“Oh, and one more thing, Rabbi. One of my sons wants some of the cremains.”
The rabbi eyed Lillian Diamond’s two sons. Which one wanted them? No need to ask. It would be the younger one. The older ones were practical, no-nonsense, no excessive sentiment about them. But the younger ones… they became Buddhists, joined sects, got in touch with their inner child, overshared. Became writers, or God forbid, painters or poets. They always wanted the cremains.
“Yes, of course. I’ll speak with the funeral director and see to that.”
Would it be a cooked-up Native American ceremony scattering the cremains in the Grand Canyon? Releasing them from a helicopter hovering over their father’s favorite beach, watching them drift into the sea? The rabbi wouldn’t disabuse him of his notions. Wouldn’t warn him that some national parks required Special Use Permits for cremains-scattering. That if cremains were released over the ocean, it had to be done at least three nautical miles from shore and reported to the EPA within 30 days. Death is a highly regulated industry. The older siblings understood that. The younger ones—do you even have to ask?
“Do I get a choice of urns?” the younger one, Mark, asked. Both eager and bereft.
“Within a certain limit. But the choices are probably not as fashionable down here in Florida as they are up north in Boston.”
“I live in Cambridge,” Mark said. “Not Boston. Can I see the catalog?”
The rabbi handed it over. Mark carefully examined each urn. The pewter one looked like something from which a medieval king might drink mead. Mark wouldn’t want dinner party invitees mistaking it for a one-of-kind wine cup and drowning his father’s ashes in a Côtes du Rhône.
His wife Elizabeth might like the butterfly cloisonné one, though. Just large enough to hold the third of the cremains that he’d get; the rest would be disposed of in whatever way his mother and brother deemed appropriate. Then he thought: House his father’s cremains in cloisonné, a man who had dressed for the final three decades of his life in sweatsuits and orthopedic sneakers, and in the years before that in whatever was on sale at J.C. Penny? He turned the page.
His older brother Richard looked at his watch. Rolled his eyes. His mother held her tongue. She had been through this kind of thing before.
“I think this one,” Mark told the rabbi, pointing at a photograph. “Nice and plain. It’s not what I’ll end up housing him in. But for getting him up north, it’ll do.”
The rabbi nodded. Exactly what he expected. How many urns would the younger one go through before he found one he wanted? But enough about cremains. Time to move things along.
“We’d like a photo of Bob,” the rabbi said, “which we’ll blow up to poster size and place where everyone can see as they walk into the memorial service. And I’ll need his Hebrew name…”
Richard followed the plans closely, interrupting the rabbi to ask detailed questions and make suggestions for improving the ceremony. The rabbi was impressed; he took notes.
Mark didn’t listen. His father was dead. Why couldn’t he cry?
A week before, his father’s death had been nowhere in view. The only problem had been the early Alzheimer’s. Apart from that (although was there really an apart from that? Mark wondered), he was a reasonably healthy 87-year-old. Maybe five more years in front of him, or whatever the disease would allow.
He had been in an assisted-living home for a month. In the year before, his mother had insisted that his father might have occasional memory lapses, but nothing more.
“After all,” she said, “he’s eighty-seven years old. You should be so lucky to be in his shape when you’re his age.”
Then came her complaints. His father refused to take off his clothes when he went to bed, or to put them on when he left the house. He locked his keys in the car and wandered a Wal-Mart parking lot peering through strangers’ windshields searching for them. He let himself be victimized over the phone by a scammer selling car insurance, purchasing 23 separate policies for their Buick Lucerne.
“It’s just mild cognitive impairment,” Mark’s mother said to him when he suggested something might be seriously wrong. “They call it MCI.”
“Who calls it MCI? What doctor made the diagnosis?”
“Doctor? Who needs a doctor? I looked it up on the Internet.”
His father, always slender, began eating compulsively. In restaurants he worked through breadbaskets, mopped up his plate with his fingers, ate from his wife’s and friends’ plates. His mother fretted that if she took away the bread or stopped his stealing from tablemates, he’d spear food from diners at other tables.
