reunion

When my mother died three years ago, I found, among her things, an inch thick stack of neatly typed letters on high quality stationery, chronologically ordered and carefully bound. They were in excellent condition: freed from their envelopes, unbent, unsmudged, and seemingly untouched by time. They were from my father. They were dated from the years during which he'd worked as an engineer at a remote Alaskan radar station, while she had worked for Pan American in New York.

I knew the bulk of my parent's courtship had been conducted via long distance, broken up only by occasional, exotic vacations afforded to them by his excellent salary and her travel benefits. For two, three weeks at a time, they'd meet up somewhere far across the globe: Hong Kong, Israel, the Canary Islands. I knew all the stories; I'd seen all the Super 8 footage.

What I didn't know was that these letters existed. When I found them, you could have knocked me over with a feather. Not only because it was impossible for me to reconcile the idea of my curmudgeonly, cynical, and darkly jaded father with the impassioned, earnest, and lovestruck thirty-something his words revealed. And not only because trying to imagine my parents - two people who spent twelve years fighting tooth and nail through the most bitterly acrimonious and drawn out divorce imaginable - as the young, smitten lovers emerging from these pages was mind-boggling. What caused me to leaf through these love letters in absolute shock was the fact that my mother had even kept them.

Every word my mother had uttered about her ex-husband for the last twenty years of her life had been laced with contempt. Likewise for him. It didn't make sense to me that she'd be sentimental about anything from their long defunct love affair.

I realized immediately that it wouldn't be right of me to read the letters in their entirety. Skimming the first two had been enough to give me an idea of their contents: the soulful outpourings of a man who'd found his life's mate. Partly out of curiosity to see how he'd react, and partly because I wanted to abdicate the responsibility of keeping them, I cautiously broached the subject of the letters to my dad. He was nearly as floored as I was. He asked me not to read them, and to send them to him. I did so, gladly. Something about them bothered me. They were fucking with my world view.

I'd barely recovered from the surprise of the letters when my dad sprung a shock of his own on me. He knew I was having my mother cremated a few days later, and he knew from comments I'd made that the idea of keeping an urn with her ashes made me exceptionally uncomfortable. It was macabre in the worst way to me: macabre and funny. The truth was, I didn't trust myself to treat my mother's remains, should I retain them, with the respect they deserved. I couldn't imagine placing some godawful metal vase, hermetically sealed to prevent spills for Christ's sake, on my mantle and not finding it simultaneously horrifying and hilarious.

My dad knew this, so he asked if he could have them, instead. "And not to do anything nefarious with," he quickly assured me. "I'd just like to keep them, if it's all the same to you."

Go fucking figure.

Rather than try and summon deductive powers I didn't nearly have at the ready (I was, after all, a mite consumed with handling my mother's death) in order to suss out his true motives, I shrugged, thought fuck it, and made arrangements to have my dead mother Fed-Exed to my living father.

And so it was, nearly three years later, when I was faced with the task of going through my second dead parent's things, that I came across my mother once again.

She was in my dad's office, on the top shelf of a mahogany bookcase filled with outdated computer manuals and the sort of tacky bric-a-brac I'd been chiding my father about collecting for years (perhaps in subconscious anticipation of this day?). She was in a predictably ugly brass urn, the fattest part of which was laser cut with thick black grooves.

I couldn't help but laugh. My father himself had been delivered just that day to the mortuary where he'd pre-paid (ever the planner!) for his own cremation. In a matter of a couple days, I was going to be in possession of the ashes of both my dead parents. Just me. All mine. No other family to divide them up with (because, disturbingly, that is apparently a thing people do). No one else to stake a cremains claim.

What a lucky girl I am, I thought wryly. Then: FML.

Well, try as I do to avoid being an utter cliche, there aren't a whole lot of options, when it comes to dealing with the ashes of your dead parents. As far as I can tell, there are three: keep, dispose, or disperse. The first was never an option; the second, a little too callous even for me. So I had no choice but to be a cliche. Christ, I thought. Well, it's Florida. At least there's an ocean a block away. Burial at sea it is!

By the way? Don't judge. You have no idea the sort of dry humor and emotionless pragmatism you're capable of until you're syringe feeding morphine into the mouth of your cancer-crippled dad. You discover versions of yourself you never knew existed. You have to.

I drove to the funeral home to pick up my dad's ashes a few days later. I didn't bother upgrading him to an urn. As far as I was concerned, he was on a short layover. So he came to me bound up in a clear plastic bag that was placed inside a thick, red cardboard box. The mortician supplied me with a certified letter declaring the box's contents, that I would need to show TSA if I wanted to travel with it. And if you think I wasn't tempted to bring the remains home just for the sick fun of messing with people at airport security, well, you don't know me at all. Likewise, if you think I didn't text one or two of my close friends a picture of the box strapped into the seatbelt of the passenger side of my rental car - again, pay closer attention.

I waited until the dead of night before I did one of the strangest and hardest things I've ever had to do.

I placed my mother's urn, my father's box, a small flashlight, and a pair of scissors on the front seat of the car and drove to the water. I stuck the flashlight and scissors in my jeans, carefully cradled both sets of ashes in my arms, and walked down a short pier to the Apollo Beach shoreline.

There were four or five widely-spaced, rickety wooden steps that led down to the water, and it was extremely dark. I don't think I've ever taken steps with as much care as I did those.

It was a clear night, and the moonlight reflected off the water in a way that felt suspiciously scripted. The warm breeze was in on the conspiracy, too. Everything aligned to make this heartbreaking moment as sensually powerful as possible. You will not forget this.

I took almost an hour to say goodbye to my mom and dad. I thought about them not just as parents to me, but as individuals with complex, rich inner lives the depths of which I could only guess at. I thought about what made them special to me, and what made life special to them. I thought about their accomplishments and failures, their quirks and charms. I mourned that as a family, we'd drifted apart, but I treasured the fact that at that moment, they were both there in my arms, together again. I thanked them for what they'd taught me, what they'd given me. I meditated on the ways I would continue to parent myself, in their absence - on what I would take away from each of them.

And finally, I let them go, one at a time, into the warm, shallow water that lapped the lowest stair. And it wasn't a cliche at all.