My dad used to say that when he died, he wanted to greet everyone who came to the wake to pay their respects. “I want to be propped up in a comfortable chair, kiddo,” he would say. “I want to be propped up and holding a big bowl in each arm, one filled with potato chips. The other with a dip of your choice. Everyone who wants to say a prayer has to eat a chip.”
This would be years before he actually got sick. It would be whispered to me at the open casket wake of his twin brother, dead of lung cancer. I remember it being so eerie seeing a man lying waxy in a casket who looked exactly like my father. I pulled his tweed jacket arm close to me, as friends and family members would look at my dad as if they had seen a ghost. I had no idea that this would foreshadow our lives just a few years later.
He was always in pain. Two months before he was diagnosed with orthocarcinoma he drove down to Brooklyn to “help me move,” but I really didn’t need help. He just needed a reason to come. He painted one wall back to white from a hastily-done unicorn purple and then we had the rest of the weekend alone together. We walked around Williamsburg, stopping for him to rest because his back hurt. He ate vegan food for the first time, and had to call my mom to let her know he liked it. We ate popsicles in air conditioning and binge-watched Hey, Arnold. He took Ambien to help him sleep because the pain kept him up.
He was diagnosed in October, and was gone three days before my January 30 birthday. When he died, we were all there in the room. Myself, both sisters, my mom. A room of devoted women who had not left his side in over a month, getting fat off hospital ice cream and french fries while he could barely keep down water. Dark circles under our eyes while we read him Harry Potter and begged him to stop taking his catheter out. Praying he would stop asking to go home. Desperately telling him over and over what a great father he had been and how much we loved him, did he know? How we were going to be okay, and not to hold on for us.
When he left, I felt him floating, a sense of “here, not here, but everywhere” that didn’t give me religion but it did give me hope. Leaving that hospital room for the last time was the hardest thing we have ever done. Leaving him.
The plan was to scatter his ashes on our favorite Cape Cod beach. It was where my parents spent their third date (which involved an 8 hour drive and three days), and where we would spend a week every year since I was born. The sand, the steep hill where he would hoist a huge red cooler on his shoulder to carry down to the surf, him baking in the sun despite my mother’s cries to put on sunscreen. He slathered himself in oil, basking in the Italian skin we all inherited. He scoffed at sand castles, choosing instead to make huge sea turtles, mermaids, and fish.
We started on Cape Cod, and it was honestly more beautiful than any funeral I have ever attended. Our whole family amidst driftwood and dried seaweed, standing in a circle. We each read something or shared a memory, and Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” played softly from a decades-old boombox.
We each dug our hands into a Ziploc bag, and felt the soft ash that was once my dad’s body. It’s so much softer than you think it will be, with tiny bits of bone that I loved more than anything. I wanted to keep it in my pocket. Afterwards we cooked hot dogs and made s’mores. The next day we would laugh so hard we would cry as we watched a fat little boy play in the sand where we had scattered Dad. The definition of gallows’ humor, I guess.
My mom had the idea to not scatter all of him on Cape Cod, and that notion developed into something much bigger. We would scatter him everywhere, every place that meant something to him. The next place would be Beaver Lake, a nature preserve near our house where he used to go walking. He would find a walking stick somewhere, and traipse around stopping only to feed us trail mix or show us a loon. We asked for donations for a bench, which has his name, a Lord of the Rings quote, and overlooks the lake. We sat on the bench and ate sandwiches, watching the wind off the water blow him around the brush.
Then France and Italy. Growing up, my mother was terrified of flying and a year before my dad was diagnosed, she took fear of flying classes and booked them a two week trip through France. It would be the last trip they would take together, both returning starry eyed talking about Paris and this tiny hilltop town called Eze.
A year after my dad died, my mom and I returned to Eze and snuck into a crumbling cemetery on the very top of a hill. Amidst centuries old tombstones, a little piece of my dad would melt into the earth. We would then go on to Florence, Capri, and Rome, a trip my dad always wanted us to take together. We drank wine and ate bread and swam in our clothes.
Spending that time with my mom was the biggest gift anyone could have ever given me. I swear we scattered some of his ashes spontaneously on Capri, my mom swears we didn’t. The world may never know. I still shudder to think what would’ve happened if the TSA found out that we were travelling across country borders carrying human remains.
Third was the Brooklyn Bridge. My dad was born in Bay Ridge, and throughout his life had Brooklyn pride running through his veins. Whenever we would as a family visit the city, his gait would develop a swagger and his accent would get a little thicker. “Cawfee,” he would say. He loved that I chose to live there, and so we oh so casually scattered a bit of him in a corner of the bridge, which was quite a feat considering the amount of nosy tourists who are constantly swarming. I go back there often now, to walk past him and stare out at the water.
Finally (for now), the Adirondacks. Always a family with copious traditions, growing up we would also camp for a week on Eighth Lake post-Cape Cod. We would kayak, swim, read, and sometimes get stung by ten bees while getting firewood (me).
One warm Saturday, we rented the same site we always camped in for just one day. We sat on the shore, listening to the birds and avoiding mosquitos, and, a now familiar experience, we scattered a little of Dad into the cool water.
I hope that he knows, because he would just get the biggest kick out of it. He would laugh and his eyes would crinkle and he probably wouldn’t cry but he would get choked up a little and maybe say “you assholes,” in that really sweet way that just meant he loved us so much. We now each have a place to go whenever we miss him, never more than a 30-minute drive, or an airplane ride if we’re feeling adventurous.
It has become almost a joke at this point, wherever we go. My mom will very seriously say, “I’m bringing a little bit of your father, I thought we could scatter some of his ashes.” We laugh now, like “there’s more of him??”
I have a tiny container left from Italy, with a thin layer of dust still inside, that I keep in a desk drawer full of pictures of him, and my old poetry journals. Some days I will open the tiny jar and touch so lightly inside as to not disturb anything. It’s my dad. He’s everywhere.