Campbell Corner Essay Prize

Daniel John: 3rd Place, 2001

Dust to Dust, Ashes to Children

          After he met me for the first time, my future father-in-law said to my future sister-in-law, "I don't want to see him again for the rest of my life." He didn't say why. My fiancee, anticipating difficulties, had dressed me so carefully for my first visit to Old Virginia that when I met her father he and I were wearing the same outfit, right down to the socks and shoes. I was sure I'd pass inspection, since I didn't belong to any of the categories of people he disliked: "women, weak people, poor folks who didn't amount to much, Negroes, homosexuals, Jews, fat people, Democrats, Catholics, Japanese and their ilk, and the oversexed."
          He didn't come to our wedding in Boston, but he did see me again, once a year, like the flu. The years went by and the grandchildren came, and gruff avoidance and dinner-table scorn gave way to a sort of rumpled truce.
When he was in his late 70s he had two artificial knees implanted, with strict instructions to exercise as much as he could. The old man went to bed and never got up. After that he had little to do besides read, and watch videos of classical music, so he was glad to see even me. For a few days on every annual visit I would sit by his bed in the afternoons and we'd talk for hours about history, world events, and all the ignorant, oversexed people who were running things into the ground.
          The older I got, the more I enjoyed his shrewd intelligence and acerbic wit. By the time he reached his mid-80's I felt so kindly toward the old man I grew porous in his presence. After talking to him for a few hours I would snap and snarl at my wife because she was, like all women, worse than useless. She learned to stay away from me until I had decompressed.
          A few years ago, in the middle of an afternoon talk, his male nurse didn't show up. He grew increasingly agitated, until finally he said, gruffly, "You are not strong enough to lift me off the bed and get me to the toilet." In reply I bent over the bed and hoisted him up to a sitting position, then pulled him over to the side of the bed to stand. I had to hug him tightly and nearly carry him to the toilet, his weak legs dragging. He sat as best he could with stainless-steel knees that hardly bent. His craggy patriarch face flamed with humiliation.
          "You can't wipe me," he growled contemptuously.
          "I've wiped babies all my life," I countered.
          "No, but you don't know, not my poop!"
          On hearing an old, unreconstructed Southerner say, "poop," I decided one of us had to be senile. I'm sure he thought it was me, since I'd just volunteered to wipe another man's ass. I only smiled. The man who needed nobody had needed me. Suddenly the male nurse arrived and the old man made it real clear, y'hear? I wasn't needed around there anymore, no, sir!
          The next spring when we arrived for the annual visit he was in the hospital, with those depressing long brown rubber tubes coming out of him. I suddenly remembered a joke. If I never saw him again, it was the best gift I could give him.

          On Judgment Day God called all the husbands and asked them, "Any man who can swear he was never bossed around by his wife, stand over here." The husbands looked uncomfortable. No one moved. "Surely one of you!" God thundered. Then one man gingerly stepped forward. "At last!" God boomed out, "I knew there would be at least one man who was truly made in my image. Now tell me, good sir, how did you come to stand here?"
          "Uh, God? You'll have to ask my wife, she made me do it."

          The old man laughed and laughed and his brown rubber tubes laughed with him, bouncing up and down on the stiff white sheet like happy snakes.
          On the way back to Boston I wondered if he would die. The difference between the dead and the living wasn't all that clear to me. That the deceased was gone was undeniable, but that only proved he'd ceased to occupy a body. Death and life were two sides of the same coin. The death side was like life since the spirit knew the freedom of Home, and the life side was like death since the spirit was nailed inside the body like a coffin. Of the transitions from one side of the coin to the other, I'd always felt birth was the more traumatic because something large had to squeeze inside something small, like a fat lady inside a corset. Death, on the other hand, was like taking two aspirin and going to bed, because something small and confined was released into a vastly larger space. The spirit had only to exhale in order to cross over to the other side of the coin. I believed all this without any evidence or experience. By an unusual turn of events, I had never known anyone who had died even though I was 51.
          A month after we'd returned to Boston we got a phone call from Virginia. A few days later in the old man's drawing room gathered his wife, a few friends, his five daughters and one son, their spouses, and the many grandchildren. He had vehemently insisted on no funeral. "That's not for him to decide," his wife said. "Besides," she added, "this isn't a funeral."
          One daughter burst in late, wrestling with the black plastic garbage bag from the mortuary, with the black plastic box full of ashes inside it. She could hardly carry it. How could the old man still be so heavy? We listened to the minister for a few minutes, then walked to the green field nearby.
          Two daughters took turns carrying their father. "You want to be sure and stay upwind," one said.
          After a short silence while we all reflected on this statement, the other daughter said, "How do you know which way is upwind?"
          "Lick your finger and hold it up," I said eagerly, remembering a Boy Scout manual. "The side that dries first is upwind."
          No one lifted a finger. In silence we reached the field.
          She set the bag down on the ground, opened it, and reached in and took the lid off the box. "How do we do this? With our hands?" Her calm voice was a mask. She was appalled.
          A 10-year-old grandson ran up. "Can I dump it?"
          "No!" She glared at him until he left.
          With one or two exceptions, grandchildren hadn't been important to the old man. Especially for the younger ones, being with grandpa meant lining up in his bedroom once a year, telling him their names, and shaking his hand hello.
          Several grown-ups gathered round the black box like scientists. The remains of the father were dark gray with flecks of light gray and white; like a pile of person dust; like nothing you'd want to put your hands in even if you didn't know the person.
          One daughter turned to the minister. "Do you have a specific blessing for this?"
          "I do, actually," he said, and recited the Bible verse that ends with "ashes to ashes, dust to dust." We all looked again at the box. There was some surreptitious upwind checking. No one moved.
          Suddenly an 8-year-old boy darted forward, grabbed two handfuls of ashes, and ran through the field. Grandpa burst into the air behind him in little gray puffs. Immediately a flock of children converged on the black box, grabbed handfuls, then streaked through the tall grass, throwing ashes to the breeze. Yelling with laughter, they ran back, grabbed more, then sped away screaming into the wind. The old man arose in tiny clouds of gray all over the field. He was alive and everywhere around us, released by happy children. His death was full of life.
          I was dumbfounded and delighted at the same time. I had been completely wrong. Death was not the other side of the coin. Life was the whole coin. Life was Home. Life was a tree with a hundred thousand leaves and death was only one of those leaves. Dying was going to get the newspaper on Sunday morning; you're not only not gone far or for long, you're not really gone.
          I had to hurry before the children took all the fun. I jammed my hands deep into the pile of ashes, then walked quickly through the grass with a double handful, dribbling the old man through my fingers like seeds or fertilizer. The memories of all my interactions with him flickered like a movie projected onto the inside of my face. When the ashes were gone my hands felt like they'd been cradling a newborn baby, precious and delicate. The children in their funeral finery raced in all directions through the tall green grass sprinkled with little yellow flowers playing tag and shrieking for joy under the bright Virginia sun shining like a lollipop in a clear blue sky long after the black box was empty.