My dad arrived in the mail today.
A box. I had to sign for him.
The postal carrier was sweet—told me to focus on happy memories—and then handed me the box. The body. My dad’s ashes. How have we come to such a place where the dead are mailed? I received a box of books at the same time. Didn’t have to sign for them. People are more important than presents, but not so important they can’t be boxed and shipped—moved from holding facility to mail truck with no one knowing or caring what’s in the box. That’s my dad. Be gentle with him.
And yet no need. He’s not there. It’s a box. It’s full of ash. I haven’t opened it yet, but I’ve seen other “cremains.” He’ll look like fine sand from an Oregon beach, some bigger bits poking out of the dust. He won’t be wearing his NEVADA suspenders or his dorky little glasses case that hung from his belt loop on a carabiner for as long as I remember him. No teeny agenda book in his breast pocket. No mustache. No glasses. No wedding ring. All those things I collected long ago, too early to appreciate them—they were surrounded with the bitterness of losing him to dementia, but still having to steward his body through the end.
That transition complete now, I am gifted with a box of dad, and a strange freedom to reframe the objects I associate with him, to see them in light of real loss. Now he’s really gone. Now I can’t even hold his hand or kiss his head or sing him “Stardust” anymore… I could sing to the box.
But he’s not there. He’s not in the box. He’s in my head and in my heart and in some of my movements and some of my words. He’s in my children and he’s in the wind. I felt him at Yellowstone, hiking, when I learned of his death. I took him with me through Yellowstone’s canyons and meadows, looking for wildlife while the light lasted.
He’s in my pictures; that is certain. He wanted to be a photographer, but the closest thing the University of Alaska offered to a photography degree in 1949 was chemistry. He took some classes, then he followed different passions. But he took pictures all his life. He once lost his camera on a trip to Canada, and some stranger found and returned it, shipping it from British Columbia to Nevada at his own cost. I have rarely seen dad so happy as when he opened that box. When I bought myself a camera in college and then returned it (I really couldn’t afford it; returning it was a very responsible, adult thing to do), he bought me a camera for my graduation. And a case. And two lenses. And four filters. He was proud that I liked taking pictures too. But it wasn’t my driving passion either, but something to document with, to create, to express how we see or at least acknowledge the appreciation that both of us have for the world.
There are other boxes to go through: boxes of slides, thousands of slides of the pictures he took. Now that he’s gone, I can go through them, and I’ll find him again, in what he found important enough to photograph and how he chose to frame it. I’ll see the world through his eyes, and I’ll have questions for him that no one will be able to answer. But in the questioning, there will be commerce. In the looking, there will be contact. And as with every time we try to see the world through another pair of eyes, there will be love.