“He’s always been thin, let him enjoy his food,” Mark’s mother said when Mark worried about his eating habits. “You should be so lucky to be that trim at his age.”
Not that his father was trim anymore. But Mark didn’t argue the point.
Then a month and a half ago everything changed. His mother told him over the phone, “When evening comes I can’t control him. Yesterday I tried to get him out of bed to eat dinner and he said, ‘Don’t you dare touch me.’ That’s not your father; he’s such a gentle man. His Sundown Syndrome is getting worse.”
“Sundown Syndrome? Is that another Internet thing? What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about his Alzheimer’s, Mark. Your father has Alzheimer’s. How could you not know that?”
She cried. This was not her way. Outside she was soft and gentle. Inside she could be steel. Now the steel was melting.
“I can’t do this by myself. You and Richard need to come down. I need help.”
“We will, Mom. Don’t worry. We will.”
Mark unpacked the urn, which arrived two days after he and Elizabeth returned home from the funeral. It was wrapped in three layers of bubble wrap and packed in a sift-proof container so none of his father’s ashes could leak during shipping. Rather than have the urn shipped, Mark would have preferred to treat it as carry-on luggage and put it in the overhead bin, or better yet, underneath the seat so he could be close to his father during the three-hour flight home.
“Not a good idea,” the funeral director had told him. “Cremains often don’t make it past security. You don’t want to be opening the urn in the airport.” The director shivered theatrically. “The stories I’ve heard about what those TSA goons do to the ashes. Your father would roll over in his grave. That is, if he had a grave to roll in.”
Mark took out the urn. It was the first time Elizabeth had seen it.
“I don’t know where we can possibly put that,” she said. “It looks like a cigar box.”
“I know. It’s just temporary. Until we find a more fitting home for him.”
Mark left it on a veined-marble coffee table and walked to the couch. He opened his laptop and searched the Internet for urns. Elizabeth rat-a-tatted in her heels to the kitchen and her customary pre-dinner two glasses of Pinot Grigio.
Mark picked up the urn, surprised at how little it weighed. How could something that light contain his father’s life? An undersized but scrappy roller hockey standout as a kid on the not-quite-mean streets of Brooklyn. Quitting high school to marry his pregnant 16-year-old sweetheart. Raising two boys with a gentle intensity that if it had been applied to a career would have given him the worldly success that had always eluded him. Still adoring the woman he had been married to for seventy years. Searching for his lost keys through the windshields of strangers’ cars. Eating off other people’s plates.
Maybe now the tears would come.
Elizabeth tipsily rat-a-tatted back into the living room.
“Come to bed, Mark,” she said, removing her heels, taking a few steps in stocking feet before unzipping her dress and dropping it, leaving her clothing behind like breadcrumbs marking a path to the bedroom. “We both could use it.”
She was right. He followed her trail. The crying could wait.
“What’s a six-letter word for dog?”
A six-letter word for dog? The man who had conquered the crossword and Word Jumble in the Boca Raton Tribune every day for the last ten years didn’t know the answer to the simplest of clues?
“It’s ‘canine,’ Dad.”
“Right. I forgot.”
Mark and his father sat on a screened-in terrace overlooking a small man-made lake surrounded by six buildings housing a hundred apartments. The Yellow Pages lying open on the table caught his father’s eye. He picked it up and read out loud.
“Big Kahuna Tattoo, Blue Foo Tattoo, Evil Ink Tattoo, Mob Ink Tattoo…”
He stopped, his attention piqued again by the crossword. He dropped the Yellow Pages and turned to it. “What’s a six-letter word for dog?” he asked.
He looked at the newspaper with mounting frustration.
“Canine, Dad. You spell it C-A-N-I-N-E.”
He carefully wrote each letter, turned to Mark and beamed.
“Beautiful day,” he said. “Looks like it’ll be a scorcher.”
