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July 19, 2019

The Dirt

We interred the ashes of my father last May, my mom, sister, and me.
4 min read

We interred the ashes of my father last May, my mom, sister and me. A little trio on pilgrimage, we drove the two hours to my mother’s childhood town where she had purchased a plot at the family church. My mom sat in the back seat of the car, enveloped in her own thoughts, occasionally dozing. My sister and I chatted up front, words passing between us that my mother’s poor hearing likely obscured from her awareness. The wooden box containing my father’s ashes also rode in its own space, having been stowed in the trunk behind us in a shopping bag. The bag was bright blue with a yellow logo on it – an artifact from another, less somber swathe of life.

Turns out that the loud-looking bag with its hushed contents wasn’t the only contradiction of the day. Another, far more profound, roiled within my own heart. Although I was fully committed to the task we were performing, I couldn’t quite believe I was driving three people to this particular destination rather than waving goodbye to two as they departed without me. Because more than any other person on the planet, my father has caused me the most suffering. No one else even comes close to having inflicted the emotional and spiritual damage­ I endured from him and have fought to come back from for over three decades.

It’s a simple fact. Anyone who knows me to any depth knows it. And it’s a complicated fact, in that it has required a whole roster of clinicians, ministers, and loved ones to untangle. No other attempt at self-care has so occupied my time, attention, and energy as healing from the wounds of my father. A mere mortal in terms of his makeup, my father has loomed inhumanly large in terms of his influence over the way I see others (including God, a father himself in my faith tradition) and, most acutely, myself. Thankfully, I am able to write these words today without the bitterness and grief that they would have cost me earlier. The healing I have sought after so diligently has occurred, a truth to which I hope this blog will increasingly bear witness.

Most days I live at some distance from my past with my father in terms of its grip on me. Most days I am able to focus on the gifts, challenges and demands of my present, cognizant of the strength and wisdom my struggles have afforded me. But not all days, because however healed of hurt, life on this earth is not heaven. There are triggers aplenty waiting for me to step on them so that memories blow up in my face. For a long time I have given these potential landmines a wide berth, treading very carefully if I needed to revisit certain chapters of my life-story for any reason. While my father was alive, that meant strictly limiting contact with him. After his death, I would protect my heart by absenting myself from conversations or events that would prove too upsetting. (It’s important to honor and preserve the deep inner work that one has done, for it did not come cheaply. Also, you never know when you’ll need to tap into it for your own or another’s sake. Best to keep those repairs intact).

When, after some deliberation, my mother decided that her parents’ burial ground would be my father’s and her (eventual) resting place too, I had not planned to participate in the interment of his ashes. I would have been happy to host any siblings that might choose to come from out of state, but could not imagine myself standing at the site, unable to speak the usual good things that such occasions elicit.  When logistics determined that my mother and sister would be the only two family members present, I suddenly felt the need to accompany them, to be there for them if not for the man they wanted to bury. I realized, to my surprise, that I was not only healed enough to do that, but also to put together a little prayer service that would make the whole thing feel official. Resolved in a meaningful way for all of us despite our different starting points.

So on that rainy spring morning, my mother, sister, and I read prayers and Scriptures, as well as a poem of my mother’s choosing, while my father’s ashes were put into a small plot. As the attendant shoveled dirt inside, I asked if I might take some in my hand and toss it on top. I’m not sure what impulse drove me to do so, except that the action signified that something hard was finally finished.

After the fiasco with the forbidden fruit, Adam is told by God that he is dust, and to dust he shall return (Gen 3:19). This statement speaks of our perpetual return to the soil from which we spring, no matter how hard we may work to distance ourselves from it. However symbolic and satisfying in the moment, my scattering of earth upon my father’s ashes, my reading of the sacred words, my very presence in what remained of his earthly remains, could not completely shield me from the pain that resurfaced in the moments surrounding the interment. I came closer to my father (even in my dreams) in the days immediately after than I had in a long time. But I also came closer to my mother and sister in way I did not expect. And I found that despite my distress at the memories that resurfaced, I could take it. I may not have been completely healed, but I was healed enough. Healed enough to go on with my life and do the things I needed to do. Sometimes, that has to suffice. Sometimes, it really does.

So if you find yourself bleeding from some wound that has intruded upon your life again, do not despair. You are not alone in your pain. Even the strongest of us lives and relives our worst suffering. But the fact that we can offer support in small ways to others in the midst of such affliction means that though we may still have them, our old feelings, in fact, no longer have us. No longer form the sum total of who we are and how we move through the world. Not even close. Perhaps the last bits of our wounds that remain open deepen our humanity somehow. Keep us from ever forgetting how far we have come, and how much the saddest chapters of our story might help another person who struggles beside us.

I returned to some dirt last spring. But I think something good got planted in that dirt that wouldn’t have otherwise. I’ll let you know if any insights spring up in that particular plot of ground. Meanwhile, keep working on your healing, though the way is long and difficult. Take care of yourself in your pain, new or old.

You do not labor in vain.