All that remains of my father’s life is found in two cardboard boxes. Is that all his life is reduced to: two small boxes, one new, one weathered over time? Yesterday, I went to the funeral home to pick up his death certificate (cause: multiple system failure, dementia) and the second of the two boxes. I was surprised when I went to lift it.
I never knew ashes were so heavy. It was not filled with dust bunnies. No soft ashes I could blow away with one puff. These ashes have substance. The funeral home calls them cremains. Cremated remains. Probably I should adopt this term. No, on second thought, it’s too cutesy. It makes me think of craisins. I’ll stick with ashes.
A couple weeks ago, my husband and I drove up the mountain to spend a final sweet day at the long-term care home that took such great care of Dad. We thanked and hugged and cried with the nurses. I had already told them we wanted to donate most of his things to the residents: all of Dad’s clothes, his talking Bible, his stuffed cat that purred, and the lift chair he loved so much. In exchange, they filled up his shoebox–one shoebox–with everything I told them I wanted to keep.
A little photo album I put together that Dad often looked at. His Bible. Several special greeting cards. A book of WWII fighter planes. Some laminated cartoons. (Dad loved cartoons. One of them is bittersweet now. It shows Earl Pickles congratulating himself on setting a new record. He says, “Every day I beat my previous record for the number of consecutive days I’ve stayed alive.”)
Four cheap frames with photos of his most loved ones, ones he loved imperfectly (don’t we all?) but loved nonetheless.
Grief is heavy. It has a weight to it like the ashes. Substance. It bows us down, holds us in place, keeps us immobile for a while. But love? Love is light. Love rises. It floats like hope.
It’s a paradox that there is a weight to emptiness. If you remove a stone from a sack, the sack feels lighter. But if you remove a person from a life, the weight becomes heavier, the load harder to carry. The absence of someone has a presence that colors everything.
Dad died one month ago today. Some of the weight has already been lifted off me. I miss him, but I started grieving his loss 14 months earlier, when his vascular dementia began. Dementia is a long, hard grief. Each day since his death grows easier, although memories can sneak into unexpected moments and stab my heart afresh. Friends keep telling me to “take care of myself.” They’re preaching to the choir. I know I need to do this. But how can I?
Slowly, my life is returning; my equilibrium is balancing. But I can’t fully attend to my needs yet. Who else was going to clean out my parents’ apartment in nine days and hold a huge estate sale? Or plan the memorial service and gather the photos? Or spend hours on phone appointment after phone appointment, filling out form after form, still unfinished.
My brother helps as much as he can; he came to help my mother adjust to her new long-term care facility in the first fresh weeks of grief. But he’s not here. I am.
Yes, the weight of losing a loved one is heavy. But ashes are not all that remain of a life. Those two boxes are not all that will last from my Dad’s life.
When I open the lid of the shoebox, I see what remains. It’s not found in the cremains. It’s found in the people in his treasured photos. My father’s most loved people. His wife. His two children. His three grandchildren. Four great-grandchildren (only one of which he had met).
If his life hadn’t been, we wouldn’t be. His life lives on in us. We are what remain.