Bruce hands me a velvet box, then quietly sits across the room disappearing into a large chair away from the noisy flutter of my family opening gifts. He is retreating from us. It is Christmas Day 2018. We both suspect his cancer treatments are failing and the finality of this holiday hangs like an icicle dripping slowly, waiting to crack, break off and shatter. We decided not to exchange gifts so I am surprised at the necklace.
It is heart-shaped, deep blue enamel with a silver tree of life. While lovely, it seems misplaced. I rarely wear jewelry, including my wedding ring. “Open it,” he instructs me. It is a locket and I anticipate tiny pictures of Bruce and myself inside. But it is empty. Sensing my confusion he says, “The store said they can seal it for you.” Slowly I understand. This tiny heart will hold his ashes.
It turns out the woman at the jewelry store misspoke. She probably didn’t know what to say to the guy dying from cancer trying to buy his wife a wearable urn. Now I am standing in front of her with a tablespoon of my husband’s remains in a ziplock baggie.
“I’m sorry ma’am,” she says, “but we can’t be libel for spilling….” She is searching for the right word – body? remains? ashes? She settles on, “spilling your loved one all over the carpet.” “Yes,” I agree. “That would be problematic. Thank you anyway.” Leaving the mall, I see a couple kissing in front of Cinnabon. “Suckers.” I push the baggie deeper into my purse.
I wear the locket for the first time on an airplane. We received tiny gold spoons as a wedding gift 24 years ago. I think they are intended for coffee, worthless to me until now. The size proves ideal for scooping the powdery fine dust I tap into the heart and snap it shut. Did you know you can buy travel urns from Amazon? There are two in my carry-on bag. A certificate states I am transporting human remains, so TSA agents don’t hold them up and demand to know what substance I am trying sneak across state lines.
My sister is flying with me to California to celebrate Bruce’s life with his family. I see the Grand Canyon from the window and it reminds me of a running joke. “I’d like to see the Grand Canyon someday,” I’d say. Bruce would lean over me and point, “You just did.” So it seems fitting that the first grains start sliding now, like an hour glass, down my chest, pooling in my bra.
I laugh. “I’m being motorboated from beyond.” Sally is horrified until I push my breasts together with my arms, purse my lips, rock my head from side to side and go, “bbl, bbl, bbl, bbl…”. People turn around in their seats. I’m more entertaining than a wonder of nature. I keep it up, probably shaking more of Bruce down my cleavage, until Sally smiles. She shrugs, “Just like a guy.” At our layover in Vegas, I buy Super Glue, sealing the locket, hoping something is left in both of my hearts. This is the last time I feel confident handling his remains.
A Good Death
No way am I going to fail at helping Bruce die in the manner he wants. I obsessively listen to podcasts while working. An EMT talks honesty with those critically wounded. People in horrific accidents ask, “Am I going to die?” and when told “yes” they become oddly calm. A hospice chaplain reveals the dying have the same concerns. It seems regret is the most common. The book, “When Breathe Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi (a young surgeon dying of lung cancer) becomes my guide. Like a detective, I memorize the signs of impending death. I will solve this case.
I am prepared when it happens. Watching a chest expand and then lay flat. Hearing a rush of air and then silence. It is true the body takes on a waxy appearance. The personhood is gone. My mother hugs me and says, “you handled it beautifully.” I don’t cry. Like an athlete who finishes a hard race, I am relieved, tired and numb.
A Pocketful of Ashes
Weeks later, the funeral home calls. Bruce’s remains are ready for me to pick up and please bring a driver’s license. Why would someone claim a stranger’s ashes? With burial, an intimacy exists as your loved one’s body is viewed and then lowered into the ground. You know where they are. It’s been weeks since Bruce left our home, dressed for a luau, and taken to the morgue. It is almost as if he vanished.
The box I’m given is surprisingly heavy. I remember a joke by the Comedian Ron White, better known as Tater Salad. He mistakes an urn for a ash tray. When reprimanded for smoking over it, he taps in more ashes saying, “Well, Uncle Arthur added a few pounds.” I laugh a bit as the funeral director places Bruce’s cremains in a tasteful burgundy bag. She seems to take this in stride. Manic behavior is probably common in this place.
It strikes me in the car. Do I put a seatbelt around my package as if the person still exists? This gives way to tears. The only physical manifestation of a once living human is the dust in this shoebox. And now, I am in charge of handling it.
Out To Sea
Bruce requested a return to the ocean. He didn’t care which one. Instead, I move the velvet bag from room to room like an art object on tour. First, it’s a mantle. Then a bookcase. There is a curio cabinet in my bedroom. A widowed client once showed me the room of her husband, a famous deceased football player. We climb the stairs to a door. Inside it is solemnly lit, not a space for lingering. Here is his Super Bowl ring, the retired Chief’s jersey and Hall of Fame Induction football. He died of lung cancer. I admire the objects as if I’m in a museum. She senses my discomfort and with strange foreshadowing offers, “Becca, the living shouldn’t call a mausoleum home.” It’s true, I reflect decades later. But her advice, like none of my research, prepared me for a better burial.
Eventually I settle on a closet which seems wrong, as if Bruce is a sweater in storage. Family members visit my new home and furtively sweep my living room, and finding nothing, disapprove. I upset them with my hidden box. Blaming Covid is easy. How can I travel to the ocean during a pandemic? But this is cover. If I honor Bruce’s wishes, where will he be? I am the one who feels adrift.
Portrait of a Life
A year later, there is a new love in my life. I am hesitant to discuss Bruce. Bill often stares at a family portrait hanging over the fireplace. “What do you see? ” I ask him. “You,” he says, “and your happiness.” My sister-in-law surprised us with this photo shoot. It was Thanksgiving and a year after Bruce’s terminal diagnosis. Everyone is coupled except us. Already there is a distancing. Bill notices this. “It was a good day,” I say, “but my feelings are complicated,” and I begin to share the full picture of my long marriage.
We delicately navigate memories. I hold nothing back. The stories of our successes, the failures, disappointments and happiness – all reconstruct the person who was Bruce. It is healing. I show Bill the locket. We agree grief and new love may share the same heart. “Bruce knew this,” I tell Bill. “He said I would have a new life after his death. He predicted you.” Slowly, I understand letting go is not forgetting. And I may now set Bruce free.
A Better Burial
It is time to return Bruce to the beloved ocean. I imagine the ashes, it’s really nothing more than a fine powder, floating on the water. The sea will consume the only physical remains of a person I once loved. I hope dolphins come to play as the sun sets. There will be no marker. No place for me to visit.
This tiny heart, with it’s Tree of Life, holds no more then a few grains of sand but I think of a quote from The Princess Bride:
“Do I love you? My God, if love were a grain of sand, mine would be a universe of beaches.”
And this is where he will rest. Not in a box. Not in the sea. And not in a piece of jewelry. He is buried in my memory and will reside there until I too become dust.