Saturday, August 30, 2008

Personal Remains

You can't take it with you, and you won't leave much behind ...

The reason about twenty members of our family congregated last week was to let loose of the final remains of Thomas O'Sullivan, my father-in-law. The site was just up the beach from the immersed rock that marked the spot where his three children had spread the ashes of their mother some years ago. So it seemed right, even though the two of them had been long since divorced.

The first night we climbed over the dunes further up the coast where we could watch the sun go down, its bright glow slowly replaced by a tapestry of stars, with the Milky Way a pale belt from horizon to horizon. It looked "just like the planetarium," according to our granddaughter.

Picnic dinner was consumed by all, a fire built, a circle formed in the dark. We sang a few songs, most notably "The Wheels on the Bus (go 'round 'round 'round)" for the benefit of two-year-old Ella, who was delighted. Our friend from the East also sang us a song in Chinese that his mother had sung to him when he was a child out there on the far side of the planet.

Ella was not the youngest among us, for she was joined by her brand new baby sister, Kalinit, named for a wildflower beloved in Israel -- on yet another side of the world. The presence of all the children, including Tom's seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, provided all the balance of life against death that anyone could have wished.

Next morning with a bare cup of coffee under our belts we made our way back to the beach while it was still chilled from the night before. A pit was dug and decorated with pebbles. Into this Gerry spilled what we call the "ashes," but which are in reality the sandy grit that's left after our minds have become a memory and our flesh has succumbed first to the entropy of death, then the fierce chemistry of the flames, and the bones have been ground to dust. There they lay in state, a small pile of blinding white like the surface of the moon contrasting with the warm tan of the sands surrounding them.

Over them each of his children spoke, first Gerry, then Beth, then Jono. The words they said were personal and intended for the ears of those who were there, but they included some of the many mileposts in his life: Member of the World Federalists, seeking global unity and peace ... participant in think tanks looking for alternatives to World War Three ... involved in some of the first telecommunications between computer networks, the headwaters of the Internet ... on a team that developed the first experimental plasma display ... helping to create the satellites that provided the verification needed for nuclear arms treaties to be signed. Of course in a life like that, there was so much more.

Finally people took handfuls from the pit and walked it down into the surf where the waiting waves lapped it up. Then Mike led us in singing "The Wild Rover," the Irish tune we last heard him sing at his own wedding, and which also seemed appropriate to those who knew Tom. We joined in on the chorus:

And it's no -- nay -- never! (clap clap clap CLAP)
No nay never no more --
Will I play the wild rover?
No never ... no more.
By this time the sun had risen above the cloud bank at the horizon, flashing liquid fire on the waters, making silhouettes of the people there, so bright you could hardly bear to look.

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