Mark was keeping his father occupied while his mother packed his father’s bags. When they had planned it last night, Mark had been disheartened by how few bags there would be. Three. An entire life, all eighty-seven years of it, stuffed into one duffel bag and two small rollers.
Mark had flown down to Florida to help his mother find a suitable place for his father to live. Richard was supposed to help as well, but at the last minute had begged off.
“I just got a last-minute call to be on a panel in Vienna discussing how econometrics definitively proves that GDP is the best way to measure a nation’s economic output,” he had told Mark over the phone. “It’s my specialty. I can’t miss it. That endowed chair I’m after may be riding on it.”
Richard was involved with the economic fate of nations. Mark shot product videos that small companies posted on YouTube. There was no question who would go.
Two days ago, he and his mother had found a home specializing in Alzheimer’s patients, and this morning they were bringing his father to stay. The place was bright and sunny and the patients—residents, the staff called them—were well-cared-for and content, although it was sometimes difficult to differentiate between content and comatose.
Mark’s father looked out the terrace’s screen at the lake, the bright sun, the palm trees stirred by the breeze.
“Another day in paradise,” he said. He turned to the crossword, then looked up at Mark. “What day is it?” he asked. “Is it different than yesterday?”
“It’s Wednesday, Dad. And yes, it is different than yesterday. We’re taking you to that place we told you about. To rehab your legs. Doctor Weismann recommended it. It should be just for a few days.”
“That’s right,” his father said. “I forgot.” He gripped the pencil harder.
The home had recommended the cover story; telling his father the truth would make the transition more painful than need be. Within a week, they said, his father would forget the story. Within two or three he would believe he had always lived there. Which, Mark thought, was perhaps the biggest tragedy of all.
“Dad, I need to do something,” Mark said. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.” He kissed the top of his father’s head, his hair still as black and thick as a twenty-year-old’s.
“Here, Bob, let me comb your hair,” his mother said. “You’ve got some sticking out on top.”
His father leaned into the brush. The woman he adored, caring for him.
Mark made two trips down to the car with his father’s luggage. When he returned, he found his father and mother sitting side by side without speaking, staring out at a twenty-foot-high fountain in the middle of the lake. Even though they were on the third floor and a good forty feet away from it, they could hear the water splash. It filled the silence nicely.
“Ready, Dad?” he asked.
“Are we going somewhere? Do I have to leave?”
“Just for a little while. To the rehab center I told you about. The one for your legs. Remember?”
His father blinked three times, then looked at the Yellow Pages.“Big Kahuna Tattoo, Blue Foo Tattoo, Evil Ink Tattoo…”
“Okay, Dad that’s good. But they’re waiting for us. Let’s go.”
Ever obedient, his father stood. He shuffled, hunched beyond recognition. As they walked the outdoor hallway, Mark put his arm around him as if it were the last time he would see him, wanting to remember each step, to imprint the moment so deeply in his memory that he would recall it as he fell off to sleep every night for the rest of his life. The closer they got to the elevator, the more tightly Mark gripped him. Mark the traitor, deceiving his father to deliver him to the land of Alzheimer’s.
“Beautiful day,” his father said as they waited for the elevator and looked out at the condo development’s pool, shuffleboard courts, flower-trimmed hedges. “Should be a scorcher.”
Down now, walking to the car. Gripping him even harder. Lowering him into the passenger’s seat, his mother getting into the back, Mark getting behind the wheel. He waited while his father wrestled himself into his seatbelt. Mark turned the key. Put the car in gear. They drove in silence until they passed through the complex’s gate.
“What’s a six-letter word for dog?” his father asked.
Satisfied, his father looked out the window at the palm trees flashing in the sun.
“Another day in paradise,” he said.
The call came a month after Mark had put his father in the home, at just past 3 a.m., the hour such calls often arrive.
“Your father’s not well,” his mother said. “He was rushed to the emergency room from the home just before midnight with internal bleeding. He’s in the ICU now. I’m here with him. They’ve replaced a lot of blood. Three pints, I think.”
