Daniel John

“I don't want to see him again for the rest of my life,” my future father-in-law said to my future sister-in-law after he met me for the first time. He didn't say why.

My fiancee, anticipating difficulties, had dressed me so carefully for my first visit to Old Virginia that when I met her father he and I were wearing the same outfit. Even our socks and shoes were identical. I was surprised to discover I hadn't passed inspection, especially since I didn't belong to any of the groups of people he disliked: “women, weak people, poor folks who didn't amount to much, Negroes, homosexuals, Jews, hippies, fat people, Democrats, the oversexed, Catholics, and Japanese and their ilk.”

He didn't come to give his daughter away at our wedding in Boston, but he did see me again, once a year, like the flu. The years went by and the grand-children came, and gruff avoidance and dinner-table scorn gave way to a rumpled truce.

When he was in his late 70s he had two artificial knees implanted, with strict instructions to exercise as much as he could. The old man went to bed and never got up. After that he had little to do besides read and watch videos of classical music. By the time I showed up on the annual visit, he was glad to see even me. I would sit next to his bed in the afternoons and we'd talk for hours about history, world events, and the ignorant, oversexed people who were running this country into the ground.

The older I got, the more I enjoyed his shrewd intelligence and acerbic wit. By the time he was in his 80s and I was in my 50s I felt so kindly toward the old man I grew porous in his presence. After talking with him for a few hours I would snap and snarl at my wife because she was, like all women, worse than useless. She learned to stay away from me until I decompressed.

A few years ago, in the middle of an afternoon talk, his male nurse didn't show up. He grew increasingly agitated until finally he gruffly said, “You are not strong enough to lift me off the bed and get me to the toilet!” In reply I hoisted him up to a sitting position, then maneuvered him over to the side of the bed. I had to hug him tightly to stand him up and then carry him to the toilet, his weak legs dragging. He sat on the pot as best he could. His stainless-steel knees would not bend.

“You can't wipe me,” he growled, his craggy patriarch face flaming with humiliation and anger.

“I've wiped babies all my life.”

“You don't know, not my poop!”

When I heard that old unreconstructed Southerner say the word, ‘poop,’ I knew one of us had to be senile. I'm sure he thought it was me, since I'd just volunteered to wipe another man's ass. Right then the male nurse arrived and the old man made it real clear, y'hear? I wasn't needed around there, no, sir!

On my next annual visit he was in the hospital. When I saw those long depressing brown-rubber tubes coming out of him I suddenly remembered a joke.

On Judgment Day God called all the husbands together. “Any man who can swear he was never bossed around by his wife, stand over here.” The men looked uncomfortable. No one moved. “Surely one of you!” God thundered. One man gingerly stepped forward. “At last! I knew there would be at least one man who was truly made in my image. Now tell me, good sir, how did you come to stand here?”

“Uh, God, sir? You'll have to ask my wife, she made me do it.”

The old man laughed and laughed until his brown rubber tubes bounced up and down on the stiff sheets like happy snakes. If I never saw him again, that last laugh was the best gift I could ever have given him.

I wondered if he would die soon. I'd always thought death and life were two sides of the same coin, only their meanings were reversed by most people. The death side was really life since after the spirit dropped the body it was home free; and the life side was really death because the spirit was buried inside the flesh as in a coffin. Birth was the more traumatic transition because something large had to squeeze inside something small, like a fat lady inside a corset. Death, on the other hand, was like taking two aspirin and going to bed: all that happened was something small and confined released into a larger, kinder space. Birth was torture; death as easy as an exhale. I believed all this without any evidence or experience, since I had never known anyone who had died.

Within the month we got a phone call from Virginia. A few days later his wife, a few old friends, his five daughters, one son, their spouses and the many grandchildren gathered in the old man's drawing room. He had been vehement, even for him: no funeral.

“That's not for him to decide,” his wife said. “Besides,” she added, “this isn't a funeral.”

A daughter burst in late, wrestling with the black plastic bag from the mortuary. She could hardly carry it. How could her father still be so heavy? We all listened to the minister's few words, then walked to the green field nearby to scatter the ashes. Two daughters took turns carrying their father.

“You want to be sure and stay upwind,” one said confidentially to the group.

There was a long silence. Then the other daughter asked, “How do you know which way is upwind?”

“Lick your finger and hold it up,” I said, remembering the Boy Scout manual. “The side that dries first is upwind.”

No one lifted a finger. In silence we reached the field.

She set the bag down on the ground, then folded the edges back until the black box rested like an offering on the black plastic like ceremonial cloth. She gingerly took the lid off the box. The ashes regarded us with suspicion, the way he always had.

“How do we do this? With our hands?” She was appalled.

A 10-year-old grandson ran up. “Can I dump it?”

“No!” She glared at him. He ran off to play with the other children.

Several grown-ups gathered round the box. The ashes were dark gray with flecks of light gray and white. Even if you didn't know the specific person, you wouldn't want to put your hands in him.

“Do you have a specific blessing for this?” one daughter asked the minister.

“I do, actually.” He recited the Bible verse that ends with, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

We all turned our attention back to the box. There was some surreptitious upwind checking, but the sweet-smelling breeze wouldn't choose only one direction. The birds were piercingly loud. No one spoke or moved. A bright red cardinal flew from one bush to another.

Suddenly an 8-year-old boy darted forward, grabbed two handfuls of ashes and ran through the field. Grandpa burst into the air behind him in little gray puffs. A flock of children crowded around the box, filled their hands, then streaked through the tall grass, throwing ashes into the clean spring air. Yelling with laughter, they ran back, grabbed more, then sped screaming into the wind. The old man arose in tiny clouds all over the field. His death was full of life.

I was dumfounded and delighted: Death was not the other side of the coin, as I'd always thought. Life was the whole coin, and death was just the shine on part of its edge. Life was a big old forever tree, and death was only one of its million leaves. Dying was going to get the newspaper on Sunday morning. You're not only not gone far, you're not really gone, just popped around the corner a bit. We can't see you because you don't block light the way you did when you had a body. I'd been completely wrong about death and the proof was right in front of my eyes: The old man was alive and everywhere around me, released by the joy of children.

Just in time before they were all gone I shoved my hands into the ashes and got two fat fistfuls. I walked out into the field, dribbling the old man through my fingers like seeds or fertilizer. The memories of all my interactions with him flickered like a movie on the inside of my face. When the ashes were gone I looked in amazement at my dusty hands. They felt the same as if I'd been cradling a newborn baby, precious and delicate.

Long after the box was empty children in funeral finery raced in all directions through the tall green grass sprinkled with little yellow flowers playing tag and shrieking with happiness under the bright Virginia sun shining like a lollipop in a clear blue sky.