Campbell Corner Essay Prize
Daniel John: 3rd Place, 2001
Dust to Dust, Ashes to Children
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."
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.
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.
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
can't wipe me," he growled contemptuously.
wiped babies all my life," I countered.
but you don't know, not my poop!"
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!
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.
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?"
God? You'll have to ask my wife, she made me
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.
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.
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."
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.
daughters took turns carrying their father. "You
want to be sure and stay upwind," one said.
a short silence while we all reflected on this
statement, the other daughter said, "How
do you know which way is upwind?"
your finger and hold it up," I said eagerly,
remembering a Boy Scout manual. "The side
that dries first is upwind."
one lifted a finger. In silence we reached the
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.
10-year-old grandson ran up. "Can I dump
She glared at him until he left.
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.
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.
daughter turned to the minister. "Do you
have a specific blessing for this?"
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.
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.
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.
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.