CW: grief, death
When my father’s ashes arrived in the mail, I didn’t know what they were. I did not ask for ashes, so why would I expect ashes to arrive? Seeing the box was from my mother, I let it sit on the kitchen counter for an hour or so, like it was a pie that had to cool, the psychic energy too hot to touch. When I did open it, there were some of dad’s things inside: a photo from his childhood in black and white, his face happier than it had been since I’d known him, an old Nikon camera with no film in it, a broken pocket watch, and a small wooden box. No seal. No warning.
When I opened it, the ashes flew into the air like startled starlings. Bits of dad coated the counter, the floor, the interior of my nose.
I cleaned him up in a heaving fit, breaking down on the floor at the end. Weaponizing dad’s remains was one of mom’s better, more monstrous tricks. After the tears stopped, I shoved what was left of my father into a closet.
I intended to do something with him. Bury him or throw him into the wind somewhere. Say a few words. But every time I opened the closet door, the panic would hit me in the stomach and I could swear I could taste the ashes on my tongue.
I kept intending to do something. And I kept not doing it, resenting mom for adding this responsibility to my life. Resenting dad for being dead.
Mom called a few times. She left a few voice messages, fishing for a reaction. She liked this particular game: poke me until she could get a rise, then blame me for overreacting. Everyone had advised me to cut off all communication. While I didn’t pick up the phone, I still listened to those messages. She would say, “Hi, bunny,” in her sing-song voice. She’d say she hoped I was doing well; my eyes would practically roll out of their sockets at that. Then she’d say she was calling to make sure I got “the package.” Never any details about what “the package” might be. Presumably so if I hadn’t gotten it yet, the “surprise” wouldn’t be ruined.
I’d get so mad after listening that I’d scream into my pillows. I’d scream and shriek until the fibers were wet with spit and tears.
Then I’d go stand by the hall closet. Dad’s closet. I wouldn’t or couldn’t open it anymore.
I should’ve done something with him. Dad wasn’t much better than mom. He was just opposite from her. Where mom meddled and manipulated, dad stewed and quietly resented. He was more of a fixture in my memories than a real person; perched on a stool, smoking a cigarette, like a balding, depressed gargoyle that drank too much whiskey.
But mom had still given a piece of him to me. He was still my responsibility now. I should’ve done something.
I was too hurt, or too angry, or too confused and conflicted to bring myself to a decision. So dad stayed in the closet, even after mom stopped calling.
Eventually, the wound of his death scarred over, and dad’s ashes were really forgotten. Occasionally I’d remember the box in the closet, but now it was more nuisance than emotional burden.
It was a few months later when the dreams started.
Dad had always been a man lingering on the fringes. He’d never been good at talking to people. He’d find a drink and a seat and quietly fume at everyone for not talking to him, which was mostly listening, anyway. He wasn’t good at starting conversations, but he was excellent at dominating them. Dad had been smart, incredibly knowledgeable, and completely insufferable. So he stewed, his vast knowledge only known to him.
Sometimes I’d catch him doing it, at family reunions or dinners or parties, when he could be coaxed out of the house. Behind a group or a couple of his old friends, dad would linger. Waiting to be invited, not knowing how to insert himself, shifting from foot to foot, his eyes two dim wells of sadness.
In my dreams, I’d wake up in my bedroom. The lights would be out, and I couldn’t see anything in the dark. But I could feel him. Hovering. Lingering. Just at the edge of the doorway or in the corner of the room. Waiting for an opportunity. Waiting for an invitation. The first time this happened, I was sure it wasn’t a dream at all. In the feverish in between of “awake” and “asleep,” I was convinced my father was actually there. I was terrified. The following times, the fear was more of a slow-burn. I don’t believe in ghosts. Not exactly. But this dream-father felt more real than my subconscious. It felt like a reflection of some piece of him, forgotten and buried.
After about two weeks of fitful nights, I moved dad’s ashes to the trunk of my car, unwilling to let him go and unwilling to commit to some kind of action. The dreams stopped, and dad was once again forgotten. Provided I didn’t open the trunk of my hatchback. I started piling things up in the backseat, refusing to acknowledge the reason I was making the interior of my car look like an episode of Hoarders. Grief is a strange mistress.
After my lackluster reaction to mom’s “gift,” more things arrived in the mail. Knick-knacks and books that had belonged to dad: a paperback copy of A Tale of Two Cities that was missing its cover, a leather camera bag I remembered him carrying everywhere, a few pictures of him and mom smiling in the California countryside. The only time I ever saw my parents smiling together was in photographs.
