I recognize this statement will require some explanation, but:
Last week I interred my father, who died thirteen years ago.
You see, he died overseas, in Switzerland, having accessed physician-assisted suicide in that country after a diagnosis of rapidly advancing ALS. The story of his life and death can be seen in the documentary The Suicide Tourist, available online thanks to Frontline.
This is the story of what came afterward.
Mom remained overseas in Yorkshire, finishing up her Doctorate in socio-legal Studies. As such, dad’s ashes were delivered to me here in the United States, in an air mail package wrapped in brown paper and official-looking documents in German. It was tied up with a string, with a red wax seal over it, and had a comfortable weight.
I didn’t want to open the package until mom returned to the States. After all, in my mind, he was her husband – and he really did belong to her, now that his own sense of self had been left in the crematory fire.
So I set him in a little altar-space in my basement studio, surrounded by memorabilia: Photos of him in his hated wheelchair with myself and mom, his favorite drinking glass, the storybook he read to me over and over when we were both so much younger. But I didn’t unwrap the package – and the string now held cards, news articles, expressions of sympathy from around the world.
I thought about him every day, but to be honest, I looked at him less and less often. The little altar space became a cubbyhole of sorts, not forgotten by any means … but not something with which to engage. Not a place to show love, or respect, or to mourn.
But a place of endless waiting, and anticipation, which slowly turned to dread.
Because mom returned to the US, but picked up a rather nomadic life, moving here and there, ill-suited to the weight of an earthen urn and earthly remains. So he remained in my art and writing studio, which, over time … became a place I had to avoid.
My family is great, full stop; but we’re not always great at communicating our feelings, you know?
So, unexpressed and unexamined, my feelings got heavier and heavier. Mild depression turned into moderate anxiety which turned into something rooted far more deeply. Coping mechanisms that were never ideal became less and less healthy as time went on. Also, less and less effective as the years went by.
I didn’t realize how much of it was tied up with the bones beneath my feet until some recent life events forced me to admit the rest of my family had moved on from where I had buried myself, years ago, alongside my father.
I finally forced myself into therapy.
I’ve spent the last several months working my way through a lot of things, but more than anything, working to allow myself to feel everything I tried to shut away. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression … trying to come to acceptance.
I bought a display box, made of metal and shaped like a massive library book, to display his love of literature and reading. I had a plaque engraved for him, I asked my mother for photos of him before he had fallen ill, and I posted those photos in my office where I could see him, every day.
On Thursday, August 15th, beneath a full moon, I disturbed the altar-that-was-clutter. I cut the cord around him and broke the waxen seal. I unwrapped the paper to find the ashes were already held in a rather plain terra cotta urn, with a brass plate containing his name and date of cremation, and a Dutch stamp of a gryphon that looks rather kingly.
I wasn’t able to open the lid, though. Perhaps thirteen years in a humid cardboard box in the Midwest has sealed it shut, perhaps I’m too delicate or just insufficiently committed to the task, but I couldn’t pry it open. Besides which, I’m not confident the ashes (based on the sound they make, bone and ash in a foreign giant’s rattle) would all fit in the new display, anyway.
So we found a place on top of our family curio cabinet, the one with pictures of our families and Dia de los Muertos figurines and the Tupilaks brought back from Greenland by my father-in-law. The earth-orange of the urn blends almost, but not quite, invisibly into the burnt orange color of the living room walls, and he is in between the doors of our home, facing the hearth which had been his respite growing up beneath these walls.
We poured white wine into his favorite glass, a Waterford thistle, and toasted him with our own, and ate his favorite meal – bratwurst with sauerkraut and boiled tatties, to which we added slices of apple and pickle, which I think he would have loved.
I stepped out after to watch the few remaining fireflies dip and weave and dance, their end times near, seeking a connection of their own with little lights amidst the gathering darkness. We walked to the end of the street in an attempt to see the full moon rise, but no dice between timing and sky conditions, and so we came back home where I retired early.
But I saw him, for the first time in years, in my sweet dreams right before waking.
I was at a semi-college reunion sort of thing, and a chauffeur drove my father up in a car. He’d been unhappy with the drive and complaining about the taste of the coffee, the length of the trip, and more; but in my dream I knew he had been sick the last time I’d seen him, and here he was at last, up and about in a fine new sports coat.
An old friend came up and asked if he remembered the old home. He smiled and said that he certainly did … and then, of course, I woke up.
It was at least part what I’d been hoping for. And while I understand it was probably brought on by the psychological toll of the past week, the anticipation of a necessary but potentially unpleasant task, the unresolved guilt and shame and pain and anger of having held onto this for so long; there is, naturally, a part of me that believes there’s something more.
That the paralysis, dread and nightmares that preceded that dream were guardians of the otherworld, the chauffeur a psychopomp, and my father, well …
He was, and remains, my father; until the day I pass and until the end of all things. But the crags for which he was named no longer have to loom over me. They should really become a part of my foundation, not my ceiling.
So. We are home.
Finally un-interred, together.
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