For the better part of two years, my father’s cremains have rested atop a shelf in an undignified cardboard box. Today is as good a day as any to rectify this sorry state of affairs, as it would have been his 88th birthday, and tomorrow is Father’s Day. I see the sun is already flirting with the horizon, but the summer solstice is tomorrow, and that means I still have enough daylight left for the task.
As I set out alone on the gravel road in the car, I reminisce about departing my childhood home in 1990 to embark on a family road trip to Calfornia. It was on that trip that my father uncharacteristically splurged on a nearly-new Nikon F-801s in a camera shop near L.A. That camera now sits in the passenger seat, ready to document the spreading of his ashes.
Present day, my route takes me to a high elevation where I can see ski trails cutting paths down the escarpment, spilling into the bay. At the end of the road, my gut tells me to turn left to ascend the escarpment to its highest elevation. There I find the old ski chalet, perched at the summit, looking no less rustic than the kit home my family renovated on weekends of my youth.
In the passenger seat, a single flap of cardboard is tauntingly curled up, and I tug on it to fully open the box. I feel a churning in my stomach that becomes a knot in my throat, and my eyes well up with tears. Inside is a grey mass encased in a plastic bag crudely sealed with duct tape. One small detail emerges from the flood of a lifetime of memories – the duct tape – and a smile breaks through. My dad was once a jack-of-all-trades who could fix just about anything on a house or car, and do it very poorly. As a result, duct tape held together car parts and patched parts of the house, and now apparently it held him together too. Once I regain my composure, I peel back the strips of tape, dip a metal scoop into the bag, and with teary eyes, a grin, and the courage of my convictions, I get out of the car to release the fine grey powder at the base of a fir tree that stands tall and proud at the end of the drive.
I head down the road to revisit an unusually giant mound of earth I used to climb as a child. Viewed from the road it still seems as big as when I was ten, but now it is overgrown with wild vegetation. There is a path mowed through the brush, and on it I notice an unassuming hare who meanders around the bend, beckoning me forward, every sound I make is met with a twist of a perked ear. The trail encircles the base of the hill, so I must cut my own path through tall grass to reach the top. At my perch I have an impressive vantage of the house among views of the valley and the bay. I spread some more ashes there, then sit down. Now hidden in the tall grass, I settle into the moment and the grief it carries.
Back behind the wheel, my next stop takes me from the heights of the escarpment to sea level. Driving along a residential street, I search for a modest public access point between bloated waterfront mansions. Because the chalet had limited running water, on trips back home from the chalet, we kids would customarily take our Sunday night bath in Georgian Bay. I am forced to give up on finding any significant spot from my childhood, but the sight of another hare seems a good omen, so I pull over.
With my tripod and Nikon in tow, I arrive with the box of ash on a sandy beach on the Southern shores of Georgian Bay. Having become more emotionally resilient, I confidently dip the metal scoop into the bag, throwing ash to the wind with one hand, photographing the act with the Nikon in the other. I’m fighting with the camera however, as the focus motor and shutter start to stutter and whine, and I recognize I am channeling my father’s favourite expletives in response. He had no patience for failures of technology or design, and seemed to live a life plagued by nothing but bad technology and design. I suppose constant disappointment is an occupational hazard for a professional engineer. My father, however, managed to turn sharing his disappointment into the occupation itself with a successful career as an expert consultant on metallurgical failure analysis. People paid him to tell them why metal things broke.
I have to admit that the camera acting up felt like a message from him – heck, even the rabbits that guided parts of my journey felt like his presence as well, but I realize that I am imposing meaning on things as a way to grieve. All things considered though, it is hard not to see some cosmic significance to Father’s Day and his birthday occurring on the summer solstice, and all three of these events coalescing with the moment I gained the fortitude to reach into his remains with my bare hand and let him slip through my fingers, while photographing the act on the last frame his Nikon would expose before the shutter failed permanently.
Everything that exists follows the arc of time; a day, a life, a sound, love, even the universe itself has a beginning, middle, and end.
Author’s note – This was written a year ago today. The rest of dad’s remains have been placed in a proper urn. The Nikon is on a shelf in a state of disrepair. I leave it in that state as my own small tribute to him.
Happy Father’s Day.
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