The Ashes – and it’s not cricket

Every day for the last five years I looked at the remains of my parents on the mantelpiece and wondered what to do with them. My mother’s ashes were in a vase-like silver urn, covered with a crimson velvet hood; my father’s reposed in a rectangular metal box wrapped with brown paper because he thought Mum’s packaging had been a rip-off by the funeral home. They have lain on my mantelpiece, since 2018 (Mum) and 2021 (Dad).

Why had I left them for so long in the mortal world? Well, Dad initially wanted Mum’s ashes interred in the family grave in Sri Lanka whenever one of his sons visited the old homeland. Then life intervened: I suffered a cardiac arrest in 2018, the year of Mum’s passing, and was not allowed to travel to Sri Lanka on a trip booked for the end of that year; bombs went off in the old homeland in 2019, killing lots of people, and tourists gave the country a temporary pass; the pandemic arrived on its heels; my brother Mario died in 2020; and Dad passed a year afterwards on the very day of Mario’s death anniversary. Just before his passing, Dad had a change of mind and wanted both his and Mum’s ashes interred together in Lake Ontario. “It will be cheaper and you will get to visit, even if it’s from the shore.” Dad was always cautious about money, to the point that it interfered with his quality of life, and ours when we were growing up.

So, both sets of ashes sat on my mantelpiece, trapped in a stasis of indecision faced by its temporary custodian, me. The pandemic is history now, and we have passed our grieving stage for the dead, but their remains…well, they remained. Why? Because I’d got used to them being around in powder form. The containers of ashes acted as visuals of my parents. I could talk to the containers, tell them things I never uttered while the incumbents were alive, make up for all the missed opportunities, tell them I loved them or was pissed off at them for various past acts of commission or omission. At night, their presence, albeit as inorganic material possibly without even DNA, acted as a safety blanket – my parents were still keeping watch over me while I slept.

Reluctantly, I took baby steps to execute my filial duty. I scouted out and found a deserted spot in my small town with public access to the shore of Lake Ontario. It was a good place to dispose of human ashes without being disturbed by anglers, tourists, or drifters, or even fish. And municipal by-laws provided for this act as long as respect for the deceased was shown while conducting the “act.” I polled various family members for the acceptability of this location, even taking the more skeptical ones on a tour of the site. No one jumped up and said, “Yes!” Instead, they were neutral. I wondered whether this neutrality was a form of disapproval, or passive-aggression, on their part. “How dare you dump these venerable old folk in the cold waters of a gigantic lake, so far away from the warm winds of their homeland?” seemed to be the implied message received by my hypersensitive antennae. My rebuttal of “But Dad changed his mind and wanted it this way,” did not seem to hold water for the choice of this watery grave.

Therefore, I secretly decided I would do it anyway. Why? Because, what would happen if I suddenly kicked the bucket tomorrow? My parents would be stranded up on that mantelpiece. It would be a dereliction of duty by their first-born who had always looked out for them. I rehearsed my steps. I couldn’t go out in a boat – I didn’t own one. However, I could walk out into the lake on a windless day, in warm weather (it had to be summer, and if that window passed, then next summer, and so on), face the shore so that the wave action did not float the ashes back to adhere onto me (imagine walking around with your parents stuck to your body?), and gently but swiftly spill the remains into the water.  Then I would walk a dozen feet away from the spot and head back to the shore so I did not trample on where Dad and Mum would have come to rest on the lake bed. And I would hope like hell that no ardent swimmer decided to come by that way and swallow particles of my parents, like the fish swallowing pieces of bread in the tank I had as a child. All good. Now to execution.

Then I did a double-take. No, I couldn’t do that. The Lake was out! Even though I was the first of the Joseph family to arrive in Canada, my parents were the oldest in the family tree to die here. They couldn’t vanish without a trace, ending up as fish food? Sorry, Dad, as the executor of your Will, I am over-ruling you! So, I bit the proverbial bullet and bought a cremation plot in a Catholic graveyard in my small town, invited the extended family (who showed up despite their earlier impassiveness), and buried the old couple, mingling their ashes with each other as they spilled into the tiny grave – united in death as they were in life. Anticlimactic, but a nagging headache was finally resolved—duty discharged.

Next spring, a grave marker will arrive (post-pandemic supply chain snafus delay them 8-12 months these days, we are told—another “forced scarcity” scenario to inflate prices, like groceries or automobiles) to identify the resting place of the elders in the Joseph clan who made a beachhead in Canada, a long way from Ceylon where their European ancestors settled over 200 years ago and a country from which they steadily lost cultural and familial connection post-Independence. How far they had travelled!  And I get to drive only a short distance and visit them in the cemetery, talk with them, even swear occasionally at life’s unfairness, knowing always that I have patient and forgiving ears listening to me without judgement.

RIP Dad and Mum!

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