This past Saturday, I laid my Dad to rest. It's a bitter pill to swallow, knowing that his is a face I'll only ever see again in photographs and memories. He gave me my life, as worthless as it might be, but I was the one to take it away from him, and I don't know if I'll ever be able to come to terms with that decision. Is it right to take the reins on someone's life when their in too much pain to take them up on their own? What if he wanted to live with all his heart and soul, despite the pain? No matter how I try to justify it in my head, that his pain was likely too great for him to make a decision for himself, or that it was simply better to end his suffering, I just feel dirty. How do I have the right to take away that last bit of freedom he might have had?
These questions resounded through me as my family joined in spreading his ashes this past Saturday. We drove out to the town of Mormon Lake in Arizona, and visited his favorite spot for hunting and camping, a little pine grove off the beaten path, still scarred with the tire tracks from his many previous visits. A couple of times, I'd been there myself as a child, and we'd hang out at night with his best friend, Bob, roasting s'mores and franks, while they'd let me practice firing a .22. That's a campsite I'll likely never see again.
I pushed what guilty or selfish thoughts from my mind that I could, as my grandfather said words of prayer and poetry in his honor, and my grandmother shed tears for a son gone too early. That time wasn't for me, it was for all of us, including my dad. After the prayer, we took turns spreading the ashes: Cousins, Uncles, and even Bob, were all there for the man who'd been the center of my life for as long as I could remember. Last in the queue, I took the godawful box my dad'd been relegated to, and marched a ways off to where I could be alone with him, and began to spread him at the base of an oak tree. Half of the ashes I spread there. After, I retrieved a letter from my pocket, one that he'd written me from prison, but I'd never gotten to respond to, as he'd never sent it to me. On the reverse of each page I'd written my reply, words that I won't share, but still loving and honoring him. He wasn't a bad person, just a victim of bad circumstance, and I wanted him to know that not matter what had happened in the past, he was irreplaceable to me.
Finally, near the ashes, I left something important of myself, a pocket knife, souvenir from the lodge at Mormon Lake that he'd gotten me when I was a lad of around 8 years old. He probably forgot he'd even given it to me, but I always had it, because it was a symbol of my memories with him there. I wanted him to know, at least, that I'd never forgotten.
As we left the campsite, I didn't look back. I couldn't look back, knowing that would be his last trip to Mormon lake. My family and I returned to the lodge and enjoyed a nice lunch together, even though we would have liked him to have been there with us. He'd have liked to have another bison burger I think. After, my family parted ways, and we headed home. The next day would be even harder.
I stayed with my grandparents that night, woke up early the next morning before they did, slid on my jeans, shoes and sweater, then left in the car, the rest of my dad's ashes in the passenger seat. There's a hiking area behind my grandma's house that my dad would always traverse, while he was staying there after getting out of prison. He was always big on staying in shape, even during the times he wasn't. He was a pretty beefy guy after getting out, in arguably the best shape of his life, so in his free time he would run up and down that small mountain. I wanted to give him one more hike, for old time's sake. It was a laughable effort, me huffing up the hill, in not-so-arguably the worst shape of my life, not overweight, but unfit nonetheless. I marched on until I reached the top.
I couldn't meet the gazes of the other hikers, as they undoubtedly cast strange glances to the box labled "cremated remains" in my arms, but I didn't really want to. This was my last moment to see him off, his last hike up his favorite hill. I knelt down at the pinnacle, the sun just peeking over the horizon, and took out the bag that contained what was left of his remains. It hurt... and the ashes were so heavy, but I couldn't bear to leave him in that box any longer. Somberly, I poured his ashes out of the way of the trail, then folded the bag and returned it to the box. I can't accurately reflect on what emotions I was feeling then, because they were innumerable. Resting there on my knees, however, the air felt cool and calm, and I know that my dad would have loved to feel that morning breeze, to stand above the world again, just for one moment.
This time, he wouldn't be coming back from his hike. No more running back down the mountain. No more Sunday football games. No more camping, or hunting, or eating s'mores over a fire. No more eating together at each holiday with the family. No more enthusiastic conversations about his start-up business. No more big, bright, and white-toothed smiles. The man whose back I always looked up to is no more. I can only hope, with all of my heart, that wherever he is now, he's happier than me. Rest in peace, Pops.
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