The Urns, The Ashes, The Waves.
In my Mother’s basement, placed in a corner dedicated to what has become something of a shrine, there rests three urns.
They are beautiful urns. Exemplars of South Asian craftsmanship. Distinctly exotic, swimming in blues and gold, ornate in a way that makes you want to hold them, feel them. My Father bought them where he lives, in Thailand.
They contain my brothers ashes.
Human ash doesn’t look or feel the way I thought it would. I’d imagined it would be fine, like the soft sand one steps through on a tropical beach.But its not like that. At least not for my brother.
His ash is dense. It is grainy, substantial, defined by small white chunks that I can only assume are his bones. It rests inside the urn like a private dream, a strange flourish of the imagination better kept to oneself.
The bulk of his ash rests easily in these three urns.
What was left following the cremation was packed into sealed, waterproof baggies, then placed into small white boxes. The kind most often reserved for trinkets, earrings, other jewelry. Some of these were placed in special cases designed by my surviving brother, Eric. They were distributed to members of the extended family, those thought to be significantly close to him.
Three boxes remained once this was done. And on a cloudless, hot day in mid July, with the bags of his ash in hand, I swam into the waves of the Atlantic Ocean, and dispersed off their contents into the storied waters of Long Island, New York.
Long Island, New York. We spent many childhood summers there. It is a place where he worked, lived, and loved. A place where we experienced tremendous joy and tremendous loss.
This is where he requested his ashes be spread. In the same waters we once swam in together from June until August. On the same beach he walked along countless times, as a child, a teenager, and young adult.
When I dream of him now it is often on a beach or in the water.
He front crawls across the troughs of waves, he dives beneath their crests. He liked the ocean rough. The more dangerous the conditions the better. Just like he lived.
The ocean was angry on the day I spread his ashes. I held them above the water at first, awkwardly fighting off waves, fearing that I’d lose the bags if I were to dive.
Eventually I had no choice but to go under. It was that, or be crushed against the shore. Just like the novice swimmers we once laughed at as children.
My Mother and Wife watched from the shore. An older lady approached them. She commented on how brave I was to be out there, swimming in conditions like that.
“Oh, you have no idea,” my Mother replied.
I dove under a large wave, gripping both bags in my left hand. The ocean offered a respite when I surfaced. The water settled just enough for me to open the bags without being tossed around, then empty his ashes into the water.
I started with just a sprinkling. I wasn’t ready to let go. But I knew this wasn’t about me, it was about him. The honoring of his wishes.
I tilted the bags more liberally, spreading the ash around my body. I took a handful and rubbed it into my chest, my back. I needed that closeness, that touch.
“Was this strange?” I thought to myself. “Was this macabre?”
I emptied both bags entirely, in tight circles from left to right. His ash hung in the water like gentle clouds, it corkscrewed and spun like smoke inside the current. Then, after a final dance, they dissipated.
I swam back to shore, embracing my Wife and Mother deeply, crying into their shoulders. A group of unknowing beach goers looked on, not sure of what it was they were witnessing.
“Thank you,” my Mother said.
“That was really special,” said my wife.
We spent a few more minutes huddled together. I bent over to collect my tank-top from the ground and put it on before leaving. And as I crossed the threshold of the beach onto the hot black tarmac, I watched a toddler struggle through unsure steps, over the sand, into the arms of his waiting, pregnant mother.