Ashes

Mary stayed home the day I picked up our daughter’s ashes from the funeral home. I dressed slowly that morning, carefully pulling my jeans onto each leg and picking off miniscule hairs from my shirt. I wanted to give her time to process the day, to get ready at her own pace. She watched me, sitting in bed with the comforter pulled tightly around her shoulders and her head resting lamely against the hard wood of the headboard. Her knees were pulled to her chest, her hands lost somewhere beneath our mess of sheets. She tried to keep her face neutral, but her aching sorrow screamed from her eyes, twisted her muscles aching to relax into a messy expression.“Are you coming?” I asked her, fingering the car keys in my pocket. “They said before eleven.”She didn’t respond, so I asked her again. She turned her head, surprised I was standing there. I watched her carefully, trying not to analyze her like the doctor told us we would. He said each of us would develop unique behavior in response to this tragedy. Each of us would grieve and cope in our own ways. This was our first equally shared death. If either of our fathers died, it would be less painful for one of us. If it were Mary’s dad, I would take care of her. Now our loss was equal, our grief matched, and taking care of each other when we were a mess ourselves was tricky.“Dan, I didn’t see you.”I nodded, forced myself to smile and ended up with a strange smirk. I turned away, pretended to fumble with something on our dresser. I asked again.“Are you coming?”The comforter slipped off her shoulders. Her breasts were swollen and her shirt stained with milk. The doctor told us her body would continue to make breast milk as if nothing had happened. He offered to teach her how to drain it, or prescribe her a hormone to reverse it. She just shook her head quietly as he went on about how it’s useless to let on, how milk production could have adverse effects on the “healing process.” The hormones could harm her emotional stability. But Mary said no, ended up sitting in the car while I finished talking to the doctor.“No,” she said, the remote controller glued to her hand. She turned on some kid’s show and bit her lip. The empty basinet was still next to our bed. I wanted to throw it out. If we had another, I figured, we’d buy a new basinet. Why should we try fill that empty space? Her free hand caressed the pink trim. I asked her again, but she wouldn’t look at me.When I left, she was weeping in bed, her tears spilling onto her lactating breasts.At the funeral home I moved as fast as I could, which wasn’t fast considering my state of mind. The dead atmosphere was too familiar to me, and made me nervous. The director understood, my silent responses to his small talk attempt our unspoken agreement. He handed my baby to me slowly, and I took her in my hands. She was the smallest she had ever been and would ever be. Her soft skin burned and her wispy hair crisped. I hated the idea of cremation, but Mary had really wanted it. She was angry with God, she told me, he was dead to her. To prove it, she didn’t want to have her baby rot waiting for Jesus to come so he could restore her childlike grace. He would never come, she said. If God had taken so much from her, she would take something from him.I was afraid to drop Abby, afraid that her ashes would spill onto the floor and a part of my child would always be lost in a cold, impersonal funeral home carpet. It was an irrational fear, since the top of the box was locked, but my brain went over weird possibilities, like I would trip and jam open the lock.A few days after she died, Mary and I sat with our legs crossed on the floor of Abby’s nursery, shuffling through magazines filled with different cremation vases. Eventually Mary gave up, mumbling about the pain of the milk coming down into her breasts and would fall asleep on the living room couch with the TV lighting her sad face holding Abby’s favorite stuffed animal bunny rabbit. So I had to do it by myself. Pick where my daughter would spend the rest of eternity.I chose a simple wooden box instead of an ornate cloisonné vase, a large marble urn or the baby-oriented teddy bear crested globes. I couldn’t understand the point of being excessive, making it obvious to guests if Mary ended up keeping Abby on the mantle that we had lost a child. And I didn’t want to eat dinner with my dead baby every night. Mary and I hadn’t really discussed where we would keep her, so I assumed eventually we would throw the ashes in the sea, off a mountain or something. Mary even scanned web pages one night considering having our baby’s ashes turned into a diamond, so we could wear our child until our own demise.I