It had been raining for days. Slick, cold, stay indoors kind of rain. Not the gentle mist-like rain of the northwest that caresses as you go from place to place, but the heavy rainfall of the northeast that soaks you unmercifully, making you run for shelter. It was truly the April showers that bring May flowers, and I was visiting my family in New York. It was six months after my father died. Just eleven days before Samhain last year, it felt like the veil between the worlds had just begun to part and my father seized the opening to venture through to the other side. My widowed mother, my two older sisters and I had plans to honor Dad's wishes by spreading his ashes in the Atlantic Ocean.
At first we thought it should be off Coney Island, where he had spent time as a youth, where he and my Mother lived together in their one room apartment when they first got married. But logistically, that proved difficult. I had learned along the way of performing ministerial services that most state laws require this kind of thing be done at least two miles off shore for reasons of public health. Most folks think they can just go to the water’s edge, toss the ashes in and be done with it. But that is not true and not good citizenship. So we decided to rent a boat to take us out into Long Island Sound, not far from my sisters home, to release Dad’s ashes. Since the water of the Sound runs into the Atlantic, we figured it was close enough. The Atlantic in April is too rough and we are not practiced seafarers. Besides, the rituals for death are done for the living. This was a workable plan for us. Except for now with this relentless rain.
My eldest sister had wisely reserved the boat and Captain for either Wednesday or Thursday, depending on how other plans and the weather played out. We grew a bit nervous imagining a soggy boat ride if the rain continued, but then Thursday dawned clear, sunny and warm. We set out to the docks that morning feeling sure that Dad had orchestrated this beautiful day for us from the other side.
The Captain was a lovely man and it was a good sized motor boat with room to seat about ten comfortably, but there was only the four of us and a ten pound box of ashes, my father's cremains. We settled in the back of the boat beyond the canopy, sitting close, with the bright, morning sun on our faces as the Captain slowly brought us out toward the Sound. Once we cleared all the docks, the motor kicked up a deafening sound as we took up speed, heading north, the wind whipping our hair, my mother holding him on her lap.
Before long, the boat slowed and the Captain cut the engines. We floated in the center of the Sound, now the deafening silence broken only by birdsong. Due to the storm of emotions rising within, we were grateful that the water was calm. I was glad to notice that the port side was facing west, the portal to the Summerland. I knew this mattered solely to me, the only Pagan.
I opened the box and cut the plastic clasp on the bag of grey ashes inside. All that was physically left of the imposing man who had loved my mother till his dying day, all that was physically left of the lion-like man who had sired his now grown cubs, my sisters and I. One of us held the box as I lifted the bag out and placed it in my mothers hands. We sat two to a side facing one another on the benches, our hands found each others, all of us holding the man whose big presence in our world had imprinted us forever. The tears came but gently. We made eye contact in the most intimate moment I have ever spent with my family.
I brought a piece from my ceremonial repertoire and we listened as my father's first born softly read it aloud:
"As we look upon Daddy’s ashes, we know that his soul is now free and we are grateful that he is no longer suffering in physical form. We give our blessing to these remains. From water all life arises. As a stream flows into a river, as a river flows into the sea, may Daddy’s Spirit flow into the healing realms of the afterlife, and may his soul find rest. Amen."
Amen. And then we leaned over the side of the boat, tipped the bag and watched the ashes fall. They spread out on the surface, grey blotting out sea green for a moment, before they began to sink into the depths. We threw flower petals as we whispered good-bye.
At breakfast not long after, my mother said something that made all our forks drop as we stared at her. "I'm so relieved!", she said. We all nodded, thinking that she meant it was a relief that the deed was done. "You know how claustrophobic your father was." She continued, "The thought of him trapped in that box unable to breathe all this time was driving me crazy. Now he's free, you know?"
He has been free for a year now and that year has gone by incredibly quickly. I awoke weepy on the first anniversary of his death this past Wednesday, sadder than when he first died. At that time, I felt shock. I felt relief. I felt sad for my mother, alone after over sixty years of loving him. Then I moved into my Priestess role for his memorial in service to my family. Then I came back from the east coast and delved into the details and preoccupation of my life again, including a powerful Samhain ritual in which my father's photo took it's surreal place among the Ancestors for the first time.
But it's taken a whole year for me to truly arrive at my sorrow over his death. So, like a good Pagan, I did a ritual to commemorate the first year without my Dad on the planet: I planted Spring bulbs, burying some of my long held grievances about him, in the nourishing soil of the Mother as the syrupy, golden sunlight of deepening Autumn embraced me just eleven days before Samhain.