Reading madambutterfly’s blog, in which she shares her struggle to come to terms with the death of her Sean, as she decides what to do with his ashes, I was reminded of this true story.
Shirley and Maurice took his father’s ashes home for safekeeping while the distressed widow decided what she wanted to do with them. A ship’s captain, whose old charts I still use today, he guided passengers and cargo up and down the east coast of Australia. Each time I plot a course, I am reminded of the old seafarer and salute his memory.
They were aware he would have ‘liked to be buried at sea’ but she would not decide, so he sat on his son’s mantelpiece, a constant reminder of unfinished business. After many years and no decision from the widow, they decided to give the old boy his wish and with a few heartfelt words, tipped him into calm waters near their harbourside home. Luckily they kept the urn because within days, she rang.
‘I’ve decided about the ashes!’
‘Shit!’, then covering the mouthpiece. ‘Shirl! Mum wants the ashes!’
‘Yes, of course I’ve got it!’, he assured her, covering the mouthpiece again. ‘Shirley! This is serious, get back here and talk to mum. Shit, Shirley. Stop laughing for crissake!’
‘No Mum, Shirley is not laughing, she’s choking to death. Gotta go. Call you back. Love ya! Bye!’
The phone rang again immediately but neither was capable of answering it as they rolled around helplessly on the lounge, choked and teary with hysterical laughter. When they were out of air and tears they looked at each other and he finally asked: ‘What’ll we do?’ That set them off again but eventually the question needed to be answered.
Maurice is a Vietnam veteran, so he has seen a bit, and Shirley is the survivor of some ‘serious shit’ so the solution came almost naturally. It was winter and the answer was right there in the open fireplace. Piles of ashes, a week’s worth of old wooden shipping pallets burnt down to a smooth grey powder flecked with charcoal.
‘It doesn’t look right, Maurice,’ said Shirley. ‘Dad’s ashes had white bits.’ Silence. Maurice left and returned with the lid of an old polystyrene box which he proceeded to crush into appropriate sizes. Mixed into ashes in the grate, it looked good, so they took the kitchen shovel and filled the urn to a convincing level and appearance.
Next day in Sydney, they stood together above rocks she had chosen for her long considered and solemn ceremony. Low Pacific swells surged in and out as she prayed quietly and spoke his name, committing his body to the sea he had loved so well and long.
Her eyes filled as her man poured from the urn, sliding over dark rocks into the water.
Shirley and Maurice gasped as they watched white flecks of polystyrene float up and bob about jauntily mocking them, but were ready to throw themselves in when nails from old pallets rattled, b-ling b-ling b-ling, bouncing from rock to rock until they plopped and disappeared through green tendrils of kelp.
By the time Mum’s eyes opened to see what caused ashes to b-ling b-ling b-ling, there was nothing to be seen except a few bits of plastic not yet washed ashore. Shirley turned away. There was no way she could control herself. But Maurice was the rabbit in the headlamps. He looked in vain to Shirley for support as she tottered off, shoulders shaking, then faced his mother, his big bearded face composed and head nodding. As if letting go of a long held burden he whispered;
‘Dunno. Maybe, he never said.’
And so they stood, contemplating a good man whose final secret sank, not with his passing, but with burnt timber and old nails, to the bottom of the sea he loved.