The ache my father left fled one day when I wasn’t paying attention. Perhaps it’s because we didn’t bury him. We couldn’t afford priority shipping so after a thirty year absence he arrived via USPS, on a Saturday morning, in a box sealed with tape that read “human remains” in blue block letters. I didn’t know they made tape for marking the packages of dead people. I didn’t know they put the incinerated bodies into a plastic bag inside of the box. It was dark grey and heat sealed as if someone had manufactured what was returned to us. I didn’t know that human remains were so heavy, or that when you lift a box containing the dead you’re acutely aware that this is something you once longed for; that this as close as you will ever again get.
When my father returned after thirty years, standard delivery, we couldn’t bear to put him in the ground or lock him in the chamber of a cement shelf at the memorial center off Business 220. He sat on the floor in front of the sofa where my grandmother occupied the same place every day. The edge of the box kept finding the bunion on her left foot. I kept forgetting that he was her son because at ninety-one I couldn’t find the grief written in her face. I found it in the forgetfulness that came after. At four-thirty p.m. each day a light filled void would take her away. It would spill in through the dingy windows making the turquoise leather she sat upon seem sick. She would stare into it as it waxed then slowly waned. When there was no longer any trace of it, her trance would end; always by some movement that would startle her. She’d return to herself, remember the box at her feet, look down, then ask for supper.
When the bunion started to bleed, the box then sat on the breakfast bar for seventeen days. She asked me to move him one morning; to place him, “over there,” she pointed.
“Here,” I’d asked?
“Yes,” she’d said, “up there.”
After seventeen days I think the absurdity of keeping a box of human remains on the breakfast bar finally occurred to her. This time when I asked about moving him, she jumped up and said she was going to bring him to her bedroom. I told her I would take him, but she insisted upon trying to lift the box herself. She might have wanted to feel him in her arms one last time but the weight of him was more than she could bear. Her arms shook and she struggled to open her hands, but neither would cooperate. I lifted the box with ease and asked her where she wanted him. She didn’t say anything as she went along and I followed quietly behind. In her bedroom she sat down on the bed to rest. She stared into the wallpaper for a few minutes as if she were hoping to find a trance, but the void would not come in the morning. She couldn’t lose herself in the light of this room. I stood there – waiting. I let the weight of what I was carrying make pins and needles in my arms. I let it settle into my back and strain the arches in my feet. I didn’t want to set him down because he was too heavy in a place she hadn’t designated. To do so seemed, too unceremonious. She finally stood up, walked to the closet, and opened the door. She pointed and I placed him on the floor next to her hat boxes and my grandfather’s old fishing slicks.
When we sold the house she made her pilgrimage to a smaller place; what would become the final stopover before joining him. Not trusting the movers, she asked me to move him for her. I carried the box out of the house, set it down in the passenger seat of my car, buckled it in, and drove us over to the new place. It was the first time my father and I had taken a drive together. I bought her a memorial necklace for Mother’s Day that year; explained that she could place some of the ashes in it and wear it close to her heart. It sat on her dresser; a pewter angel peeking out the plastic window of its own unopened packaging.
When my grandmother passed, I retrieved my father and brought him home. I set him on the breakfast bar. The following Friday, on my way home from work, I stopped by the pharmacy, collected the box containing my grandmother, and picked up takeout for the kids. When I got home, I placed her beside my father. I left them there for twenty-three days. When I caught my daughter with her hands cupped against the side of the box yelling, “Granny, can you hear me?” I decided to move them. I found a place for them in my closet between a box of old photographs and a crate full of journals I can never bring myself to throw away. I sometimes dream of the future, of my grandchildren and their children, of closets containing generations stacked neatly in boxes between the things we want to remember, and the things we can’t let go.
Banner Image : https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AUSPS-Mail-Truck.jpg – By IFCAR (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons