Ashes to ashes: The last good-bye

After my mother died in 1995, my family and I sprinkled her ashes in the Gulf of Mexico. She had smoked the vast majority of her life and so it was fitting that she wanted to be cremated. I remember being struck by the reality that ashes are ashes. As we ladled my mother into the sea, I was reminded of the thousands of times I had emptied ashtrays around the house when I was growing

Last week, not quite eighteen years later, my family and I deposited my father’s ashes in a stretch of water not all that far from where we had left my mother. We were near Captiva Island on Florida’s Gulf Coast. My father’s ashes struck me as finer than my mother’s, but this might very well have been a trick of memory. My father died in 2011 of a cerebral aneurysm. He hated the beach, but he loved my mother, and so he wanted to be – more or less – with her. As we watched the ashes dissipate in the water, my brother remarked that this was one of the only times when our father was in the ocean and in no danger of drowning. My brother was right: Our father wasn’t a strong swimmer. He always preferred the pool.

In the two years since my father died, his ashes had sat beneath my aunt’s – his sister’s – bed in South Florida. My father and my uncle were great friends, and my aunt would joke that they were fine together under there. They were playing cards. They were arguing about politics. They were discussing their

But both my aunt and I felt the need to fulfill my father’s desire to be reunited in the water with my mother. It took us two years to accomplish this principally because I am a derelict son and always found excuses not to complete this one last task.

And yet I wonder if, on some level, there was another reason why I kept stalling. When we were pouring my father little by little into the light chop, I was struck by the utter finality of the gesture – by the way this was our final parting. When we had brought my mother’s ashes to the Gulf of Mexico, it was close enough to her death that my father was reeling and my brother and I were numb.

How long ago was 1995? My daughter was a toddler skipping obliviously (and adorably) along the surf while an Episcopal priest eulogized her grandmother. Now she is 19, flew to Florida from Manhattan where she lives alone, and spoke at the small memorial. She had been visiting her grandfather with me on the day he died. I was proud of her in 1995; I was proud of her that day two years ago when her grandfather passed away; and I was proud of her last month.Chris and Grace and Dad's Ashes

My brother and my aunt and I discussed whether we should put all of the ashes in the water or whether – for instance – I should bring some with me to Armenia when I am traveling there in August. “There might be some left over,” my aunt observed.

“This isn’t a lasagna,” my brother said, shaking his head. “I don’t think we’re going to have leftovers.”

He was making us laugh, which he is very good at, but I also understood the underlying wisdom of what he was saying. We had drawn this out a long time. It was time to let go.

And so, quite literally, we did. We all did. We let my dad slip into the waters where, once upon a time, a similarly homeopathic rendering of my mother was left to drift. My father may not have been a fan of the beach, but now he is where he always was happiest – with my mother.

Good-bye, Dad. Godspeed. Farewell.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on July 7, 2013. Chris’s new novel, “The Light in the Ruins,” goes on sale on Tuesday.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.