After our son's death and the cremation of his body, we had to learn about the disposition of ashes. I discovered that some people, from a variety of faith traditions, are opposed to cremation for religious reasons, and some have no problem with cremation but insist that the ashes should remain together in one container and location. We were in neither of those camps, and knew that we wanted to leave our son's remains in a place or places meaningful to him. In that regard, the most helpful stories came from a woman whose friends had scattered some of her husband's ashes along the his favorite marathon route, and another who has found comfort in taking small amounts of her son's ashes with her to leave in various spots to which she has travelled around the globe. She was also the source of sound advice about how to manage the task discretely when travel is involved. Such were among the conversations in which we were engaged last September, in the funeral home, in meetings with my spiritual director, and around our kitchen table, and they helped us learn how to connect past and present into an unexpected and unwanted future.
We had first taken our boys to Florida when they were three months old. My grandparents had rented a house for the winter in Vero Beach, but my grandfather had become extremely ill. He was alert during the days and was able to spend that one of the last few weeks of his life enjoying his new great-grandsons. At night, however, he would succumb to the predations of dementia, and I would lie awake on the king-sized bed in the guest room next to his, where I was often alert at odd hours, as I was nursing two babies, and listen sadly to his confused ramblings. During the daytime he knew that it was 1984 and that Christmas was coming; late at night he was usually under the impression that it was the 1930s and thought he needed to get up and go to work.
That week was a chilly and windy one, so the photographs of the boys' first outings to the beach show a family of four bundled up in sweaters and hats. The next year we instituted our two decades of annual sojourns to St. Augustine, where we generally had better luck with the weather. A long sequence of photos shows my sons' growth from year to year, in and out of the Atlantic Ocean every spring. Lively toddlers, ecstatic first-graders, serious fifth-graders, long-haired middle schoolers, soccer-playing high schoolers, languid college students. When Chicago Son was a senior in high school, his first serious girlfriend joined us there for an unexpected trip at New Year's, and we took fireworks out to the beach for a midnight celebration. We were last there all together the next summer; after that college and summer job schedules took their inevitable toll on extended family vacations. I had hoped that he and Beautiful Ballet Dancer would meet us there last winter, but that was not to be.
The beaches of Florida are the locus of some of my best memories ~ times with my mother, long gone; times with the grandparents who cared for me so attentively after her death, times with my own children. And so I took my son's ashes there, to the ocean into which he had dashed so fearlessly as a child and to the waves into which he had dived over and over and over again as a young man, and I watched part of him merge with the salt and the water and the sunlight.