When my father died, there was no fanfare or service. We had nothing planned even though it was hardly a surprise. He'd been withering away for a long time in front of us. It was an awkward couple of days, as nobody had a clue where to direct their sadness, but dad was a die-hard atheist 'til the bitter end. He wanted to be cremated and set on our mantelpiece in an urn so he wouldn't miss out on any fun. Seriously.
Eventually, we gathered our family grief and told stories about him in an impromptu way. He would've loved it. When friends heard that he'd passed, they came with food or drink and they'd sit with us; we told more stories and we laughed, some cried. It was like we were sitting shiva without the Judaism; a wake without the Catholicism. We actually ended up roasting our father, like a panel of has-been comedians. We had the food, the booze and the funny stories which all went on a little too long, like most roasts do.
My father was 6'5" and his matching large voice could blow you out of your seat. His laughter boomed as well and often. Nobody loved a good story more than he did. Our house was always filled with laughter and friends. My parent's friends, the four kids' friends—our living room became a performance salon many evenings.
My brother Reid had memorized the early Cosby records and could perform the "Noah" bit by age 15. We'd laugh hysterically, "Noah!" "WHAAAT?" We'd gather around the stereo to listen to Vaughn Meader impersonate President Kennedy, or Alan Sherman sing his way through hilarious parodies. We'd all laugh as one, melting away any generational squabbles. The laughter would catch on around the room like a fire and sizzle all night long.
If ever there was someone in the house that hadn't heard dad's crazy college years' stories, he'd segue into them. "When I went to college at Middlebury …" he began, and our whole family would groan and roll our eyes. We'd heard all his wild tales a hundred times. Honestly, they were the kind of escapades where you really had to be there. Dad didn't care—on he'd go, never happier.
My father's wish was to be cremated, set on our mantelpiece in an urn, putting him smack in the swing of things for all of eternity. He hated missing out on laughter. There he'd be under our fake Winslow Homer, above the fireplace where we could include him in all of our conversations. Maybe Mom could continue the argument they'd been having for 40 years, yelling at his ashes from time to time, finally getting in the last word. When people came over to the house, he insisted we should say, "Have you met my old man?" and then walk them over to the urn and nod towards it. He laughed like a maniac each time he played the scene out.
Everyone thought he was kidding, so we'd chuckle along with his dark humor, even add a few riffs of our own.
"Then we'll all eventually go in urns and sit up there in diminishing sizes like Russian nesting dolls," laughed Reid.
We always assumed he was kidding, but then Dad died and we were faced with the bitter fact that there was no better plan for his ashes, so we left them at the crematorium. For years.
Seven years, to be exact. Then, one day, the funeral home called and said that they were going to "rid themselves" of Dad's ashes, so my brother Joe drove over there and grabbed the remains, practically pulling them out of a bin marked "garbage." We were embarrassed as a family, but since Mom had rejected the mantelpiece scenario, we didn't know what to do with Dad. Joe brought his ashes home and plopped the urn on the mantel.
"I won't have it! It's macabre," yelled my mother. "Put him my bedroom … in the closet, I guess."
"But, Mom, it was Dad's final wishes," Robbie preached. Mom dragged on her cigarette, rolled her big eyes and walked away, meaning, That was that. The Pope has spoken.
Dad sat in a dark closet for a little too long when we unanimously decided to take him back to Vermont, where both our parents and grandparents went to college. We'd made the trip as a family many times over the years, while Dad reconnected with his old fraternity brothers, so we got to hear the retelling of those same stories … again and again. Each trip dad took us to his favorite place, Texas Falls—gushing waterfalls, tumbling over rocks into several pools as they raged their way back to the ocean.
We decided to spread our father's ashes in the water, where he and his wild fraternity brothers swam and partied in his admittedly most joyous years.
It was a beautiful summer day in the Vermont woods, and while we were letting go of Dad's remains to rejoin the falls, we started remembering his stories, and we told a few of them one last time, verbatim, but in a slightly mocking tone. Mom smoked her cigarette and watched her children scatter her husband into the swell. We all laughed heartily, as our father had taught us.