It was a sunny day, a little after seven o’clock in the morning. Mild, but rather cool for May. It was a good day for walking. There was no one else at Compo Beach as I approached the boardwalk, so I couldn’t help notice the two men ahead of me as they walked out from the pavilion onto the sand toward the water, single file.
Each of the middle-aged men was carrying a supermarket plastic bag. The one walking ahead got to the water’s edge and reached into his bag and threw a handful of ashes, underhand, as far out and onto the water as he could, making a cloud; I knew immediately that he was spreading ashes.
When the first man threw the ashes the other turned abruptly away, veering off to the right, on his own. He didn’t want to watch. That’s when I began to create a story in my mind.
The second man walked several steps along the water’s edge, then he reached into his bag and took out a handful of pulverized cremains. He held the ashes momentarily, looking down at them, opening his hand and closing it again; then he stopped walking and he squeezed his handful of memories, holding his ash-filled hand to his heart, then prayerfully whispered something into his hand. Maybe he was apologizing. Maybe he was saying, “Thank you.”
He was reluctant to let go. Then he began to take very small, slow steps, making an hourglass-like stream of ashes fall onto the sand, symbolizing the time that had fallen through the funnel of years. As I watched I thought, ‘Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’
They exchanged no words, nor was there any noticeable communication between them. Each carried his own sack of grief, his own bag of memories. “Grief is personal,” I thought.
I found myself wishing I could join them, to say some words or recite a poem to support them through the painful process of letting-go. I turned my head away, struck by their obvious sadness and surprised to find myself holding back tears. Well, mostly holding them back, but not quite. They got me to reach into my own bag of memories. It ‘runneth over.’
It happened quickly, but the poignant scene etched itself in my mind and stayed with me as I walked around the ring road, noticing the number of boats in the water to my right, and to my left the Canada geese pecking the ground for food and protecting their newly hatched chicks — I counted more than 25 little green babies surrounded by three pairs of parents.
It takes me ten minutes to walk from the boardwalk around the loop, and as I approached the place they had been, in front of the pavilion, I wondered if they would be gone, hoping, for some reason, they would still be there. They were not on the beach, but as I walked around the other side of the pavilion I saw them sitting on a park bench facing the water – a memorial bench.
They sat silently side-by-side, looking into the distance, into an unknown future. As I glanced at them I saw the resemblance. “Brothers,” I thought, and for the story I was fantasizing I decided they had spread their father’s ashes, just as he instructed. I imagined that they had purposely not seen one another for a long time. Their father’s final wish brought them together that May morning, and now, I like to imagine, they’re closer to one another, having shared a sacred task. “And they lived happily ever after.” So the story ends.