Ash Friday: one extra order of iced tea, please

part 3 of 3 in the series “Dementia Summer” / (part 1  & part 2)


“There must be someplace in New York City where he’d want his ashes sprinkled?”

“Scattered,”I tell my son. “You scatter ashes. And, no, I don’t think there’s anywhere he’d have chosen in New York. He liked to visit, but he didn’t want to live here.”

My children are off from school this early-autumn late Friday morning and we’re going to fill it with purposeful errands. When we step into our entryway, however, I trip immediately over the package that FedEx has dropped for us there. Yellow tape screams HUMAN REMAINS across the front, and the return address of Angel Valley leaves no mystery about what’s inside. I snatch up the box by reflex, though it’s pointless to try to hide it from my kids. One is 9, one is 8, both notice everything.

“That’s him in there,” my son says.

“Yes, that’s him.”

My daughter grabs at the box, to touch it, not to take it.

“Do we lock him in a drawer or a cabinet in our living room? Is that where he’ll stay now?” Her suggestion sounds so Gothic, like an Addams Family relative locked in the dungeon till teatime. Not coincidentally, my daughter just discovered The Addams Family weeks before, when we spent a chunk of the summer moving my father into the nursing home where he would live out the rest of his days.

All of the residents, my dad included, had dementia and my son took to calling this time “our Dementia Summer.” Florence, the self-appointed head resident, liked to sit on the recliners with my daughter, watching reruns of The Addams Family. “Stephanie,” she’d say, snapping her fingers like Morticia. “Come sit.” My daughter’s name isn’t Stephanie but she knew that Florence thought it was. A TV-starved 4th grader in real life, she gladly seized the chance to watch anything without our interference.

“No,” I say now, letting her run her fingers along the edge of the FedEx package. “He won’t stay locked in a cabinet forever. We’ll scatter his ashes one day, back to the earth or the ocean, somewhere out in the open.”

“Out in the open”carries much meaning for me at the moment. When my father first moved to the nursing home, my husband and I worked to make it as open a process as possible for our kids. They’d known their grandfather mostly in his incarnation as a man with dementia. And that incarnation — full of unconditional, boisterous love for them — they adored. Our nuclear family history gives us reasons for transparency in dealing with our children: cancer, adoption, our different races. We’ve charged into each tricky topic we’ve faced with exhausting candor. For these reasons, and for others, we wanted them to see that everything about this move and this new home would be, indeed, out in the open. Grandpa wouldn’t disappear, we’d raucously join him right where he was.

And so each day we made ourselves at home in his new home, adding young chaos to old chaos. “You’re here!” My father and the other residents looked forward to our daily arrivals and called out with particular joy when they saw my children. Rushing to greet us, asking illogical questions, they welcomed us fully into their fold. I’d hoped that this openness was transformative for everyone — father, children, housemates alike. Any uncomfortable realities that adults keep hush-hush, I’d enlisted to shout them out loud.

Clutching the box of ashes now, walking into the Manhattan sun, that spirit sweeps over me again. “Maybe we should,”I say. “Maybe we’ll go scatter them somewhere. Maybe one scoopful.”

My daughter scoffs. My son looks around nervously. But soon the three of us are on the M10 bus. We’d planned to go shoe shopping; as we ride, however, we’re lost in ideas about where to go with our unexpected cargo. The kids have many mechanical questions, which I answer with truthful shrugs. “No, it’s not legal… No, I don’t have a scoop to use.”

We’re bluffing.

We’re also serious.

My father’s ashes were divided among a few close relatives, sealed into fancy urns or headed home with my mother. Ours is the portion that’s traveled cross-country and therefore arrived, expected but unexpected, in the box at our doorstep. “Central Park,” my son suggests, “seems like the best place to take them.”

“You’re right,” I say. “The only thing is…he never liked Central Park.”

“He liked rosebushes.”

“True,” I say. “But he never visited rosebushes in Central Park. Weird to put him somewhere forever that he never went in life.”

“We should text Daddy,” says my son, the sober strategist. “He’ll have suggestions.”

“He will,” I agree. But texting my husband will introduce logical thought, and I’m enjoying the magical thinking. “Home plate at Yankee Stadium? No! The crown of the Statue of Liberty?” I notice that each of us has a hand resting on the box as we ride.

