By L.M. Dalton
The pale blue box containing my father’s ashes sits on the credenza in front of my TV. The box contains only half of them, actually. My sister has the rest.
“I’ll take his brains and heart,” I told her when we were given the divided remains of our dad. My half is enshrined in this blue box and hers are in a tube resembling a wine bottle gift holder, a photo of a golf club adorning the outside. My father never golfed a day in his life. His interests were more suited to belting out show tunes at a piano bar or shopping for drapes.
Our share of Dad is really a bit less than half each, as a handful of him is forever trapped inside a golden rose his partner chose from a catalog at the funeral home. His partner will keep this on his dresser alongside other mementos from their nine-year relationship. Since my sister and I will both be scattering our portion of Dad’s remains, we chose between the two free temporary containers Sax-Tiedeman had lying around.
I picked the one Dad would hate the least.
Behind the box, on the TV screen, an elderly Frankie Valli is singing, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You,” a song that flowed from the stereo in the dining room of my childhood. I’m pretty sure Dad sang this song in a talent show when I was 12, his shaky hand holding the microphone on the stage at Nippersink Manor Resort in Wisconsin. Handsome and confident, he sang with gusto while my mom, my gram, my sister and I applauded from the audience. We were his biggest fans.
That was the summer before I found out that my dad was gay.
No one actually told me this, my parents having been very careful to keep it a secret; instead, I sort of figured it out by osmosis. Being gay wasn’t even widely called that yet; queer was the term I remember, or fairy or homo or fag. There were a few references on television shows like All in The Family, but even those were vague, or steeped in shame or bigotry. Perhaps there was a dialog about being gay in the early 1970s in New York or San Francisco, but in the Midwest suburbs of Chicago, no one talked about it. And especially not in front of the children.
My suspicion came a year after my parents’ divorce when I noticed Dad wasn’t dating. Instead, he had a constant companion in Terry, a cute young guy in his early twenties who joined us for Sunday visits, and then moved in with Dad.
Add that to my father’s pickiness about cleaning, never watching sports or wrenching on cars, and his love of musical theater. It didn’t take much to figure it out from there.
For the next several decades we took turns rejecting each other and longing for one another, each of us wanting something that didn’t come easily. I wanted a “normal” dad. He wanted me to accept the dad he was.
Tears flow as it hits me again that he’s gone. For someone I spent many years despising because he didn’t love me the way I wanted him to, I am devastated that he has died. Even though in the past few years there were many signs his health was failing, the reality of his body reduced to ash is startling.
Yet here he sits inside this boring blue box.
A decorating diva, my flamboyant father could barely stand to see a wall with more than 12 inches of blank space on it. This plain box just will not do until his next birthday when I scatter him across the lagoon behind my home. There he will rest for eternity, floating beside the painted ladies he loved during his years living in San Francisco. Until then, he needs something with a bit more flair.
Pouring myself a second glass of wine, I begin pulling out magazines. Pictures of hearts and clocks get ripped out along with a tampon ad filled with butterflies. I tear out clichéd words of bereavement and inspiration. Threshold. Serenity. Memories. Wisdom. A love that can endure. The things I want for him and those he left behind for me. The words land in a pile on my lap.
Gluing the words and images to the box, a large and colorful Feeling Good is front and center on the top. This is the thing he wanted most and what had eluded him for the last decade of his life; so many years were focused on numbing his pain, real and imagined. Like a ransom note I piece together the words remember your family all love you, a message to be deciphered in the afterlife since I’m not sure he really knew this when he was living, at least not all of us at the same time.
By now the tears and wine are really flowing. The bottle is almost empty. My memories of my dad soften with each stroke of the glue stick. My love for him and who he was are reflected in the quotes chosen for the sides of the box, the things that he may not have directly taught me, yet I learned from him by all the same. Things about believing in yourself and doing what you love.
Flipping through the last magazine I find the letters RIP on one page in an elegant, curvy script, an exciting find. I cut them out and carefully glue them beside a purple heart.
Rest now, Dad. You’re not in pain anymore. You’ve won the war and found a new home.
L. M. Dalton grew up in the Midwest and has twice created a new life for herself in the San Francisco Bay area. Her slice of life essays have been included in various publications. Her day job as a Life & Business Coach focuses on supporting the personal and professional creative expression of others. She lives in Alameda, California.