The day I was born (well, maybe the next day after sleeping off a 36 hour labor) I wonder if my mom, as a new mother, looked at her beautiful baby girl and thought, “I can’t wait to help this little bundle of joy spread her husband’s undocumented cremains, which she smuggled through security hidden deeply in her luggage, in international waters!”? I doubt it.
It all started a week after my husband died. Mom decided that what I really needed to take my mind off of my grief was a vacation. For those of you who have never been on this side of such a situation, taking a vacation shortly after the death of your spouse if a BAD idea. Unfortunately for me, to a handful of friends and my family this seemed like an excellent idea. I can see how this would make sense to someone on the outside looking in at me. Here’s this person that just spent the better part of the last two years in concurrent states of perpetual worry, insomnia, chaos, and poverty, juggling the realities of being a cancer spouse. After what can only be described as a series of events straight out of Murphy’s Law for Dummies, she found herself widowed and lost in reality aided by a nice case of PTSD. Of course she needs a break; book her on the next flight!
And that’s almost exactly what my mother did. In her infinite wisdom, she decided that we should hold off for a few months before departing on I affectionately call the Anti-widow Tour 2010 (or AWT-10 for short) for very practical reasons. First off, it was April and seeing as my mom was a teacher on the traditional September to June school schedule, she had to work for another couple of months. Secondly, she felt I might need a few months to adjust to my new marital status before I was ready to party, international style. Lastly, tickets to the Caribbean tend to be cheaper during hurricane season, and since she was funding this little sabbatical on her ample teaching salary, cost had to be considered.
Four months was just long enough for me to accomplish several things. I moved out of the loft we were living in when (and where) Chris died and into the spare bedroom of a townhouse belonging to an old friend. She was grieving the loss of her son just a few months earlier, and there’s nothing like commiseration to make the living situation a little more comfortable.
A week following my move, I had a complete nervous breakdown and slipped into a coma for four days under questionable circumstances. It was two days before anyone found me, after which I was admitted into ICU and given a botched spinal tap. Within hours of regaining consciousness, I mistakenly checked myself into a psychiatric hospital thinking I was signing discharge papers. The psych hospital wouldn’t even admit me, given that I was still too physically ill up for therapy.
Since I couldn’t play the starring role in my rendition of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” I did a brief stint at my parents’ house, and it was here that I desperately tried to recover from what my mom affectionately calls my “crash and burn” as quickly as possible. Once I could sit upright AND perform any task requiring energy simultaneously and without the hassle of excruciating pain, it became clear that I needed to start dealing with my reality as a young widow…so I ran away.
Four weeks to the day after an ambulance was dispatched to transport my unresponsive ass to the hospital, I got in my car and made a beeline for the Northeast with my friend Karen, who was also seeking to escape life. After a few days of misadventures in Martha’s Vineyard (another story entirely) we found ourselves lost in the backwoods of Maine, trying to find our way to Karen’s friends’ place without getting raped by a moose. It was here that I had my first experience of having to confront my status as a widow…and openly admit to it.
We spent the weekend crashing with a couple in their flat situated above the flower/antique shop they owned in a tiny town an hour north of Portland. Obviously my current life situation came out during the course of conversation that first night, with the assistance of numerous libations. A few nights later, we were invited to dinner at another couple’s house, where I let it slip that my husband had been a chef. The hostess proclaimed how great it must be to have husband that cooked all the time and began asking questions about where he worked, what type of fare he specialized in, etc. Thankfully, I had help explaining that my husband had previously been a chef but given the fact that he was no longer in existence, I no longer had someone to cook for me at home. It was at this point that I increased my consumption of wine, but got through the evening regardless.
As we high-tailed it back to Virginia so that I could put a deposit down on another place (sans roommate), it dawned on me that I had survived my first experiences of conceding to the notion that Chris really was gone. Once I got home I had to face the fact that I was starting a new chapter in my life, and moving OUR furniture into MY new apartment was definitely a blatant indication that I just couldn’t ignore. A little over a month later, it was here that I found myself furiously packing for AWT-10 with absolutely no desire to leave my apartment, much less leave the country.
A friend of mine was cat-sitting for me while I was on vacation, as she finished up her summer internship nearby. Thirty minutes before I needed to leave my house with just enough time to barely miss my flight, she asked me if I was bringing Chris’s ashes with me. Considering I hadn’t even thought to pack a bathing suit at that point, taking my deceased husband along for a ride on the cruise from hell hadn’t even crossed my mind. I ran up the stairs and dug the urn out of the back of my closet.
Earlier that summer, I spent the morning of my birthday divvying out some of Chris’s ashes to take with me to New England the following day. As a result, I had a few one-cup portions of Chris stored in the urn on top of the Bag-O-Ashes mom picked up from the funeral home the day of Chris’s memorial service. I grabbed one of double wrapped, quart size Zip-Lock freezer bags and an old jewelry box from my dresser, and ran back down to the tornado of clothes sitting in a pile on my living room floor next to my empty suitcase. Just before zipping up, I stuffed Chris in the jewelry box, wrapped the box up in a pair of cargo pants, and wedged it into the middle of the clothes pile, which I had successfully shoved into my suitcase. I ran out the door, threw my bags in the car, and took off to meet my mom for our flight, quickly forgetting to mention that her son-in-law was coming along as a stowaway.
