lucky”. The man. The dog. Both gone the second after they took their last breath. Both turned from flesh and bone to ash. I reduce myself to literal meaning to keep the noun theme going as to not feel the pain of reality when, in fact, I have actually been mourning nonetheless. I fool myself into believing that my focus on the factual “cremains” will substitute for allowing me to truly mourn a man I wanted to adore, a connection I needed to know and a childhood I couldn’t control.

The Author

I am a licensed clinical social worker who just happens to adore the written word. I have had a private practice and am now writing a memoir on my life in the company of my father and many of my clients who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I hope to dispel some myths and break down some barriers for those with mental illness. I write out of need and complete joy, which I hope to convey throughout my blogs. The human experience is not exclusive to one group. I hope to appeal to most as I touch on some pretty heady material with some self-deprecating humor and raw emotion thrown in for good measure. I have four amazing children, one HUGE dog and a tolerant husband. I am blessed.

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