My father’s ashes had been sitting on the shelf for several weeks when I got an email from Tim B. saying that surf conditions would be low along with warmer water temps. I invited several friends to join me at 8am in Santa Monica to swim out to the buoy and scatter my father’s remains into the sea. Steve, one of the founders of the Ocean 101 crew, volunteered to paddle his surfboard out to the buoy and ferry my dad with him. Steve became the pallbearer, or Charon if you like that image. We met at the parking lot and made our way to the ocean. Sofia and Eve walked with us, opting to sit on the beach and observe as we did our service. Sofia was finally on hiatus from finishing her master’s thesis waiting for rewrite notes and her first draft delivery was marked by the news that one of her cousins, the first cousin of her mother’s very large family, had just died at age 47 leaving behind a wife and 10 year old son. Our memorial crew stood in front of the lifeguard station and Sofia took our picture with us holding up a beach towel from the L.A. County Coroner’s Office, the body outline a joke my father would have loved.
The surf was gentle and forgiving for those of us who hadn’t been in the water in weeks. Charrissa was still recovering from being hit by a tow truck on her bike and one of her ass cheeks was swollen to three times its normal size. Still, she suited up and bravely hit the water with us. Tim was already in the surf, choosing to shock his system into awareness with a cold plunge. Teeth chattering he said, “come on in! The water’s fine!” Damon had given Lynne a wetsuit wedgie on the shore, his idea of a proper fit. We were joking around, enjoying being at the beach.
We gamely swam and paddled our way out to the buoy. It was much further out than I remembered and others confirmed it had moved. Or they were being nice to me. I took my dad’s ashes from Steve and held it up. I had been thinking for weeks what I would say when this moment came but nothing felt right. As I had swam out to the buoy my mind was reviewing my relationship with my dad and all of its complexity. When I finally reached the buoy, I realized what to say. I couldn’t have reached the buoy without my dad. The whole reason I was exactly where I was at that moment was because of my father. I fought for years to be seen as my own person who made decisions based on an intrinsic sense of self, but where was the harm in recognizing that the reason I started changing my eating habits and exercising was because I didn’t want to end up in a hospital bed with my obese body trying to die. I held my father up in the air and I told my friends that my dad saved my life so many times I took it for granted. That he had his flaws, like anyone else, but he was really good at saving my life. I didn’t know how to eat properly until I saw him almost die from gourmet living. I didn’t know how to exercise until I lost weight and connected with my body. I didn’t know I’d be an endurance athlete until I started running and kept on going. I was bobbing like a cork 500 meters form the shore in a wetsuit that had seen five half Ironmans, 1 full Ironman, and hundreds of miles of training because of my father. I looked at my friends, many of whom I wouldn’t have known if it wasn’t for my life change. My friend Rob had known me back when we worked in visual effects together, and he had seen me when I was a three pack a day smoker. And now he sat atop a surfboard as my friend, neighbor, and now a running partner as I am helping him start running again.
I opened the bag underwater and emptied the bag. It swirled in the water, a gray tornado. Charrissa submerged and took photos of the light piercing through the water through the ashes. In seconds he had dispersed into the Pacific waters.
We swam back to shore, Rob caught a few waves as long as he was suited up and had his board. I slowly swam back, enjoying the time. Lori, also from the Ocean 101, was swimming out. She was feeling ill and was sorry she was late, but it was great to see her in the water. She swam out to say goodbye to dad, to pay her respects.
I came back shore and turned down my wetsuit. Sofia had been watching through binoculars and had tears in her eyes. Later that night she would pretty much explode in a vomiting, colossal migraine. She had been working so hard for so long as the injuries kept piling up but she couldn’t begin to touch her grief because she had deadlines and commitments. Three years of working towards her Master’s degree and she had as many extensions as were permitted. She delivered her first draft Sunday, her cousin died Tuesday, and here we were on Wednesday scattering my father’s ashes into the ocean. My father, with whom she had a strange relationship. My dad didn’t really get Sofia, though he loved her completely. Sofia didn’t’ really get my dad, though she loved him completely. His bad jokes and tendency to change the rules drove Sofia crazy. I had grown up with it and rolling with it was second nature. She had just learned to love him as he was when he died. You can’t measure loss because it’s different for everyone. On the beach, Sofia allowed herself to turn on the faucet of her grief and later that day the pipe burst.
I took a long break before I wrote about the accounts of that morning and though I started several drafts I threw them all away. What I realized was that I was done. At least, done with the physical parts of grief. Scattering his ashes was the final task on a long to-do list of physical activities around his death. Writing about it, though part of my process, felt like diving back into something I had moved beyond. At the same time it had been constipating me. I am exceedingly linear in my creative process and until I wrote about being done, I couldn’t move forward. And yet, being done meant being done.
I’ll never be finished with my father. He’s a part of me forever and he’ll continue to surface in my life as an inner presence. The act of scattering his ashes was the delayed sound of dirt on the lid of the coffin; a tactile sound of the end of the physical being. And yet when I look at myself in the mirror I’ll still see him, echoed in my genes, my mind, my memories, and my actions.
I miss him, and I am learning to live without him.