“What’s Dad doing?” said my sister, a note of concern in her voice.
The other three of us turned to see our father making his way through the back yard. He was heading to the corner of the garden that served as our little pet cemetery. He had a shovel over his shoulder.
And in his hand was the container holding our mother’s ashes.
My brother said, “He’s not about to do what I think he’s about to do, is he?”
My two older sisters, my brother and I were sitting on our parents’ bed, working our way through my mother’s jewelry box. She had used a velvet-lined flatware chest that at some point had held the sterling silverware. It would more rightly have been called a memory box, since it held much more than jewelry: Snapshots, thimbles, pretty buttons, keys to who knows where.
“Remember this?” one of us would ask, holding up an item. Keepsake by keepsake and story by story, we worked our way through Mom’s life. And our own.
My mother had died during an asthma attack. I was 25 at the time, the baby of the family. We were shattered. In the days and weeks following her death, my father seemed to be unraveling.
My sister said out loud what we were all thinking: “Is Dad about to bury Mom with dead animals?”
We all looked at each other. For a moment, grief was replaced by incredulity.
Then my oldest sister said in a whisper, “Has anyone else read Stephen King’s Pet Sematary?”
Instantly, all four of us began to howl with laughter. “Watch out tonight when Mom comes knocking on the door!” I cried, mimicking a zombie.
We fell back on the bed in hysterics, laughing and crying at the same time.
Oblivious to the bedlam at the window above him, my father went about his business, digging a small hole, then placing the canister of mom’s ashes in it. By hand he put soil back in the hole, then gently tamped the ground.
Later, when we’d recovered ourselves a bit, we asked our father why he’d buried Mom in the pet cemetery. We left out the “without asking us first” part of the question for now.
“She loved our animals so much,” he said simply. “I don’t think there’s anywhere she’d rather be.”
Why am I telling you this?
Every year as I mark the anniversary of my mother’s death, I think of this moment. I think about how scant is the line between fighting and laughing, outrage and forbearance, rigid judgment and flexibility born of love. I think of how easy it is to step on one side of the line or the other just because of whatever happened a few moments before.
If the moments just beforehand had been different, I think we could just have easily started a fight that afternoon. If we’d been tense about something instead of telling funny stories and sharing happy memories, our reaction could have swung in another direction. Such is the human condition.
We got lucky that afternoon and so I have a funny memory to recall each year in early April, my mother, father, and brother now all gone on.
Maybe you didn’t get so lucky the last time you straddled that fine line. Maybe I won’t be lucky next time I do. Maybe a black mood will change how I shift my weight. Maybe exhaustion will make me short-tempered.
If it does, I hope I will have the presence of mind to recall how fine the line is. I hope I’ll have the strength of character to request a do-over. It is so much better to have good memories to look back on, even if they didn’t start out in that direction. The trajectory we start on doesn’t have to be the trajectory we continue on (Click to tweet this).
After Dad remarried and put the house on the market, we went out to the pet cemetery and dug up that canister of Mom’s ashes. My sister and I took some of them back to the Firth of Forth, home of generations. The remaining ashes found their final place of rest in the upstate New York family plot as bagpipe music sounded Amazing Grace.
In spirit, though, I think Mom really is back with the pets.