When three enormous cardboard boxes came, I opened them apprehensively. What could these possibly contain? Actual body parts she’d saved from the cremation? My boyfriend sat with me as I unpacked them, holding me by the shoulders and telling me it would be ok. They contained every single picture my parents had of me. Photo albums full of my chubby face and curly hair, all the way back to my baby pictures of me in the hospital. I kept pulling them out, thinking, “Surely, she must have kept just one.” She hadn’t. I asked Matt if he had ever heard of a parent getting rid of their children’s baby pictures. He shook his head, pity and anger in his eyes. I held him for a long time, sobbing ugly, snotty tears. I was trash, I told him. She threw my whole life away like I was trash. Matt told me to go lie down while he put all the albums back into their boxes and stacked them in the hallway closet. What had been dad’s closet for so long was now mom’s closet. I didn’t want to get rid of the pictures; they were a part of me. But looking at them was too painful. There was a flurry of texts again, asking if I’d received the boxes, waiting for a bite. I didn’t respond. What could I say? I could get mad; I certainly was mad. But that was the point of all this. The reaction was what mom desired most of all, even a negative one. I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction.
I thought a lot about the “why.” Why the ashes, why the pictures? Why alienate and dispose of me in such a symbolic way? Mom and dad weren’t happy together. When mom started dating another man (we’ll call him Jerry) in the eleventh hour of dad’s downhill slide, I tried to remember that. It was easy to remember the fights and the separate bedrooms. I was mostly mad they hadn’t separated when I was a kid. I wanted to meet Jerry. I wanted to be supportive.
The new boyfriend was, unfortunately, a lot like dad. He got drunk at lunch and started yelling about how millennials were whiners. When his tirade became racist (think “go back to Africa”) and I told him how incredibly inappropriate and offensive he was, mom defended him. When she went to the bathroom and her new beau tried to kiss me, I was too shocked to tell her. I pushed Jerry away, and when they left, I was stunned. Later, over the phone, I told her about the sloppy, drunken pass he’d made at me. Her response was, “Why are you trying to sabotage my happiness?”
We didn’t speak again until the day dad died. It wasn’t long afterwards that the ashes showed up, and our relationship was officially a salted earth. And I was only left with the “why.” Maybe she was trying to purge her life of everything that had to do with her unhappy marriage. She was trying to start fresh with Jerry, trying to get her fresh start. And I was pretty much the last bit of him that was left. Maybe the “why” was that I was too much like dad to be kept around. Perhaps looking at those pictures, all mom saw was thirty wasted years. I wanted to ask her about the “why.” I wanted to know if she hated me. But I couldn’t bring myself to call her.
It was nearly a year before I actually dared to look at the photo albums. I moved them into a new house, trying not to look inside. I did manage to get rid of dad’s ashes. I spread them over a garden and said goodbye, leaving the box in the ground. But the photos were harder. I couldn’t just shake them from the box and let them float away on the wind. They chronicled my entire life up until college. I didn’t want to just let that go.
While writing this, I finally got the nerve to crack open a box. In it were two photo albums. One was of me, ages twenty months to about forty months. We still lived in California then. It’s funny how albums tell such a different story. Here was a happy family, all smiles and fun trips. I suppose filling a photo album with shouting matches about chores and smoking wouldn’t be quite as fun, even if it was more faithful to reality. People wanted to remember happy things. Without context, the Christmans were a perfectly adorable, functional family. Nothing broken, nothing lost.
The second album, I was older. We had moved to Ohio, and I was an awkward teen. There were some appropriately horrifying prom pictures toward the back. When I got to the last page, my heart stopped. There was a newspaper clipping from the Morgan County Herald, circa 2012. I had been in grad school at the time, and had just won an award for an essay I’d written. Apparently my hometown had featured it in their paper. Even more surprising, my parents had saved it. We had been on rocky footing for years, and they had never said anything about it. It was the last thing in the album. The last cherished memory.
People want to remember happy things. These pictures told a story. A happy family, with loving parents and a devoted daughter with hometown pride. There was no hint that things would fall apart so completely. Maybe that was the “why” I was looking for: these happy memories only made the “now” more painful, more unbearable. I was mom’s closet; she was pushing things to the back of her life where she couldn’t see them anymore. When happiness is only a memory, it is too painful to remember.