When I was a child I grew up by the River Lea. There was something in the water, now that something’s in me. You know I can’t go back, but the reeds are growing out of my fingertips…” ~ Adele
I’ve always regarded water as a fascinating resource. So beautiful, soft, and gentle, yet also so powerful and dangerous.
On Sunday we scattered my father’s ashes.
We got the call sometimes in late December to say that his ashes had arrived in Bethlehem. We didn’t get the time to go and collect them then because my mom had to move. On Friday we went to the Avbob branch in Bethlehem to go and collect them.
People are strange.
I can understand that when you work in a funeral home you probably become a bit immune to the gloom and doom around you. I guess that it’s a coping mechanism of some sorts. But the women working there are so careless. After my mom told her why we’re there, the lady chirpily turned around and pulled out a row of boxes containing people’s ashes. It was as if she was working in a fast food restaurant. I expected her to yell “Number 47!”
My mom signed the papers and she plopped the box of ashes on the counter with a plastered on smile. As we were about to leave, the other one chipped in about papers that she needed. I wanted to say Do you people realize that this is a shitty day for us? For pretty much anyone who comes in here? These are someone’s ashes. A dead person. OUR dead person. Have some respect.
But I was raised Afrikaans, so I didn’t.
As we walked out of the place, I thought about how my father always use to say that someone was “playing on Avbob’s” porch when they were looking for trouble. Well, here we were for the umpteenth time. And he was with us, but in a tiny cardboard box. It looked like the kind of box that you would receive a hamburger in. A bit repulsive, to be honest. We opened my car’s boot and placed him in my grandmother’s vanity case. I decided that I’m going to use it to put my stage makeup in when I return to Pretoria. I smiled. My gran wasn’t very fond of my father. I wondered what she would think of the situation.
We drove back in separate cars because my mom had hers serviced. While I was driving, I thought about how the last time my father had been in my car he was a nervous wreck because he was convinced that I was going to crash it. He even ended up getting out and walking after a while. Now that I have my license he couldn’t see how I had grown in my confidence as a driver, because he was in a box.
My mom and I decided from the beginning that we didn’t want a big show. We just wanted it to be the two of us. And I know that my father would have been okay with that.
When the subject of where to scatter the ashes came up, I immediately knew. It was strange, because I hadn’t visited the spot in over ten years and rarely thought about it, but I knew for certain that it would be the right place.
On Sunday morning, my mom and I got ready and drove to Swinburne. As I took the box out of the closet I was suddenly struck by how cold it felt. It was as though you could feel death through it. I thought about how a man who had only been a little bit shorter than me now fit into a tiny box that I could easily hold in one hand. It seems unreal.
My mom bought some roses from Spar and we took the N3 to Swinburne. The last time we left there was when we finished packing up his things. Honestly, it’s hard to connect a positive memory to this horrible place.
My mom drove her Polo Vivo onto the gravel road next to the train track. I had to direct her to get there. I realized that I never had shared this place with my mom, despite how close we are. My father and I struggled in our relationship, but this truly was our place.
After a while I told my mom to stop the car, because I was scared of it getting stuck. We got out and walked the last few metres across the railway. The same railway I had so often felt with my hand to check for vibrations that would indicate an oncoming train. Then I would quickly grab a can or anything I could find and put it on the track for the train to crush. I love trains. I wanted to be a train driver at one point.
As we got closer, I worried that perhaps it would no longer be there, that it had somehow been destroyed by the people and the climate change. But as we came around the corner, I saw the same old raggedy bridge, barely big enough to fit a car on. And I heard the calm, yet commanding sound of the water running underneath it. The river. The Wilge River. When I was little my father and I would often walk to the bridge and sit there in the calmness. We would talk and watch the trains go by. Sometimes we just sat there. I remembered that there was a big, black rock on the side of the river. My father told me that if I threw enough stones at the rock it would eventually chip away until nothing was left. Try as I may, I never got it right. I walked onto the bridge and saw the rock – big, black, and heavy – exactly where I left it over ten years ago. Everything was the same, except that the river wasn’t as strong as it once was.
At first we just stood there. How do you do this sort of thing? I took out my cell phone and started to play the Pink Martini version of “Splendor in the Grass”. We used that version of the song in a show a few years ago and my father really liked it. I felt like it was the right song for the occasion. My mom took out the roses and we broke off their heads and threw them into the water. The yellow and orange colors looked beautiful as they drifted in the water.
Then came the moment. We slowly opened the box. I took out the plastic bag containing the ashes. They looked like little stones, unlike anything you see in the movies. I opened the bag and we scattered them into the river with the song playing. They made a magical swooshing sound as they fell into the water. The song ended. We stood there in silence. I felt sad, but not to the point of crying.
And then came the funny part. We had decided that we were going to set the box on fire and drop the burning remains into the river. My mom took out her lighter, the same one she has been using for years. And suddenly it wouldn’t work. No matter how we tried, we couldn’t get it to make a proper flame. I then took a few heavy stones and placed them in the box. I threw it up in the air and it plunged into the water. It was gone for a moment and then it rose to the top. I started laughing. I laughed so loud that it echoed through the emptiness. The box slowly started sinking as water entered it, like a ship that was finally giving up the battle. It disappeared and a few bubbles rose above it.
I took a stone and threw it at the big rock. It left a tiny white mark. I wondered what my thirteen year old self would have thought of me now at 24, an openly gay guy who studied drama and is now standing on the bridge, laughing because the box that my father’s ashes came in was refusing to go away. It all would have seemed impossible back then. I wish I had known then that life isn’t all that serious, and yet it is to be cherished. As Virginia Woolf says in The Hours; “To look life in the face. Always, to look life in the face and to know it for what it is. To love it for what it is. And then, to put it away.”
My mom asked me if I still wanted to stay. I looked around. I realized that even though I didn’t know it, I had missed this bridge with the river. It was a sanctuary. It was the one place where my father and I came as close as we could to connecting. But I knew that to stay any longer would ruin the moment. I had to rip off the band aid.
And we left.