Friday, March 31, 2023

The Soapbox: Sisterhood of the Traveling Ashes

He’s back.

I received the text from my sister that included a photo of a small box tucked into a seatbelt in her passenger seat.

Three years after being found lifeless in his own home, my father’s cremains had arrived from the LSU Health Sciences Center following the donation of his body to science.

I’ll start by saying something that every grieving person wants non-grieving people to know:  You can’t explain away grief to the heart and tell it to just STOP.   You tell yourself that if there were some sort of magic pill that would make grief go away permanently, you would probably pay big bucks for it.  But this thing called grief is unrelenting.  It has its own timetable.  It’s impossible to run away from the place where the pain resides.  Deep in your gut.  Your very core.  There is no choice but to endure a pain that cannot be found in any X-ray or cut out like some big goiter.

So that was me for the almost three years following the fair February day when the hearse carried my Dad from the hill where he had invested his entire life. 

And just like that, this simple text from my sister Ava.  He’s back. It was reminiscent of how this journey all began the day my brother had called me in carpool.  Daddy’s dead; the kind of life-changing words that cause you to ask yourself Where am I? when you wake up every morning.

But now here was the box with the return label that could only mean one thing.  We were nearing the end of this odd journey, though we knew that all that was left of him could never be contained in just one box. 

I had a very profound and older-sister-knows-best response to Ava’s one and only question What do you want to do with him?: I do not know.

We had already sold his limited edition Harley, but could connect with some of the motorcycle brotherhood and possibly ride him up to the Ozarks and scatter the ashes there.  Or perhaps he might like to find a resting place in Lake D’Arbonne where the sunsets speak the loudest quiet you’ve never heard.  We could have dropped him off at a local commemorative Indian burial mound and buried him with one of his pipes; being the storyteller he was, that would have been right up his alley. 

Instead, we just put him on Ava’s kitchen counter for a few weeks.  Just above where she washes dishes.

Finally, Ava mailed him over to me and I put him in my suitcase for a while as I wondered if I should maybe just dig a hole in his yard and bury him there, but I thought better of it just in case Granny might accidentally dig him up one day looking for one of her money-filled coffee cans.

So, after another few weeks of traveling with me, I announced to Ava that we should do the thing that would bring my Granny joy and honor his legacy the most.

I drove him home to the country where he was placed on the mantle at Morrow Manor, a hundred-year-old countryside farmhouse that I spent a year of my life restoring when he died, though Dad had supposedly closed it down for good.  All of our generations had lived in the manor at one time or another and we had many memories there.  For me, it was the first eight years of life when my Mama and Daddy were young.  So there at the manor remained the ashes of my Dad as we awaited his veteran’s grave marker.  When it was ready, we gathered together for a final goodbye.

It was sunny and quiet.  Not the military funeral I had always envisioned for him.  My brother was working off shore in the Gulf of Mexico.  Two new grandkids that he had never met provided a needed distraction.  When my Aunt asked if anyone would like to add any words to eulogize him, my four-year-old niece Annie said, “Can we go home yet?”  Nevertheless, we all made it through the ceremony, even Annie.

Over the last three years as I waited to make peace with grief, I found the unfinished business of my girlhood waiting for me at our country home.  Sure, it was there in my old boots and Friday night hayrides in which the company might have been fine, but the moon and stars were far greater.  There was a growth into womanhood my Dad’s death required of me.  He wasn’t there to answer questions anymore like What should I do? I had to just take my best guess based upon my gut and a lot of prayer.

Because he had spent a good part of his life working undercover in law enforcement, I found it apropos that he left behind a trail of mysteries for me to unravel.  After my sister and I looked over his ashes for one final day and they were finally laid to rest, I pulled a trailer up to the porch on Morrow Manor and loaded up some basic pieces of furniture and a few pictures.  I left behind beautiful rugs, window treatments, and fine china.

I remembered the words he had told me when I went off to college.  You go down that lane and don’t come back. I suppose I learned some things he knew all along, one of them being that there was a life waiting somewhere in a far off place and I would be the happiest when I found it.  Whether the vines at Morrow Manor ever become overgrown and twist and curl again, I won’t look back.  Whether thieves doth steal or moth and rust doth destroy, I’ll just remember the manor as a place where we celebrated my fortieth birthday, Christmas, and our extended family, for the first time in nearly twelve years.

In addition, through the gift of Dad’s body to science, somewhere, there is a former med student, now a physician who serves for the greater good of the people.  I suppose I always believed that God works all things together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.  But just like with my earthly Father, I think my Heavenly Father had to let me figure it out again on my own. 

Out of this life I shall never take
things of silver and gold I make.
All that I cherish and hoard away
after I leave, on earth must stay.
Though I have toiled for a painting rare
to hang on my wall, I must leave it there.
Though I call it mine and boast its worth,
I must give it up when I quit the earth.
All that I gather and all that I keep
I must leave behind when I fall asleep.
And I wonder often, just what I shall own
in that other life, when I pass alone.
What shall He find and what shall He see
in the soul that answers the call for me?
Shall the great Judge learn, when my task is through,
That my soul had gathered some riches, too?
Or shall at the last, it be mine to find,
That all I had worked for I had left behind?

–Author Unknown


Read Brandi’s column each month in The Cross Timbers Gazette newspaper. Follow Brandi on Twitter @BrandiChambless

Brandi Chambless
Brandi Chambless
Read Brandi's column each month in The Cross Timbers Gazette newspaper.

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