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After my father passed away in the winter of 2008, I wasn’t able to scatter his ashes the following spring as I’d planned.   A cancer diagnosis laid me low soon after his final decline, and his childhood home in Niagara Falls in western NY state, as well as the farms he had owned and worked for decades, and where I grew up, were 450 miles from my wife’s and my home and jobs in CT. During my medical journey, we’d also bought a house in VT, and with follow-up radiation and a personal leave from our work, along with numerous loose ends to tie up, there’d simply been no good time.  And the task and my intention, if not my father’s, deserved good time.

My dad had always been indifferent about the whole thing.  Beyond asking to be cremated, he seemed to feel, perhaps from the many animal deaths and births that inevitably accrue in a lifetime of farming, that one more dead body was something to dispose of, but nothing worth much fuss.  “Throw me on the manure spreader when you go out next, and toss me at the back of the cornfield,” he’d  always say in his wry way, whenever I asked him one more time about his wishes. That was what we did with the occasional calf that died of pneumonia or scours.   In six months, crows and time would eventually leave just whitening bones. But at the time of my dad’s death, we no longer owned the farm, and in any case, beyond a certain undeniable fitness to his request, a desire to make that one last gesture for the good of the land, as human fertilizer, there was the small matter of legality.)

This summer a family reunion in Pittsburgh provided the opportunity to attend to this final matter.  My wife and I drove there and back, and on the way out last Friday afternoon, after a slow cruise along Lakeshore Drive that hugs the south shore of Lake Ontario, we made our way to downtown Niagara Falls and then over the  bridge onto Goat Island.  So around 2:00 pm or so, you could have seen me squatting at the edge of the Niagara River, a few hundred yards above the Falls, on the second of the Three Sisters islands that cling to rocky outcrops in the rapids. The day was overcast but pleasant — typical of western NY, with its delightfully mellow lake-effect summers.  Between my feet rested the heavy plastic bag of dad’s ashes, in the plain box the funeral home had provided.

I had nothing to say — no particular ceremony in mind.  Words earlier, words around and after his death, words a week or so ago in a dream, but nothing now.  This was for experiencing, not talking. Six years before, I’d returned my mother’s ashes to the Shellrock River in the small Iowa town of her childhood.  That day, the easy meander of the river, the June sun on my back, the midday stillness, and the intermittent buzz of dragonflies skimming the water lent the moment a meditative calm.  As my wife and two of my mother’s cousins watched, I slowly poured the powdery ashes into the river, and the water eddied and swirled as it bore them downstream.  Watching the ash disperse downstream, I felt peace. Thus we can go home.

This day was different.  A steady damp breeze rustled the leaves of the trees.  On another treeless outcrop a short way upriver, the harsh voices of the flock of gulls were only intermittently inaudible over the tumble of water and the dull roar of the falls downriver.

I sat, heels in mud, watching the current on its endless course past and away.  When I opened the bag of ashes, a sudden gust of wind caught some and dusted my left arm, which startled me, then made me smile.  It was as if my father approved — that behind his gruffness, the elemental beauty of the spot, a family favorite, might matter after all.  I brushed off my arm, and then poured the chalky ash into the spinning waters and watched it spread and then, eventually, the water cleared as it washed away.

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