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Travels With My Father’s Ashes

A journey with my dad’s remains and my son led to discovery and healing


Dad's hand in mine feels fragile and cool, like wet crumbly wood. Tattooed with tell-tale spots of liver, age and sun, his hand will soon greet death offering great confessions as to how he'd spent the moments of his life.   
 
“I'm glad you were my father,” I say to him on this last day, and I think I mean it.
 
He smiles weakly, the cancer-cough killing any hope for conversation to bridge the chasms dividing us.
 
“Your ashes are going around the world with me to see all you didn't see during your life.”
 
He nods, coughing his assent out, while I swallow in all the words I'd long imagined saying. Thus, the final, healing, forgiving words are not uttered aloud. It seems cruel to burden him with my misgivings at such a fragile time of his life. I remain silent, holding his delicate hand in mine.
 
My Son Joins the Journey
 
We, his ashes and I, are in the Dominican Republic when my youngest teenage son calls. He no longer wants to live with his father. I do not hear the happy kid he'd once been, and I worry his struggles are indicative of future troubles; the kind of troubles that took my father.
 
“Can I travel with you?” he asks. “I need to change my life.”

And when he exits the plane a month later in Guatemala, my cheeks fall at the appearance of my once vibrant son. While being pale and thin is nothing that sun, fresh air and cooking can't change, his underlying sadness is a much bigger concern to me. Our family genetics are a minefield riddled with hidden, whispering dangers. 
 
We — those of us blessed to be in our 40s and 50s — are called the sandwich generation, meaning we are financially responsible for both the older and younger generations. In my case, it means being spiritually responsible; I am to help my father's spirit find peace in death and help my youngest son find peace in life. 
 
In life (as in parenting) there is no handbook available for peace-seekers.

So in Guatemala, my son, my father's ashes and I run the hills around Antigua. We swim through cool dark caves with candles clenched between our teeth. We trek the smoking Pacaya volcano. We float in the turquoise waters of Semuc Champey. In El Salvador, we walk dark sand beaches. In Nicaragua, we hike the Cordillera de los Maribios volcano range. We board down the black-sand Cerro Negro volcano. We sleep in a tent sharing a field with cows and horses and awaken early enough to see the sun rise. Costa Rica shares with us the diversity of her ocean and sea beaches. We zip-line through Monteverde's cloud forests. We ride bikes along the coastline and enjoy warm, jungle rain. In the Dominican Republic we swim in waterfalls, run miles on the beach and create a glorious routine that fosters strengthened and renewed family relationships.

(MORE: How Travel Taught Me to Live More Fully and Simply)
 
Forging New Bonds
 
I introduce my son to his grandfather while together we spread his pink, powdery ashes in oceans, rivers, the sea and volcanoes. My father had once been a competitive prize-winning bodybuilder. He'd once been an extraordinarily healthy man. But he hadn't treated his depression and gradually succumbed to a life of whiskey and cigarettes. Now he was dead without knowing his four grandchildren and with only a shallow, and likely erroneous idea, of who I am.
 
I cautiously share the dark roadmap of our family's predisposition toward depression and addiction while my son forges a road of his own. He delights in shopping and bargaining at the vegetable truck that parks twice weekly outside our rented condo. He learns to prepare fresh salads with red peppers, avocados, mangos and arugula. I create fresh soups.

As my son's months of sobriety grow, somehow I lose my own taste for wine. Our skin turns brown. Our legs grow strong and muscular. Our hearts grow lighter.
 
Writing a Final Chapter
 
Daily, I run to La Boca where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Yasica River and gaze at the convergence of waters. I speak aloud to my father and pray for his peace. I wonder why he never replies to me.

Others tell stories of visitations by their departed loved ones. They see them in dreams, they hear their whispered voices. I hear only the roar of the Atlantic ocean.
 
A week before our six-month journey comes to an end, a curious thing happens. As I'm finishing the final edits to the memoir I've written about our journey, I try one last time for contact before allowing my father to rest in his places. I ask him to 'write' his own chapter — through me. I sit before my laptop, place my fingers on the keyboard and wait.

(MORE: Writing for Self-Discovery and Healing)
 
And this happens:
 
As my physical remains join the earth on which I took 83.5 years of breath, I am honored by your trek with my grandson to share me with the world I did not see. Scattering my ashes throughout the world has brought a level of peace to my tortured and often disgruntled soul. When I refer to disgruntled, I mean one like me who held more regrets than celebrations in life. I live in celebration now, with you and with my grandson.
 
Then again, I am a memoirist — which means I get to record events as I remember them. And so it is at the conclusion of our six months together that I recall my father finding peace in death that he did not know in life.

I also recall my son finding peace transcending the often-difficult teenage years.

As for me, I found peace in accepting and loving others for who they are. 
 
The three of us live in celebration now.

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