Mark was disoriented by the lateness of the hour and by what his mother had just told him. Emergency room? ICU? What did this have to do with Alzheimer’s?
“They don’t know what’s causing it,” she went on. “I just talked to Doctor Weismann and he recommends no treatments. At your father’s age and with the Alzheimer’s, he probably wouldn’t survive. And if he did, he’d be in even worse shape than he is now. There’s a hospice that Weismann recommends. You and Richard need to come down right away. So I’ll let you go now… wait, hold on a minute, your father’s calling to me… Yes, Bob, I’m talking to Mark. Okay, I’ll tell him. ‘Canine,’ Mark. Your father says I should tell you it’s a six-letter word for dog.”
“Elizabeth, how’s this for an idea: A piece of jewelry with a hidden chamber for holding just a bit of ashes. For the rest of them we could have a scattering ceremony. On Martha’s Vineyard. My father always liked the sunsets at Menemsha. Afterwards I’d keep some of his remains in the jewelry.”
It was nearly 1 a.m. Elizabeth was trying to sleep, while Mark was up late as usual, prowling the Internet on his laptop in bed in search of the perfect way to inter his father.
“Good idea. Didn’t your father wear a Chai around his neck? You could wear him in one around yours.”
“He only did that for about two weeks when he was going through his open-shirt, chest-hair phase. It’s not suitable.”
“I wasn’t serious. It was a joke.”
“How can you joke about this?”
“I’m trying to get your mind off it. It’s been two months, and all we talk about are ashes and urns. It’s time to move on.”
“Move on? How do you ‘move on’ from the death of your father? What do you ‘move on’ to? A new father? I don’t think it works that way.”
“Don’t get angry at me, Mark. I’m trying to help. I’m not your enemy.”
“But you are my enemy. About this, anyway. You and Richard both.”
Elizabeth rolled in bed towards him and put her hand on his arm.
“I can’t do this anymore. It’s late and I’m tired. If you still need to look tonight, do it somewhere else. But I’d rather you came to bed with me.”
Mark brought his laptop to his office. He put it on his desk, next to his father’s temporary urn, and switched it on. He had more searching to do.
“Mark, I’m glad you came. No need, though. I should be out of here soon.”
Mark’s father, in the ICU, sat up in bed, tethered to an IV drip. His cheeks were ruddy, his eyes clear, his voice strong. Even the extra weight looked good on him.
Mark bent to kiss him. His father gripped him with pleasure. Clearly a mistake had been made, and his father was nowhere near death, just as Richard had predicted when Mark called him discuss putting their father into a hospice.
“We’ve had these false alarms before,” Richard had said. “You know how Mom overreacts to things. It’ll blow over. So why don’t you head down and scope out the situation. I’ve got to finish a paper for the Econometrics Journal, and then I have faculty meetings up the wazoo. I’ll send you my schedule so you know when you can reach me.”
Doctor Weismann walked into the ICU. Mark could barely contain his joy at the sight of him —here to order tests, correct the misdiagnosis, schedule the simple procedure that would cure his father. The doctor, Mark, and Mark’s mother stepped into the hallway.
“It looks like my father’s on the mend,” Mark told the doctor. “How much longer before he can leave?”
“Don’t be fooled. He’s had multiple transfusions since last night and we gave him oxygen a little while ago. That’s why he seems so vigorous. It’s the body gathering itself for what lies ahead. It’s a rush of energy, the final push before death.”
Not true, Mark thought. Weismann might know medicine, but Mark knew his father. A mistake had been made. His father would live.
Bach’s Air on a G String played at just the threshold of hearing, not so much an auditory presence as a physical one, as if wrapping the room in gauze. His father listening to Bach? It was as unlikely as him developing a taste for the paintings of Jackson Pollock. But there was no other musical choice in the hospice where he had been moved, and the soothing strings deepened the room’s dusky peace.
“Here, Dad. Drink some water,” Mark said and brought a paper cup to his father’s parched lips.