“Times Square!” my daughter exclaims. “In the middle of the Broadway theaters.” She’s right. My dad would love to be at one for eternity with wherever a Rodgers & Hammerstein revival is playing. Broadway was a big part of his bond with my kids in the dementia years. They watched DVDs of Oklahoma and Easter Parade, danced like clumsy Gene Kellys, sometimes communicated only through lyrics from old show tunes.“The father!” my father shouted, in his Fiddler on the Roof moments. And my daughter answered, “The daughter!” When he was well, he’d taken them to shows, but later they made the music themselves. (“I was inspired,” my daughter wrote after his death, “that just anything could become a song.”)

“Perfect,”I tell her. “Except it’s too crazy-crowded to scatter someone’s ashes in Times Square.”

“Hey!”she shouts. “We passed the shoe store.”

Sigh. It’s true. I reluctantly snap back into logical mode. Probably, I tell them, the real plan will be to take the ashes far from the city, to some location that’s legal and appropriate, someplace in which their grandfather had actually lived. “For now,” I say, “we should go tuck them in a cabinet. We’ll scatter ashes some other day.” My daughter, skeptical at the start of this outing, looks sad to hear this.

My son says, “Wait. We can float them in the Hudson!”

I smile. “Let’s skip the shoe shopping and head home. We’ll store the ashes somewhere safe.”

Instead, moments later, hugging the box defiantly, I find myself hurrying the kids down the sidewalk toward my father’s favorite brunch place.

“Mommy,” my son says, “I like walking with him — but please take that HUMAN REMAINS sticker off the front.” Oh right. I rip off the tape.

There’s no line outside the restaurant, where long waits had often caused my dad aggravation in his days as a hard-charging attorney. He sometimes would lean on the hostess stand in his lawyerly way, arguing for faster seating. Today, a rare Friday brunch, we show him that there’s no wait at all. “Hear that?” I ask the box. “Right to the table.”

Seated, we carefully open the FedEx packaging and take out a compact box-in-a-box. It fits in my hand. My father’s name, typed on a clinical label across the lid, takes my breath away.

My son puts the ashes on the empty plate by mine. “Before, he had to sit on the lefties’ side,” I say. “More options now.” My daughter, glancing around with preteen affectations, makes sure that no one’s taken notice of our guest. Satisfied, she unfolds his napkin.

My son asks if we should order my dad an iced tea. We laugh. And cry.

And order him an iced tea.

We’d been back in New York just a few weeks when, on Labor Day, the call came about my father’s injury. As “Dementia Summer” became Fall, we were told that my dad did fall, arguing with an overnight aide at the nursing home who wanted him to comply with orders he didn’t like. I was at first happy to hear he’d gone down swinging. Our weeks in the nursing home still fresh and vivid, we told the kids everything we knew: the fracture was bad, the outlook for treatment was worse.

But even the most wide-open openness has limits. We knew, but didn’t know how to explain, that mishandling by overworked and under-skilled aides is what shattered my dad’s initial injury beyond repair. We didn’t mention to them either how his pain was compounded by short cuts, by being moved by force in ways he couldn’t move himself. We had no words yet to explain to our kids how discomfort with death led, as it always leads, to imperfect choices, to confusion between what’s merciful and what’s expedient. We didn’t yet make clear to them that how we treat and mistreat our most vulnerable is ultimately how we’ll be treated and mistreated ourselves. I’d been quietly grappling with realities that landed me smack in the ranks of the hush-hush adults; I’m yearning now to run back out in the open air.

For these reasons, I really love our brunch date.

Afterwards, we take my dad out often, using his presence to talk about absence, bringing our vivid summer back into the dazzling light of day. We’ve taken him to stores he once liked, to drop-off at school, and of course to Times Square. We’ll eventually drive him south to his former home in DC, to a resting place that’s legal and adequate for ashes.

But, I decide, we’ll also keep a spoonful, which we won’t lock away. We might bring him to get ice cream, or maybe to a baseball game, letting him remind us not to spend too much time in dark, hidden places. Sunny walks are good for all living creatures and, once they’re no longer living, for their ashes too.