A week later I found myself sailing on the “SS Nuptual’s Bliss,” inundated with cheesy commercialism of ginormous and ridiculous proportion. I also seemed to be the only single-ish woman on vacation. Everywhere I looked there were couples – nothing but uber affectionate, disgustingly cute couples! Three on-board weddings and five “Just Married” logos later (one of which was bejeweled across some chick’s bikini covered ass), I found myself taking solace in only three things: imagining myself diving overboard with no one noticing, sleeping/passing out, and alcohol – lots and lots of alcohol (which went hand-in-hand with #2).
Apparently my sunny disposition was rubbing off. Every time I ordered a drink, my mom (who NEVER drinks) found herself indulging in fruity concoctions of all kinds. For a woman who spent almost a decade telling me I was an alcoholic every time she got an inkling that I had had a drink (it sucks being the daughter of an over-sensitive product of an alcoholic family AND marriage), she turned out to be an unlikely drinking buddy and held her own pretty damn well. I have always been a happy drunk and she actually admitted that I was more fun after a few drinks. This encouraged her to put several rounds on her tab, thus encouraging me to become happy more frequently. I think she realized that if you give a depressed widow alcohol, the results might actually be favorable!
As for our additional company, around the third day onboard Mom finally asked what the burgundy box in the safe was. “Oh yeah, I decided at the last minute to bring Chris along with us and totally forgot to tell you. Sorry.”
She took the news relatively well and asked where and how I planned on scattering him…or was he coming home with us too? Then she inquired about a fairly significant matter: had brought the certificate of cremation with me, just in case anyone asked (i.e. airport security or better yet, customs)? To be perfectly honest, I hadn’t thought to bring the certificate with me; in fact, I wasn’t sure where in the hell the damn piece of paper was! As for disposing of my late husband, again, hadn’t thought that part through yet, and now I had to. And so I did…and was paralyzed by the idea.
By the last night of the cruise, I knew I had to sack up and take care of Chris’s ashes. While I really should have been motivated by the idea of closure and gaining some spiritual connection to Chris and the Earth, none of that came into play during this process. After dinner, as Mom and I walked back to our room to finish packing, she asked me if I wanted any help taking care of Chris. I declined, figuring this was something I needed to do alone, just me and him.
Our cabin was located in a forward corner of the sixth deck with a balcony just outside our room that seemed like the perfect place to start. Yeah…not so much! Just above us was the captain’s deck with panoramic windows. I had to find somewhere inconspicuous and this is where my odd assortment of experiences dealing with the ashes of other people came into play.
It all started a decade earlier with an episode of Frasier. Frasier, Niles, Martin, and Daphne drive out into the country to spread the ashes of their late aunt. The camera angle is looking into the car from the front windshield, focusing on Martin and Daphne (the dad and his nurse, respectively) having a conversation while sitting in the car. This perspective also shows the brothers (Niles and Frasier, for those of you not familiar) standing outside at the rear the car trying to figure out how to open the urn. At one point, the top comes off (or the urn breaks, I can’t remember which) and the two guys are now caught flailing in a whirlwind of cremains blowing all over them. While I nearly wet myself watching this, I did pick up on the lesson of the episode: be gentle and never stand downwind!
A few years later, my biological father presided over his father’s funeral service, which involved spreading the ashes over my grandmother’s grave. He was really nervous about not only performing the ceremony, but also spreading the ashes in such a manner that wouldn’t attract the attention of the church’s staff, as the laws governing the disposal of human remains are quite complicated. He called me up the night before the service to get some advice so I told him the only thing that I could think to say in a situation such as this, “Make sure you stand upwind!”
Now my dad shares in my odd sense of humor, so his response was not one of revulsion at neither the pragmatic, yet mildly insensitive nature of my comment, nor the idea of being covered in his dad’s ashes. Instead, he laughed hysterically and thanked me for the dose of perspective, which he later told me helped him get through the service.
A couple of years after this, my grandmother passed away, and since the Pope said it was okay, it was her wish to be cremated. On the morning of my grandmother’s funeral mass, my mom charged me with getting my grandmother’s ashes out of the house without my grandfather noticing, and getting her safely to the church. I don’t know what my mom was thinking?! My family can count on me for two things: I will inevitably fall flat on my face in any attempt to do something that requires coordination, and I am always half an hour to an hour late for everything. Given these two major flaws, I was still expected to get my grandmother to her own funeral in one piece (well, the urn anyway) and on time – HA! As I rode to the church, situated in my dad’s truck between him and Chris, my grandmother’s urn was in a box on my lap, safely buckled in. When we got there, I managed to climb out of the truck (I’m short…the truck’s not) and make it across the churchyard to the side door with both of us intact. My husband’s version of this part of the story is so much better than mine, and it goes something like this:
When I got to the door, I awkwardly got the door open without putting down (or dropping) my grandmother. It was at this point that I paused for what he explained looked like a moment of contemplation, while holding the door open with my hip. For some reason that I can’t recall, I had to prop the door open. Chris said I stood there for a few seconds, looking back and forth between the inside of the church and the box in my arms containing my deceased grandmother. He was convinced that it looked like I was considering the notion of propping the door open with the box. It was at this point my mom screamed at me from the parking lot, “If you drop your grandmother, I swear I will kick your ass!” It was this comment that distracted whatever thought process was working in my head, so I can’t confirm or deny his suspicion. Needless to say, I managed to get my grandmother safely inside and did not use her as a doorstop.
