Russell took the news with a sigh of resignation when his Doctor told him that the cancer had returned. Eighteen years ago he had been an unstoppable force, determined to prevail. This time the Doctor didn’t act that concerned and neither did Russell. Whether he was too battle weary or simply resigned to the inevitable, he just didn’t seem to have the fight in him this time. Diagnosed in the summertime, he was gone on the first of February.
Suddenly we found ourselves putting together a memorial with his favorite flowers and his favorite music, and oddly enough, a borrowed urn which I referred to as “Loaner Russell.” It seems the mortuary missed their promise date, and so I borrowed an empty container from the display shelf. It wasn’t the first party that he missed Instead of Russell, I had a demo. Only someone with three decades of automotive experience would see the humor in that.
A week later I got the call that Russell was ready and I could bring Loaner Russell back and do the swap. The real Russell was surprisingly heavy both physically and emotionally, and I was glad that I asked a friend to come along. I thought the trunk was too utilitarian, so Russell rode home on the back seat.
And there he was. We put Russell on the round table in the family room and I talked to him every time I walked by. But we all understood that this was only a temporary abode that raised a question we had thus far failed to ask- what exactly to do with him. During the later stages of his illness we talked about trusts and heirs and cremation, but I never asked where he wanted to be and he never volunteered.
It was a little bit the same when my Mother passed away in 2007, the Michigan clay in December was frozen too hard to bury her urn, so it sat atop my brother’s television until spring. It kept her warm, I told myself, and besides- she’s always enjoyed television so it wasn’t an altogether inappropriate place to spend the winter.
But cremains sometimes go astray in their temporary settings. I recall a frantic telephone call a few years back from my friend Steven in Los Angeles. He was having new built-in bookcases made for his home office, and had hauled all of the old freestanding wood ones to a consignment shop in Palm Springs to sell. But somehow he had overlooked a black velvet bag which contained the mortal remains of his Mother, Alice. I hung up the phone and raced right over to the shop but they were in the midst of their summer shutdown.
By the time they reopened I was first in line. I looked through the cabinets but found no signs of Alice. I told the shopkeeper that Steven thought he had left the remains of his cat in the bookcase- it sounded a bit too odd to me to admit that he had really misplaced his Mother. They looked but didn’t find anything- she had most certainly been tossed in the dumpster by a well meaning employee when the cabinets were checked in, and in this case it really was perfect- Alice was a devoted shopper who loved a bargain. I say hello to her every time I visit the store.
And so Russell rested on the family room table where he so often sat at his computer. His little polished box is home for now we find a more lasting one- perhaps a hillside overlooking the desert, the boat ride on the ocean, or maybe even divide him up among a favorite racetrack or two- I can imagine myself smuggling him into the infield. I hadn’t really given much thought to the transience of cremation, but it really does leave a big question for those left behind- and I admit that I am struggling with the finality of the choice we ultimately make.
And at the same time I’m aware that I am being totally irrational. Wherever we finally place him, he’ll never leave the house. I talk to him constantly there, and he often replies- by blowing a light bulb, moving a picture, or even the day of his memorial when an hour before the service the cable on the TV he most often watched went out. That TV alone, the others weren't affected. It came back on a couple of hours later. So I don’t really think he’s leaving us, a thought that I find oddly comforting. But there’s the matter of the earthly dust. Cremains. Mortal Leftovers, Ashes, Dust. Isn’t it really just dust?