swung open the passenger door, arranged Abby on the seat and pulled down the seat belt, carefully buckling her in. I never thought I’d be helping my child put on her seatbelt so early. I figured she’d at least have a car seat first. I smiled a sad smile, turning on the ignition and rearranging my mirrors. But I didn’t know where to go.I woke up slowly, knowing Abby would understand that soon I would give her a bottle. I pulled the sheets up over my chest, swung my feet onto the floor and sat on the edge of the bed, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes. Mary rolled over towards me, her gentle cheeks smooched up against the pillow. I laughed and tickled her nose while she mumbled incoherently about feeding the baby and I kissed her shoulder, told her I loved her and to go back to bed. Idly I fingered the baby monitor, dragged the sound volume down to zero so Abby’s cries wouldn’t bother Mary. When it clicked, I paused, a strange feeling sinking against my chest. She wasn’t crying yet. I turned the volume back up, grasping madly to hear her familiar calls, but there was nothing except an eerie, dead static.I tried to reassure myself as my wild, reckless walk ten steps to the nursery said otherwise. I swung open her door in a giant swoop, the doorknob smashing into the thin wall near her crib. The silence of the dead air was the only thing that greeted me. My arms reached for the door frame, my body needing something to support itself, the weight of fatherhood suddenly too much to bear, too much to face. I didn’t want to be part of life anymore. I wanted to sink down into a ball, squeeze my hands over my head until I got smaller and smaller and finally just disappeared. The panic paralyzed my spine, gripped my legs with innate fear and abandonment. I saw her tiny hands grip a bar of the crib, her motionless fingers white and cold. I crawled over to her, put my big nose next to her small one, the tiny nostrils flared and plugged in a pink foam.I curled up again, my faucet face broken and leaking, crying and spitting and drooling and praying. Praying I was dreaming, praying it was a terrible dream, praying God would never take so much from me. It didn’t make sense. What had I done wrong? What had Abby done wrong? She was so little, so pure. Was I being punished for past sins? What more did he want from me? It wasn’t fair. Why was he allowed to decide who lives or dies? How could he give so much and then just take it all back? Only a sick God would do something like that, be so twisted and maniacal.I tilted my head and saw his face, scrambled for the words to beg him to take it back, tell me it was a joke and hear her cry again. I wouldn’t even be mad if it was just a joke, I promised, just please take it back. I thought saw him smile for a second, my words just a futile joke, my pleases and cries not selfless enough. Instead he grabbed my shoulders and shook me hard, just taking and taking and taking.I thought about driving somewhere beautiful, relish in nature with my daughter and let the beauty and harmony in nature align so it would finally all make sense. But I knew it wouldn’t.I ended up buying two chocolate doughnuts and a coffee. I maneuvered the steering wheel with one hand and took large bites from the doughnut in my other. I pushed my knee up against the bottom of the wheel, grabbed my coffee with my newly freed hand and took a sip. The holder around the cup slipped, my hands meeting a thin, burning paper and the coffee splattered onto my lap. I simultaneously dropped my doughnut, the crumbs littering my face, shirt, pants, and floor. Quickly I grabbed hold of the wheel, guiding the car onto the dirt of the side of the road. I put my gear in park and turned my keys, regaining control of my breathing now that I had avoided disaster. I hardly noticed the tingling singe on my thighs and arms, and instead messily undid my daughter’s seatbelt and pulled her across my chest. My head sunk onto the steering wheel and I held her tighter and tighter, crushed the empty coffee cup beneath my sneaker. I wanted her to become a part of me again, the part that I had given away I now wanted back.At the funeral, a lot of people patted our backs and muttered their generic responses about miscarrying and understanding the wrenching loss. But really, it was different. I held my baby in my arms. I felt her skin and kissed her lips. Her eyes were big and green and she had long eyelashes that made perfect curls. Her cheeks were puffy and red and felt like petals. No one who said they understood really did. They never had full babies, real life breathing babies, that they made and took care of ripped away from them. I had