These experiences definitely helped me work out the logistics of handling my husband’s cremains. The hard part was facing the decision between letting some of Chris go over the side of a cruise ship in the Caribbean, or explain to US Customs the next day why I was trying to smuggle undocumented cremains in my baggage back into the country. My life was complicated enough; it was go time!
After wandering around the ship alone with my husband in my purse, I broke down and requested my mom’s assistance that I had turned down earlier that evening. I believe my exact words were, “Okay, I need a spotter.”
I had reasoned that the best way to do this was to find a secluded spot on a lower deck as far aft as possible. This would reduce the chances of some innocent vacationer enjoying a nice, evening breeze on their balcony, inadvertently traumatized by the taste of my husband as s/he got hit by a mini ash cloud.
Mom and I walked around for about a half an hour and found that the third deck was the lowest we could go with the option of open-air decks. It just so happened that this was also the deck that had the lifeboats mounted above. As we stepped out onto the deck, we were happily surprised to find it deserted. We walked all the way to the end, and as I surveyed over the railing to make sure there weren’t any decks downwind, I pulled Chris out of my purse and considered the best way to go about this. The railing was about two feet from the edge of the ship, which meant I was going to have to lie down in order to reach out far enough to get the necessary clearance. My mom looked at me as I was considering my options and asked the question that would prompt one of the most bizarre arguments I’ve ever had. “So, are you just going to toss the bag overboard?”
I was horrified! Of course not – I recycle! “No, I’m not going to litter! I’m going to empty the bag over the side of the boat, not toss it in!”
Her response was priceless. “You smuggled undocumented cremains over international lines, breaking who knows how many laws, and your biggest concern is a fish choking to death on a plastic baggie?”
Hearing her reaction did in fact, make my argument sound relatively foolish given the circumstances and possible implications, but I stuck to my guns. “Point taken but I’m still not chucking the bag in the water. Can you just look out for anyone coming this way while I do this?”
Given that I was saying this while lying down to get into position, my mom decided the best way to go about spotting me was to take her long-sleeve, dandelion yellow, button up shirt she brought along in case she got cold, and wave it over me in an effort to obscure the view in case there was a camera mounted nearby. I had to turn my head to the left, smashing my face against the deck, so my right arm could get as much distance as possible. When I was finally in position, I turned the bag upside down, holding it by the bottom. I expected the ashes to dump out in one, maybe two shakes. Nope!
As I furiously shook the bag for what seemed like an eternity, I got increasingly frustrated, and started cursing my husband under my breath. It was at this point that Mom, the avid photographer, gleefully announced, “Oooh look, it’s so pretty blowing through the light!” followed by “I wish I had my camera with me,” with a hint of disappointment in her voice.
“Are you kidding me?! This is not a fucking photo op! Holy shit, why is this taking so long? My vows said ‘Til death do us part,’ and I definitely fulfilled that. This was not part of the deal!”
It took another couple of seconds before the bag was completely empty and I could peel myself off the nasty floor. We walked down to the bench near the door and sat down so I could smoke a cigarette, while having the mini-meltdown over what I had just done. It wasn’t the first cup of Chris I had scattered and certainly wouldn’t be the last. Regardless, it was still heart(re)breaking to acknowledge that my best friend really was dead and I really was having to deal with it. There was no harder reality check than disposing of his cremains, however little bit there was. Mom did the best she could to come to the rescue. She gave me a big hug, telling me how proud she was of the strength it took for me to do this.
I pulled myself together, and as I finished my cigarette, looked down at the baggie that was still in my hand. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of handling cremains, they are light grey and white in color; leave a powdery coating on anything they come in contact with, similar to that of flour or some other white, powdery substance. It occurred to me that on a cruiseship, it was unlikely that anyone who spotted the empty baggie in my hand would think it was flour that had been inside. Considering what the contents really were, I didn’t want anyone suspecting me of having a bag of blow, only to find out upon analysis that it was really human remains. Neither of those scenarios would look favorable during an initial observation. I quickly shoved the bag into the empty Sprite can I had, and as we were walking to our room, I left it on a littered room service tray in front of some random person’s door three floors below our room.
As Mom and I walked down the hall to our room, I asked her if this was on her list of mother daughter bonding experiences she imagined having with me in the future as she held her beautiful baby girl for the first time. “No sweetie, when you were a baby, this was definitely not something I could have possibly dreamed of doing with you. But if it’s any consolation, I’m glad I was here to help.”