I’m perched on the edge of the green couch. An imperceptible breath moves through me as I inspect the white, cardboard box I’ve taken down from the bookshelf. Inside rests a muddy brown, plastic container. The gold lettering of the cremation company and your name fade into that thick, familiar space where everything blurs together in a sweet, foggy numbness.
Out of the cheap, brown plastic I pull a clear bag full of what looks like sand. I have never seen ashes before. My 25-year-old body simultaneously leans in with curiosity and pulls back with confusion. Sand is what it looks like, but sand is finer. There are bigger, rocky pieces mixed in. Everything slows as I reach my hand inside and feel the coarseness, the edginess.
This is not sand. This is ashes. Bones, skin. You. My husband.
This is death. So why am I still breathing?
“Mom, what’s that?” My 7-year-old runs in the kitchen. His school pod is in our garage this week and he loves to take “bathroom breaks” where he can see what’s happening.
I had placed the brown bag with the paw print tissue paper on the kitchen table just moments before, thinking I’d organize everything and tell him after school today.
“It’s Gigi’s ashes!” He grabs the bag and within seconds the contents are on the table.
“This is her paw?” He holds up the organza bag with a clay ornament. “Did they do this while she was dead?” I recoil slightly at his honesty even though his clarity feels refreshing. The puddle of my heart wasn’t ready to be jumped in just yet.
“I’ve got to tell everyone,” he announces excitedly and disappears down the hall.
For the next 15 minutes, one by one, each kid comes in to “get water” at the refrigerator.
My breath catches in awe at their curiosity and fearlessness.
When do we lose this? Why do we lose this?
The words “thank you,” stumble out of my mouth but my body doesn’t move, caught in the thick space between what was and what is.
Your friend, CJ, was so kind to offer to pick up your ashes for me. He’s being a good friend to you even after you are gone.
My fingers curl around the white cardboard box as I try to lift it off the table. It is heavier than I imagined.
Like gravity. Or grief.
In the parking lot I finally allow my gaze to turn towards the passenger’s seat and take in the brown bag.
Placing it on my lap I hear the soft crinkle-crinkle of the paw-stamped tissue paper as I take it out.
Peering into the bag feels like leaning over a cliff. My brow furrows in confusion at the delicate, white organza pouch that holds a small clay ornament. Your pawprint and the letters G-I-G-I are stamped into the clay.
My heart sinks-rises at this unexpected gift and at the freedom I give my tears as the grief surges through me.
Somehow my legs carry me and you to the office. Your collection of books lines the three floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Much less than you had in your studio in New Jersey and even San Francisco I know. I bite my lip as my mind tries to reconcile how your body is in the plain, cardboard box in my hands and also in every one of your books.
This is where you’d want to be I think. Right between Stephen Hawking, “A Brief History of Time” and Bill Bryson, “A Short History of Nearly Everything.” That’s where I place the heavy, white box, to blend in with the wall of books for the next several years.
It will take me 18 years to realize that’s where I wanted you to be.
The caramel-colored wood box with a tiny, gold, heart lock is at the bottom of the bag. I run my fingers over your name engraved on the top. My whole body softens at the sight of the care and thoughtfulness someone took for you.
I was expecting a plain, white box.
Lifting the lid I find a tiny, clear bag with a tag attached to it. It has your name as the pet and my name as the owner.
Something both rises and settles inside me as I allow the words on the tag to land.
I was your owner. The one who brought you home. The one who chased you down the beach each time you took off after the birds. The one who vigilantly looked for your little chest rising and falling to make sure you were okay. The one whose life you changed forever after he died.
I owned you when you were alive and I own you when you are gone. Care does not stop with a breath or a body.
I will set you free soon. Just not today.
I squint at the horizon as we carry the paddleboards down to the shore. There is a buzziness in my chest, excitement or nervousness or both.
The ocean is a lake today, like the many other times we have explored here. We angle the boards south, spotting the orange Garibaldi swimming below the clear water and passing “secret beach” that only exists on a low tide. After secret beach and before the next open-water channel we stop. I reposition myself on the board, legs dangling in the water, and pull you out of my small, red backpack.
My heart beats a little faster as my fingers clumsily untie the plastic bag. I am grateful for my husband’s silence. I can’t do this alone and I also can’t do this together.
Silently I ask the Garibaldi and mother ocean to take care of you as I pour you into the sea.
It will be ten years until I walk out of the vet’s office carrying the brown paper bag that will tug this memory off the shelf of my heart.
I place the brown bag with the crinkly tissue paper on the passenger’s seat and roll down the window for you. We always did that until the wind became too much and you’d place your content, furry head down on the seat.
You aren’t here to peek your head out, but you are with me still.
At home I sneak in through the side gate so my son, in his school pod in the garage, won’t see what I am carrying in.
Ashes, ashes. We all fall down.
Photo credit: M. Minahan