Tuesday, September 4, 2012

My father's "sea ceremony"

Over the Labor Day holiday, I took my three children to Cape May for one final weekend together before my daughter, Isabel, heads off to a two-year stint in Nicaragua with the Peace Corps.

I am proud of her desire to help make the world a better place, but it's hard not to worry about her, too. Will we be able to reach her? Will she have phone service? Internet access? What will it be like living with a family in Nicaragua, while she struggles to learn their language?

She leaves the country tomorrow and it is hard not to wonder when I will see her next and what her experiences will be like.

Before she left, I wanted to honor a request my father made when he was stricken with lymphoma last  summer. Isabel's visit home -- and our trip down to the Jersey shore -- seemed like a good time to perform a "sea ceremony" for my dad, to scatter some of his ashes in a place of special significance to him.

Late on Sunday morning, after we'd enjoyed blueberry pancakes for breakfast, I walked down the block and ordered two hoagies for lunch. Then I iced down four dark Dogfish Head ales from a Delaware microbrewery and stuck them all in an old blue and white ice chest my dad left in my garage before he passed. It took us about 45 minutes to drive up to Corson's Inlet, N.J., a cut of water that separated Strathmere from Ocean City, N.J.

My father left his children with specific written instructions to deposit his ashes in Moose Pond, Maine (where he and my mother used to vacation every summer) "or any suitable body of water." I choose Corson's Inlet because I had gone fishing there with my dad on several occasions while renting a bungalow on the beach from friends of his in Strathmere.

My father always consulted the tide chart in the daily Inquirer before he went fishing so he could time his arrival when the fish were swimming into the inlet from the Atlantic Ocean. He insisted they were feeding then. I took this as gospel. Fishing was his favorite avocation. For many years the front door of his condo in Philadelphia was graced by a plaque that read: "Here resides a fisherman, with the greatest catch of his life!"

In his instructions he insisted that, following the sea ceremony for him, we have a party on the shore with hoagies or pizza and dark beer and that "everybody take a sip, even the kids!"

My sister Trudy had been holding his ashes on her living room mantle since his cremation last September. I took several ounces of his remains with me to the shore, placed carefully in a metallic canister that fit snugly into a coffee cup holder in my car. I thought Corson's Inlet would be secluded on a Sunday morning, and was surprised to see dozens of families on the beach enjoying the sunny day.  

Luke, Isabel and Lilianna, walked a half mile or so with me out to the inlet. A fisherman had cast his line into the surf about 50 yards away, his pole anchored to the sand. I picked a spot near him and placed the canister of ashes on the beach between us. I explained to my children why I had picked this spot and how it had brought back memories of earlier vacation days I had spent with him there. We held hands around the  canister of my father's ashes and I offered a brief prayer, thanking my father for the gift of life and for working so hard and for such a long time to make the lives of his wife and children secure and comfortable.

Then I took the canister into the green/brown waters of Corson's Inlet and poured his ashes into the water. I was struck by the pattern they made as they merged with the rolling sea. A constellation of tiny flecks of ash and bone spread through the water and twinkled like stars. I stayed there for a full minute, mesmerized by this shower of white, translucent  light swirling in brackish waters. Luke, my son, waded into the water and gently pushed the water in the direction of the ocean while Isabel recorded the moment with my camera.

We came back to the beach and unwrapped the hoagies. I opened the dark ales and gave each of my children a brown bottle, including the 16-year-old, as per my father's request. She took two swigs of it, washed down a bite of her hoagie, and let her brother finish it for her.

The first thought that occurred to me, as I bit into my own sandwich, was that I wished my father was there to enjoy the moment with his grandchildren and me; that he would have had a nice time with us. And then I chuckled at my foolishness. Hadn't the pattern of the stars I saw in the ocean told me something? Hadn't it been obvious?

My father's spirit was there with us. He was enjoying the moment; every bit as much as we were.

After his sandwich, Luke looked out at the ocean as calm waves brushed the shore. "Let me see," he said, a quizzical expression on his face. "I think I can remember this." He waited a moment collecting his thoughts. Then he repeated the words of a poem he had  been working on, around the time of his grandfather's death. I hadn't understood them at the time and I told him so. On the beach, though, the light of his sentiments suddenly flashed in my mind and his words shown with eloquence: 

"Wherever I go, I encounter myself"

From the heart of the hogs on the line
At the slaughter. In the fear of the swine

That's thicker than shit, so thick you can't breathe

For the smell of it. To the ease

Of the man who refused to go in-

To his hospital gown or the room he had been.

The self is an ending, and so is permanent—

A handful of grass weighs more than the firmament.

And if Lear gives a sense of the promised end,

So do the Jews in the camps they were penned.

So did the hand pressing over my hand,

Fluent as water reducing the sand,

And my mind which still reduces the man

To a name, and its carriage, and his hand on my hand.

 I felt better about losing Isabel to the Peace Corps for the next two years after we had eaten our hoagies and drank our beers. I was glad she'd been home to share this moment with us. 

I had faith my father would be with her in her travels to Nicaragua. 

I knew he would be as proud of her national service as I was.