Dealing with the Ashes

Yesterday I talked about the many tasks of grief, and mentioned that although I got rid of most of my life mate/soul mate’s “effects,” there are many things I cannot get rid of. It’s still unthinkable for me to throw away his wallet, eyeglasses, car keys. And I can’t bring myself to get rid of his baseball bat and glove or the games we used to play.

Most of all, I can’t get rid of him. Well, not him. His ashes. His “cremains” as the funeral industry so cutely calls them.

Although I was never sure what I’d do with his ashes, I’d never planned on keeping them until a minister friend suggested that I save some. He said that people who get rid of all of the ashes tend to regret it. Since I couldn’t bear to think of separating “him,” keeping some of his ashes and throwing the rest to the winds, I’ve kept them all.

I have an “urn,” which is not an urn but a square brass box with a permanent closure. I didn’t want to do anything “permanent,” so I kept his ashes in the temporary box, and since that plastic box seemed unfeeling and . . . well, dead . . . I wrapped the box in his robe when I brought the ashes home, and it’s still wrapped in his robe.

If I ever take a trip, I might leave a few bits of him wherever I stop. Or not. I’m not sure I can ever throw him away, and it wasn’t until this very moment that I understand why.

He was an historian, and he told me that the Inuit and other nomadic people would “throw themselves away” when they got too sick or too old and weak to continue traveling with the tribes. They would just stay behind when the tribe moved on.

When he got sick, he often told me that if he went into a coma or got too ill to take care of himself, I was to throw him away, forget about him, and get on with my life. “Throw him away,” was a euphemism for leaving him in some sort of nursing home.

And there did come such a time.

Five days before he died, the hospice nurse suggested that he go to the hospice care center for a few days to give me a chance to sleep. (His terminal restlessness kept us both up all night, and neither of us was getting any sleep. Although it was supposed to be a five-day respite, we knew he was never coming back.) He was sitting on the couch, so small, momentarily comfortable, momentarily alert. He gave me a pitiful smile and said, with a crack in his voice, “I don’t want to go. We have a good life here. We’re doing okay, aren’t we? I’m not ready for you to throw me away.” About broke my heart.

I didn’t want to throw him away, of course, but I couldn’t keep him at home. He hated the nasal cannula, and that last morning, I found him frantically rummaging in a kitchen drawer for a knife to cut it off. What if . . . ? No, I’m not even going to think about that.

And so his ashes are still with me, still wrapped in his robe because I simply cannot bear to throw him away again.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.