Monday, August 10, 2015

As ash in the wind: On long goodbyes

In April, my family spent two nights at a beach house, in a quaint little town on the Oregon Coast we retreated to many childhood summers. Since long before Papa died, we hadn't returned to this place together. But this is where we decided to scatter his ashes, nearly seven years after his death.

This scattering was to be our goodbye. I knew in my heart, somehow, it wasn't mine. Not yet. 

When I saw his ashes, I couldn't believe how they looked like sand. Sand in an hourglass, bleached white; I'd been prepared for them to resemble the remains of a fire. It was surreal, seeing him reduced to nothing more than what fit in a modest plastic bag, to hold him in my hands, to feel him slip away.

I took a portion of him home, in the beautiful ceramic urn I bought a month after he died, at Saturday Market in Portland. It's sat empty for all these years on my wooden chest, waiting to hold him. Waiting, for who knows what. 

* * * * * 


I will forever remember him in a handful of cashews. 

Buried in the chest of artifacts of Papa is a plastic bag of cashews nearly seven years old. I brought it home from Guatemala, from the peddler shuffling the streets of Panajachel along Lake Atitlan. He approached our table, four of us girls, as we sat dining outside with our cheap wine and flan, hauling his sacks of roasted nuts to sell. I answered him quickly, as I'd grown accustomed to doing, "No gracias, SeƱor."

He didn't press us further, didn't hardly seem to register us, as if he were suspended between one world and another, then turned and walked away.

Papa had been less than two months dead. He hadn't yet shown up in my dreams, but I caught my first glimpse of him sitting on the steps of an open shop at the end of this day. Wearing a familiar tattered green sweatshirt, white socks, black shoes, sacks of roasted nuts at his feet. This memory of him is a watermarked photograph, singed around the edges.

We passed him by as the darkness spread through streets, hurrying back to our hotel. And he, wearing the weight of the day, of life, of dejection, of who knows what, on his shoulders, sunk into me.

I turned back to him with haunted eyes, this ghost of my Papa in the flesh of a Guatemalan man on the steps.

His name was Fransisco.

This time I really looked at him, looked at the lines on his face and deep into those weary eyes with cracks of light filtering through. I looked until my soul broke through its windows, spilling down my cheeks. Until I had to turn away. But not before I bought a handful of cashews with the remainder of my coins from the day and we locked eyes for a moment, and he smiled, faint and piercing, into my pain.

Back at our hotel, I excused myself and disappeared in the dark lobby, pressed into a corner, doubled over in waves. A flash flood of grief and questions.

* * * * *  

It's not normal, I think, to catch his reflection, like a peek of his nose or bat of his eye, a swath of his skin, in such unlikely places. In such unlikely people. Because it's troubled me. Since that day of meeting Fransisco, I've only ever seen Papa in the faces of homeless men. Impoverished men. Men bent over, hidden in quiet masks of sadness. This is not how I wish to remember him. 

But while the Papa of my childhood is fuzzy and nostalgic, endearing and hauntingly distant, the Papa of my adolescence and young adulthood is mangled, crushed in spirit, an ache in my gut. He is a storm battered ship, leaning into the wind, even as the hull is cracking. He is a set of blank journals, like those left behind by her mother in Terry Tempest Williams' When women were birds, speaking volumes and mysteries in the absence of words. This is how he's come to me. As if I've been entreated by the grief he left behind - his lonely ache, his unfinished dreams, his hopes deferred, his unspeakable pain - to see what he bore. To bear witness. To lay his pain to rest, as we have his ashes, save for the ceramic urn of what remains of him on my wooden chest. 

I didn't know all these years, the depths of layers of grief. How his grief has haunted me in a cast of many faces. And I've searched to see him, to listen to these faces, to let go, as ash in the wind.

* * * * * 

Seven years of sands have slipped through the glass. 
And now I see, as I write this story, that these words are his ashes, scattered again and again. Through seven years of grieving and storytelling, digging deep, exposing layer after layer, slowly mending. This is my long goodbye.

I've written this story of the cashews twice before, and with each telling, I release him to the wind, to the sea, to the earth, to the heavens. Until today, when I do what I wish I would have done at the coast with his ashes, now with my words: I build a sandcastle, dig a moat, lay his remains in the trenches, watch the word-ashes carried slowly out to sea.

He must be at rest now, no longer haunted or haunting, no longer entreating me to listen. There is no grave, no grave marker, but this moment. I've born witness here, it says. Now, rest in peace, sweet Papa.

I will always love you. And my heart concurs, It is enough. 


  1. Just breathtaking, beloved friend. I am so deeply moved.

  2. Amber, I've been waiting to read this post as I knew it was coming some day.
    You carry your father's memories (and your own) very well. I suspect you'll be writing him over and over again..
    Your words are a special gift to me on my birthday--truly.

  3. I am a bit speechless. This was haunting and beautiful at the same time. You have captured the wistfulness of remembering your father, the bittersweet joy at the memories, the unfulfilled longing that makes letting go so hard. It resonated with me, as I just lost my dad last year. It's tough to mourn...

    Rest in peace - yes, to both our fathers, and to us...