known my daughter, talked to her and touched her and held her. They had only known morning sickness, weird cravings and a growing belly. Abby wasn’t just dreams and talk, a child existing only through our words or our hopes, that maybe she’d be a doctor or a lawyer and get married to make babies of her own someday. She was more. She was real, with real live breathing flesh.People might say they understand, but they don’t.There was a quick knock on my window. My eyes had wrenched shut, thick sleep goop and wet gluing my eyelashes together. I sat up incoherently, partially blinded by the flashing red and blue lights blurred from the rain puddles that had collected on my windshield. The knock came again, more quickly this time, and a muffled voice with concern. I groped to roll down the window, the voice rising to a more heightened suspicion. The glass rolled down.“Is there a problem, sir?”He examined me, shining a flashlight around the contents of my car. My coffee stained my clothes, and a half eaten doughnut and its crumbs littered the floor. He paused the light at the wooden box lying innocently in my lap with my fingers curled tightly around it. I shook my head.“What do you got there?”I watched him, traced the curves of his aged face with my eyes. Raindrops tickled his skin, swam through the cracks of his wrinkles. Cars drove by behind him, the tires blowing more rain on his back. I pulled Abby closer to me, tightened her to my lap.“My daughter.”He was taken aback for a moment, his mouth pulled back and his eyebrows scrunched. His eyes flashed, and I noticed them change, the whites bulge and then relax. His eyes were sad.“Alright, sir. You can stay here as long as you need, okay? I’ll put out a call and tell no one to bother you again.”I nodded, and he turned to go back to his car, but I knew I couldn’t stay all night sulking.“Actually, officer,” he turned back, making sure our eyes met, “I think I’ll go home now. Sorry if I’ve messed up traffic.”He shook his head, held out his arms apologetically. “Oh, no, I just wanted to make sure you were alright. Traffic was just fine, don’t worry.”I nodded again and my hand went towards the ignition. Instead I undid my belt, pulled open the door and stood beside him. I leaned against my car, and he followed suit, carefully perusing my intentions. He was an older man, older than me, and probably had already dealt with more death and raised more children than I ever would. His movements were heavy with age, his footsteps sinking deep into the earth that nestled him. One day he would return to that earth, become one with his parents, his wife, his children, and my daughter. He had probably been a cop all his life, too. He had probably handled druggies and psychos and criminals, dealt with his daughter going through puberty and his parents’ deaths. And now his duty had changed. I was fragile and volatile and broken, and I didn’t want him to comfort me. I didn’t need more sympathy, but really just to sit with someone who understood. Someone who could really see I was broken, and instead of trying to fix it, just letting me heal. Being a cop was tricky business. We watched the stars together, the traffic soaking us with the fallen rain.“How long have I been here?”“Maybe ten hours. People started calling in, saying a car had been abandoned down on Maple.”I knew Mary probably would be worrying about me too. She would want to see her baby, but I was nervous she would do something crazy, put the box in the crib and tuck it in, or keep it next to our bed in the bassinet

What were you supposed to do with your loved one’s ashes, anyway? I lost myself in the sky, captivated by the tiny lights and their ability to elude, how really they were massive stars millions of light years away made of plasma and fiery power, but I only saw them as tiny bits of popcorn. The feeling my life was so small and yet so immeasurable always overwhelmed me when I stargazed. When I was younger I used to count them, map out the constellations so I could have some grasp on the eternal sky. But it was futile, and those summer nights as a kid with my star charts I’d end up losing my place and just watching them, trying not to blink in case one of them were to disappear.

“There’s this old Eskimo proverb I knew. It went something like, ‘Perhaps they are not stars, but rather openings in heaven where the love of our lost ones pours through and shines down upon us to let us know they are happy.’ Yeah, something like that.”I laughed, and he did too, both of us taken by the persuasive beauty from the poetic minds of our ancients.

Ashes

bridgealita11

Joined December 2007

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