We went to the Island last week to scatter my father’s ashes.
My father lived the last half of his life in Oak Bay. Dad loved Oak Bay. His brother, my Uncle Reg, told me that they thought the coastal village in Cumbria, where they grew up, was the best place on earth – “until Walt got to Oak Bay.” To Dad, Oak Bay was like the northwest English province he grew up in – only better. It was Workington without the industrial zones, set in the Pacific Northwest landscape that so reminded him of the seashore and the mountains of Cumbria and Yorkshire. Victoria is a lost British colony, but Oak Bay is a misplaced English town, and seeing the hills and forest and islands every day was, to Dad, his version of paradise. “Some people think Hawai’i is paradise,” he said to us, often enough. “I don’t bloody well think so. This is a better paradise.”
It wasn’t a surprise to us that Dad wanted his ashes to be scattered in the ocean, rather than be buried in a local cemetery. Dad never wanted ceremony. It was one of the core characteristics that he shared with my mother – a basic common sense, a dislike of the overly ceremonial, a love of simplicity. But my mother, knowing the water off Victoria, wanted to wait until the warmest weekend of the year to hire a boat for this minimalistic memorial. And, in the time she had to plan, she found a charter boat, planned a garden party to follow, and invited the people who meant the most to my father. Mom planned the funeral she knew my father wanted, and spent countless hours making it as perfect and well organized and as, well, enjoyable as possible for a sad occasion.
And so, my sister and I, along with our husbands, found ourselves on a boat ten days ago, leaving the Oak Bay Marina on a perfect Saturday afternoon, with a mix of relatives from not only my father’s family, but also my mother’s family – and even my in-laws. My father’s three brothers came in from the suburbs of Victoria and Vancouver where they live. They were brought over by one of my favorite cousins on my father’s side, who brought his new wife. Dad’s best friend and colleague joined us, and brought his wife. My half-sister and brother from Dad’s first marriage came in from Vancouver. My mother’s siblings came up from the States. And Paul’s parents came in from Pittsburgh, by way of a visit to us in L.A. beforehand. And then we had Benjamin. It was a full boat of people who had known and loved and respected my father.
My sister, who is wonderful with meaningful, touching gestures, had spent hours and hours visualizing and putting together a program for the afternoon. She chose three hymns that Dad loved, that he would sing to himself, or sing us to sleep with. Dad loved to sing, and he had the wonderful voice and love of music to back it up. Monica chose the hymns, and designed a program on card stock with ribbons with the music and lyrics for us all to sing along. I spent most of Saturday morning bonding with my brother-in-law Jonathan as we tried to get Microsoft Word to print the programs correctly onto the custom sized pieces. Eventually, we printed twenty perfect copies, which my sister brought out on the boat, and I handed out as we prepared to sing. It’s tradition in so many parts of the British Isles to sing the dead home, but it also unites the living in song while you’re doing it.
When it came time to scatter the ashes, we all took turns standing at the stern of the boat, and then kneeling down, a few inches above the water, to ladle out the ashes into the ocean. My mother first, not only as my father’s wife, but also as the one who brought us all together and planned the ceremony and the day around it. My sister went next, then me, then my half siblings, then Dad’s brothers, and then the rest of the family and friends on board. At the end, there were still ashes left in the urn, so I stepped out and poured them into the water. And then, as the boat pulled away from the spot I picked up Ben, and said, “Bye bye,” and waved. Ben waved and said, “Bye bye.”
“Bye bye, Grandad,” I said.
“Bye bye, Gra-daa”, Ben repeated.
“Bye bye, Grandad,” I said.
“Bye bye, Grandad,” Ben repeated. “Bye bye,” And he waved his little chubby hand, and grinned to be out on the boat.
And that was one of the most heartbreaking moments of the day for me. Having my tiny boy say bye-bye to a grandfather he’s never going to know, and won’t remember, seems so tragic. I wish my father could have lived long enough to know the grandson he wanted so much. I wish Ben would have some memory of his grandad, watching Thomas the Tank Engine with him, or reading Wind in the Willows or singing lullabyes or explaining cricket – something that he could only have shared with Dad. I wish my father had had the chance to see what a wonderful tiny boy we have. Even seeing Ben out on that boat – he loved every minute of it. It was an all new experience, and he was so excited to be out seeing the ocean and doing something new that he wasn’t scared at all by the rocking of the waves. Dad would have been so proud of Ben, and would have claimed him as a “chip off the old block.” (Everything he was proud of in my sister and I, he claimed as coming from him.)
We returned to land, and to the house, and set out the catered tea party my mother had picked up that morning. And everyone chatted in the backyard for two more hours, in the sunshine, on a beautiful August day. It turned into a lovely garden party. I think it was the best possible kind of funeral: the one the deceased would have been enjoyed. My mother and sister planned and executed a wonderful day, a day my father is, no doubt, disappointed he couldn’t be there to enjoy.