His father’s eyes lazily flickered on and off like a light bulb going bad. He groaned. His arm twitched. Mark stroked it to soothe him, but that only made it worse.
Mark walked out to the nurse’s station.
“I think he needs more morphine,” he told the nurse. Mark went back into the room. Several minutes later the nurse came into the room and whispered to his father, who calmed down and swallowed what she gave him.
Mark’s mother sat in a chair, staring out the window as if waiting for help to arrive. Richard came later that night, apologizing for the delay.
“There was a meeting about the endowed chair and I had to be around for a good showing,” he explained.
His father drifted into unconsciousness and their vigil became a deathwatch. It didn’t take long for the watch to end. One second Mark’s father drew a breath, and the next second he didn’t. No death clatter, no clear demarcation between life and not-life. Mark called in a nurse. She confirmed what they already knew.
“I’ll leave you alone with him to say good-bye,” she said. “Take as long as you like. Just call when you need me.”
Mark pulled up a chair to his father’s bedside. His father’s head was tilted back on his pillow, mouth open and sharp beak of a nose pointed at the ceiling as if in the moment before death he had tried to grab one last great gasp of breath, enough to last a lifetime.
Mark, eyes closed, remembered his father alive: Quick-footed and quick-witted when Mark was young, the fastest man on any softball field; driving a rattling death trap of a delivery truck when he worked for a dry cleaner, teaching Mark how to shift gears without using the clutch; smiling to beat the band with one arm flung around Mark and another around Mark’s mother while Richard snapped a photo as they vacationed on Martha’s Vineyard; shuffling with his old man’s walk to the elevator en route to the Alzheimer’s home.
“No more,” his mother said, so soon that Mark didn’t have time to finish communing with his dead father, didn’t have time to cry. “It’s over. I can’t be here any more.” Angry at death. Angry at life. Angry at being left behind.
Mark stood, put his arm around her. Richard led the way as they walked past the nurse’s station and left the hospice.
It was a thing of beauty, carved from cherry wood, hand-turned on a lathe, Zen-like in its simplicity. More vase than urn. His father would have appreciated its craftsmanship. Which was good, because he’d be spending eternity in it.
It was so beautiful that Elizabeth wanted it for the living room, set on a pedestal near the marble mantle. But Mark decided against it. He would keep it in his office up on the second floor so his father would be near him when he worked.
The urn had arrived that morning through the mail. It sat on the worktable Mark used for videotaping products, glowing in the soft northern light filtering through the windows, bringing out the contrasts in its grain.
Mark set up a tripod and screwed a videocamera to its mount. Looked through the viewfinder and centered the urn in it. Pressed the Record button and walked to the table.
Next to the urn was the old one that looked like a cigar box. He flipped open its lid and took out a plastic bag filled with his father’s ashes. They had the consistency of kitty litter mixed with fine dust, an occasional bone fragment peeking through.
He put a glass funnel into the new urn and upended the plastic bag into it. The camera’s red light blinked steadily, its lens capturing everything: the cremains filling the funnel, Mark reaching in to clear out a small bit of bone, everything flowing into its new home. Eight-seven years of love and heartbreak, of children born, children laughing, children crying; of love burning, love cooling and then burning again; of his wife’s body changing through the years from firm to voluptuous to slack and her skin from lush to dry and paper-thin; the sap of life flowing through every instant of his time on earth until just like that it was over, and it all came down to this: kitty litter and fine ash sifting into an urn, caught on camera for a video that no one but Mark would ever see.
Mark removed the funnel. All the months of searching for the perfect urn had been worth it, no matter what Elizabeth thought. His father inside the softly glowing urn could at last be at peace. And so could he.
And then it happened. The tears finally came, all that time waiting to grieve and now here they were, falling into the urn, washing tiny bits of bone clean, kicking up fine puffs of ash that rose into the air, dissipated, and clung invisibly to the room’s walls, ceiling and windows.
His father, with him always.
Image: “022/365. I love crosswords” by Gwen, licensed under CC 2.0.
- The Cremains - November 16, 2021