3-4 pounds of dust. Like a big pair of winter boots. A cantaloupe. A carton of milk. Daniel’s body was incinerated into a four pound bag of pulverized bone and carbonized matter. They don’t kid when they say the human body is up to 65% water. When I opened the bag, the scent of sulfur was overwhelming. Interestingly the effluvial odor from Daniel’s ashes was a familiar, triggering scent — what I most remembered about cradling his head while he lay dying a few days earlier. The urge to inhale was compulsive, the acrid powder filled my nose the way sniffing a bag of white pepper chokes and yet (if you have an ounce of kid left in you) you can’t resist — that was a game I taught Daniel, always the daredevil — “see if you can take a breath of the white pepper bag.” The dare resulted in mad sneezing and a skullopening, searing sinus sensation.
When Jennifer let me hold the bag for the first time following our memorial ceremony for Daniel in Saratoga Springs, I impulsively wanted to open the bag and thrust my hand in, but refrained in a moment of circumspection and respect for Daniel. The sense that I was crossing a boundary between the way “normal” folks in our society deal with death and my morbid curiosity also kept me in check. But I so wanted to pat and rub his ashes into my skin like talcum powder — inhaling, tasting, eating, and absorbing his remnants into my body. While he lay dying and briefly after, I had wanted to wear Daniel’s clothes, read his books at night and sleep in his bed — the one on which he breathed his last gasps — in an effort to connect with him. The impulse to wear and consume Daniel’s ashes, though macabre, felt like a logical extension of getting as close as possible to him and perhaps merging with his “being” on some molecular level.
We drove for hours on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula looking for the perfect place to scatter Daniel’s ashes. Jennifer suggested the U. P. because it was the last place she had seen Daniel happy after a refreshing swim on the way from N.Y. to Minnesota. In fact, he may have said to Jennifer cryptically that he wanted his ashes to end up in that very spot. In my mind’s eye the “final resting place” I was looking for had a dock and the bottom was invisible. Daniel’s mother had different ideas; she insisted we paddle out via canoe and toss the ashes in the “middle” of the lake. She had scoured the U.P. for outfitters and secured a canoe but Victoria’s and the girls’ fear of capsizing on the mammoth lake altered plans to a walk-in-the-lake sort of reverse baptism idea.
We found a placid, pine-flanked white sandy public beach and took off shoes and socks and carried the heavy charcoal powdery bag while we waded into the lake. The sky was an electric blue, with wisps of cirrus clouds and a hot mid-June sun slicing through the omnipresent Great Lakes breeze. The day and scene couldn’t have been more picturesque. We exchanged few words and slowly treaded into the brisk water looking for the perfect place to commence what we drove some 500 miles to do.
The four of us fanned out with 10 or so yards between us, like an unspoken kinesthetic response, each of us looking for a semblance of privacy in what felt like a profound final parting moment.
My sense is that most people want to be as far away from death as possible. Something changed dramatically in me shortly after Daniel’s death. The change was imperceptible at first. Many across cultures and through time have expressed a lack of desire to live following the death of loved ones. It is the stuff of romantic poetry and hyperbolic songs around the world expressing the absolute desolation and hopelessness of losing a loved one. I might argue it’s not specifically human but a fairly broad mammalian trait.
I’ve had some trouble pinpointing the significance in my shift in personal weltanschauung: is it simply a desire to be closer to my son since I miss him so completely? Is it that now that I have experienced death so intimately that it no longer frightens me? Is it something else? Regardless, I know this to be a fact of my psychology now: I no longer fear flying. I no longer have more than a healthy fear of car accidents. I no longer have a shred of fear random violence or muggings. I do not have anxiety about cancer. I do not worry about finishing my “masterpiece” — the notion that there is some great artwork for me to complete before my time is done. Oh, I worry about how my music career is developing. I worry about taxes. I’m troubled by issues around world peace and economic stability. I worry moment-to-moment about my children’s health and well-being. But my fear of death
is gone. Absolutely gone. I worry about how my children would fare in the world without me. I know many would be sad and would feel profound aching loss, maybe some even as profoundly as I feel for my son. But of the brute reality of the moment of crossing the threshold from living consciousness to the mysterious abyss of who-knows-what, there exists curiosity minus the gnawing panic I recall pre-Daniel’s death. And so here I stood in the middle of Lake Michigan on June 16th, 2012 at about 2:30pm, yards away from the few people in the world who knew and loved him the most, me holding a bag of Daniel trying to figure out where was the right place to lay his last particulate remnants for eternity.