October 12, 2005

ashes to ashes

This Saturday we will be laying to rest my father-in-law, spreading his ashes in the bay from the deck of a sailboat owned by one of his best friends. Afterwards, we will retreat to his yacht club for a memorial of sorts, with a looped slide show of photos from his life.

I have been so busy the past month that I have not had time to reflect deeply on Gary's passing, but many thoughts and feelings have been lurking behind me, making themselves felt like when you walk into a dark room from a dimly lit hallway and feel that someone has passed in right behind you.

Gary was a wonderful man, a truly kind person. We got along very well even though we held diametrically opposed political views. We rarely argued; it's an unwise son-in-law that does not nod, smile knowingly, and keep his mouth shut when his father-in-law discusses politics. Yet I always respected his viewpoints no matter how misguided I thought them for he always had logical and consistent thought process behind them.

Through this past five weeks, however, I have come to learn a bit about myself. I am surprised at how easy I have found it to let go, to say goodbye, to continue on. At first I felt a guilt about that--shouldn't I be feeling devastated and stricken with grief, shouldn't I be crying a lot and feeling a deep void in my life? The truth was that although I was sad and am sad, and I do miss Gary somewhat, those things did not happen to me.

It's not that I don't feel emotions, and feel them deeply. One look at either of my sleeping children reminds me the depths of the feeling that can strike me. Rather, I have a strong sense inside, an unconscious and innate sense, that all things are temporary. Everything has an end, and tomorrow I will wake up and adjust my life based on tomorrow's reality, not based on how I used to think tomorrow would be. When things change around me, I flow with that change rather than rail against it like many of my coworkers. I do not think of life in linear terms but rather as a wholistic totality, ebbing and flooding and swirling in patterns simple and complex. We all are part of this beautiful pattern, both shaping it and responding to it just as the planets pull and push each other as they glide around the sun.

It is a nice philosophy, I think. Yet it leaves a cold, empty spot that is filled by most religions: mortality. I like to think of an afterlife; it is comforting to hope that we all move on to some other place and retain our essence, our self, our soul. Yet I can not bring myself to believe in it as most religions have proposed it to be. Our bodies are made, as Carl Sagan would have said, of starstuff. All living things die, and their physical components are reduced to their base forms and recycled by the universe, to be made into other living things. Dust to dust. This is true of the wealthiest robber baron and the basest crackhead, the most beautiful starlet and the most inane talk show host.

I do not pretend to know whether our "souls" are distinct things that transcend the physical world, or whether our essence is just another aspect of this swirling soup of a universe. The living may never know. What I do know is that we all return to the earth, and for whatever reason, that thought allows me to let go.

When I was little, we had many cats, and it seemed that at least two a year would get run over by cars. It also seemed that several more were born each year in my sister's closet. So perhaps I grew up with a vague, mixed sense of the circle of life: all things die eventually, and there are more where those came from.

I have also had many goodbyes in my life. My parents divorced when I was two, and my dad moved out. When I was not much older, my mom moved across the country. My brother and sister moved off to college when I was in middle school. Through the years, I have never been much troubled when friends fade from my life or when coworkers move on. It seems natural, and there are more where those came from. The wheel turns.

I know there are not more Garys where Gary came from. I know my boys can no longer say things like, "Maybe Grandpa can fix it." I know I will surf past McLaughlin Group some night and feel a sharp emptiness where Gary's voice would have been. And I know that some day I will follow him and the billions of other people who have returned their bodies back to the earth. What happens afterwards, I have no idea. Perhaps nothing. Perhaps something. Perhaps both.

On Saturday we will commend Gary's ashes to the waters of the earth, and we will each contemplate not just the man and his vast roles in our lives but also our own mortality and the part we each play in this ever-changing cosmos, and the parts we each play in the lives of so many others. Life is a wondrous and mysterious thing.


Unknown said...

Wow. Nicely written, Pete.

Jane D. said...

Pete, I hear you. Well said my friend.