Updated: Jan 3, 2021
They picked a dead tree. On that entire hiking trail, surrounded by life, on the side of a brimming mountain, they found the one dead tree in the entire place. This is where Uncle Dick decided to dump my father’s ashes, at the base of this tree, so dried and damaged that it had become a stark white beacon in a sea of green. Now don’t get me wrong, I was living for the classic irony of it all, up on the side of a mountain, in a town my father hated living in, overlooking the job he hated even more than the town, and surrounded by the family members my father hated even more than both combined. Family who, up until a year ago, he hadn’t been in contact with in over two decades, or so I’m told.
My mother was crying again, but that seemed to be the way of the world as of the last two weeks, and my sister, who was for all intents and purposes the eldest, except in the area of responsibility and duty, was tripping out of her mind as the sprinkling started. My uncle Richard, (we’ll call him Uncle Dick as it seems fitting) stood on a slope, making himself appear taller and therefore superior to the rest of the party, and my aunt Michelle clutched the discounted vase that held what was left of the man who raised me as a father, tears melding with the rain that slowly began to fall.
All I could focus on was trying not to react to how fitting this weather was for the occasion, and how much my father loved the rain. Even now, seven years after his death, I can still picture him clear as day standing at the threshold of his workshop, staring out at the rain, totally at peace with the world for those few precious moments. Sometimes I wonder if the reason why he hated the desert so much was because it seldom rains here, or perhaps instead, that was the reason why he so loved the rain. In either case, that soft January rain came falling, and with it, the strong, safe base off of which my life was built.
It really started at the reception, which was held at a restaurant that my father loathed (we’re seeing a pattern now), when Uncle Dick’s daughter, Sanjana (a name said in the way a southern Baptist might say the name Satan) decided she would read a poem about her favorite uncle who was sadly no longer with us. The irony of course being that she had never met my father but once, during a brief and tense phone call between my father and hers. Everyone stared emptily at her as she made her speech, and then her poem, and as my uncle began the pitiful round of applause, looking very satisfied with himself, I found my hands balling, my arm and shoulder tensing, barely containing the urge to knock someone’s lights out, if only to release the pent up emotion pressing into me.
This long and mind-numbing poem was followed by a speech from Uncle Dick himself, boasting about the kindness of his brother, and his charity work (referring to his taking in my mother, my sister, and myself, hoorah). My mother’s shaking hand found my own under that table, and the pain from her hold registered just enough inside of me that I focused back into the grand speech being made. This speech was met by the unblinking stares of every man, woman, and engineer that ever actually met my father, not because he was known to love us openly and without condition, but because the man never gave charity to anyone, ever.
My father had loved us, however gruff that love was, it was true, and so true was it that almost no one attending the funeral, some having known my father for over twenty years, knew that we were not his children. The photos and homemade crafts that littered every inch of his workspace spoke to how much he carried us with him, and every Bring-Your-Kid-To-Work day was kicked off by him bribing us with donuts and a personal tour of the building in which he worked. The sound of our small feet echoing through the big open space, of our voices pleading, bribing, and eventually blackmailing his coworkers for chocolate that we knew was hidden in desks, echoed forward, pulsing behind my eyes as I made eye contact with those around us.
The humiliation I believe, is what got to my mother, once again setting her off into a storm of tears. And a storm it was, messy and wet, with wails that echoed louder than any thunder I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing in my twenty-one years. Uncle Dick seemed pretty satisfied with himself thereafter. My sister was beyond the pain, free floating, and so high out of her mind that I hardly think she even realized she was at a funeral, but hey, we all have ways of coping.
When all was said and done, my mother cried eight times, left the building twice, and left crescent moons in my skin from clutching so hard. My sister lit up twice before she ever walked in the door, and then continued to enjoy the grievance food for the better part of two hours before she had to go refresh her high. I, in the absence of my mother and older sister, took up the duty of thanking the guests, of receiving the “I’m so sorry for your loss’s” and of hearing the many stories that they all wished to share.
Even at fourteen, I realized that my childhood had ended, and as I smiled my way through another hour of attempting to disperse the crowd of mourners, I came to the realization I hadn’t cried once. In my rage and responsibility, I had refused to give the satisfaction, or the dread of seeing me cry to anyone, and so I sat for three and a half hours gripping the butter knife and convincing myself not to use it over and over and over and over again.
By the end of it all, a dead tree on the side of a mountain was looking like the high point of the day, and when the spreading of the ashes began, I turned my back, and looked out at the town my father got stuck in, at a job he hated, in a life that was the epitome of the best of a bad situation. I listened as my uncle began discussing the splitting of his assets, my mother’s muffled crying, my aunt’s hands running to and fro along my mother’s shoulders, and my sister collapsing onto a nearby rock, the journey having taxed her smoke-filled lungs. I heard all of it, took all of it in, without moving from my position, as numbness had spread down my entire body.
My uncle had gotten halfway through the ashes when the rain started in earnest, and when the ashes became clay that painted the white bark grey, he dumped the rest unceremoniously onto the base of the tree and took off briskly down the roughened trail and towards the cars. I knew that some being above must have had a dark sense of humor much as I was finding in my own self.
As everyone scrambled for the cars, and my mom’s tears and sister’s high were washed down the side of the mountain, I stayed and collapsed under that tree, and for the next hour, I sat and allowed myself to be soaked in that January rain. The rain never bothered me, and in its roaring sound I swore I could almost hear his laughing echoing down and out again. That day I basked in the knowledge that my dad was laughing on top of that mountain. He always was one for jokes that no one else thought were funny.