A Final Journey With Mom

When my father makes an announcement, it usually comes after long and deliberate thought. He is 90, and although his legs are betraying him, his mind is active and alert. After a career as an academic, he weighs decisions carefully and completely. So when he told me he had decided what should be done with my mother's ashes, it was a decision cemented in thought, logic and certainty.

For the years leading up to my mother's death from cancer and in the three years since she passed on, the plan had always been to spread her ashes at the small Midwestern College where they had met.

Their first meeting is part of the family lore. While sitting on a front porch of the student union, my father saw my mother for the first time and announced to his friend sitting with him, "That's the girl I am going to marry." It was on their 62nd anniversary when my mother entered the hospital for the last time.

Now the plan for her ashes had changed. Over the summer, Dad decided that the remains should be scattered into the ocean off the coast of Maine. The place was where they had spent their honeymoon in 1941. Since I lived closest to the area, it would be up to me to turn my mother's ashes loose.

I was flooded with images as to how it would all go. Was it legal to deposit ashes in the ocean in that town? Would I be mistaken for someone covering up a horrific crime? Would people stare and point? Most of those visions ended badly. I would be in police custody and on national news. I kept telling myself that those outcomes didn't make sense, but the images kept coming.

The appointed Saturday came with an uncertain weather forecast. My wife, my daughter and I put all the requisite beach stuff in the car, along with two Tupperware containers holding the grayish powder that used to be my mother's body. A couple of nights before, my wife, who was extremely close to my mother, had unscrewed the box holding the ashes on the kitchen table and had transferred them to the containers. A little of my mom spilled out onto the table, but we agreed that she would have felt right at home there.

Arriving at the beach at about 10:30 in the morning, we looked like everyone else seeking a little relaxation before the rain set in. We had beach chairs and a blanket, sandwiches and soda, books to read and two plastic containers.

As we sat facing the ocean, images came in a decidedly different form. Sitting with my mother one last time, I thought of her career as a nurse and how she could give scared children shots they never felt because of the sincerity of her smile and her soothing voice. I thought about how she and my dad, in retirement, drove cancer patients to appointments. I remembered her attempts to teach a man in his 60s how to read, and how she laughed at herself as a teacher since he seemed more interested in just talking rather than actually reading. I thought of how much her faith meant to her and how she and my father spent hours praying for all sorts of folks, many of whom they had never met. I thought of how proud she was of her three sons and her grandchildren.

The coast was clear, or at least our small part of it. A gap developed in the parade of people walking along the edge of the water. My daughter, whose face looks beautifully like my mother's at the same age, carried the Tupperware with me toward the water. All that was left of her, at least physically, was now to be scooped out to meet the cold and swirling water.

One strange final thought hit me as the ashes turned the water around us into a gray-green soupy mix. What if the mix of water and the dry ashes caused my mother to reassemble? How was I going to explain that to the authorities?

Never one to draw attention to herself, my mother drifted off, taking one last eternal swim. My regular Sunday call to my father the next evening reported our success. He expressed his thanks for fulfilling his wishes and we agreed that my mom would have loved the idea of being "buried" at sea.

The opportunity to do this three years after my mother's death provided a new opportunity to remember her without the immediate sadness that a passing brings. All my irrational thoughts of arrest had given way to warm and positive memories. It turned out to be a comforting farewell.