His Ashes

When Philip died I wanted him cremated. I thought Phil might argue – we were both raised Catholic, and from what I understood the church did not allow cremation. We married in a Catholic ceremony, had our children baptized, had them make their communion and confirmation. I did what I thought I was supposed to do for my kids as far as religion was concerned, especially because Phil was serious about it. I was not. As a child, I was let out of public school at 2:00 on Wednesdays to attend religious instruction. Even then I was no believer and decided God was something grown-ups made up to explain what they couldn’t. 

Phil would take the kids to church on Sunday. I refused to go. We had one argument about it, with him insisting I should go because what would we tell the kids if he was going but I was not? The truth, I answered. Mommy and Daddy think different things about God and it’s important to Daddy that you go to church. I don’t know that we ever actually had to have that conversation, but we were ready.

 As of 2016, the church’s guidelines on cremation changed. It was allowed, but you were not to scatter ashes or keep them at home in an urn. They should be kept in a “sacred” place, such as a church cemetery, which I’m sure one would have the privilege of paying for. At any rate, Phil did not object to cremation, so Natalie and I pored over a catalogue of urns to pick the right ones. We should not have to do this, I told her. If we are catalogue-shopping it’s supposed to be for shoes or clothes or the very best in cookware. But we all know where “shoulds” and “supposed-to’s” leave us, so we did what we had to. Natalie chose a tiny urn in a blue velvet box that could travel with her, I chose a small, elegant slate blue with a muted silver top for Phil (who did not want to be involved in the process) and the bulk of the ashes went into a large gold urn with a band of inlaid white material for me. I chose it over the floral cloisonné urn I preferred, and I am still trying to figure out why. There was a reasoning going on in my head that I can’t articulate. All I can come up with is maybe I thought what I wanted was too feminine, maybe I thought the gold was more dignified…it bothers me terribly, both as a  mother and a writer, that I cannot come up with the words to explain this, and that my choice here might have been based on a “should.”

I do know that I thought that once I actually received the urn it would look better in person and I would be happy (is that an appropriate word for my feelings regarding the container of my son’s ashes?) with my choice. I wasn’t. At the time it was low on the list of Things I Am Grieved About. I put the urn in my bedroom and put Phil’s in my living room as he said he wasn’t ready to take it. 

There were a couple times over the years when I made an effort to find an urn I’d like better. The floral cloisonné was no longer available and I couldn’t find anything else I cared for. I still have Phil’s urn as he never asked for it and at this point, I am hoping he doesn’t. Because the last year or two I was starting to feel the need to let go of my urn and Philip’s ashes but I’d like to keep the small, elegant urn in the living room as it feels like just what I need to have.

I couldn’t figure out what to do about the growing need I had to let go of Philip’s ashes. Stories about people getting rid of loved one’s ashes center around the favorite place that person had so there’s some meaning to the thing. I don’t know of any special place of Philip’s except Underground 8 – now called The Meat Locker – in Montclair and spilling ashes on the floor of a music venue isn’t something one does. That I knew of no place shamed me. If I was a better mother, we’d have had a place, a perfect place, something we shared. If we were as close as I say we were, why wasn’t there a place? I can see now how I would torture myself about this, how easily I shame myself. Plus I didn’t talk to anyone about it so it festered.

A few years ago Maria’s friend developed leukemia and within about six months of her diagnosis, she died. When I was at the shore back in June, I overheard Maria talking about taking her ashes out on her boat and scattering them in the bay. And there was my answer. Maybe Philip didn’t have a place, but I did. And not only a place, but a person. In the beginning days of this blog, when telling the story of finding out about Philip’s death, I’d written how Maria was the first person I called when I found out he died and I knew she was in her car before I hung up the phone. Who more fitting to do this with?

So on a Saturday afternoon back in July, Maria’s husband M took us out on the boat. I walked down the pier with the urn, heavily laden with his ashes, hugged in my arms round my belly. M helped me into the boat, Maria following behind in tears. All I can say about the way I felt was small. I think that speaks to powerlessness, the way, as a child, choices were not mine to make. Because while I was choosing the time and the place to let go of Philip’s remains, I had no choice that all that was left of my son was a pile of ashes.

We rode in silence into the bay until M stopped the boat where he thought it appropriate. Is this okay, he asked? I nodded my approval, but really, what about this was okay? The ashes were in a huge, thick, unwieldy plastic bag inside the urn. I took care in pulling the bag out, in making sure the ashes went into the gently lapping water and not onto the boat or blown back in my face. If you’ve never seen them, cremation ashes are gray and fine and powdery and they left a trail as the boat, motor off, bobbed along with the water. When it was finally done I looked up and nodded. The boat started up again and as we swung around, the ashes trailed along on top of the water and Maria and I waved our good-byes.

I thought I was okay but by the time I woke up on Sunday morning I was not. The world was hostile and I was without words. There was too much life around me. Three of Maria’s grandkids, 11, 16 and 18, were also at the house that weekend. And where Maria and her grandkids are, drama reigns. That means life is loud and evident, that meant there was no room for me. So while I originally planned – as I always do when I’m here for the weekend – to go straight to work from here on Monday morning, I quickly packed and headed home as soon as I finished my coffee. And once I got there, I went into my dark bedroom, got under my covers and cried for the rest of the day.

That’s what was needed. I am not, and even then was not, sorry for what I’d done. I wasn’t prepared for my reaction but how does anyone prepare for a possible adverse reaction? I do not know what that means, never did. I can’t predict when I’ll be overcome. When Philip’s birthday or death day rolls around I don’t necessarily go into a funk. That’s more likely to happen afterward, when spring rolls around, because January, his birth month, and February, his death month, at least make me feel his presence. Every spring I lose him again as time is relentless and that’s the season things start coming to life, but not Philip. Never, not ever, Philip.

© 2022 Denise Smyth

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Ed Hack
    Sep 02, 2022 @ 20:37:53

    Heart breaking. Decisive

    Reply

  2. Rose
    Sep 06, 2022 @ 10:54:17

    Speechless…..

    Reply

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