The last trip

We had grand plans for what we were going to do with my father’s ashes.

“Let’s sprinkle them at the ranch,” said one of my sisters. “He loved it there, and he was happy.”

“No, let’s go to New York City and put them on stage in the middle of a big production! That way he’ll finally get to be on Broadway!”

“Let’s put some in Mom’s breakfast! That way he can always be a part of her — it’ll be his worst nightmare!”

We joked a lot about Mom peeing on them. They hated each other so much, and he’d always said she’d live long enough to piss on his grave. Finally, though, we decided that maybe we’d take him to San Francisco.

He’d said that he spent one or two of his happiest summers there, and that there was a bridge somewhere that he’d like his ashes sprinkled from.

He died two years ago.

We’ve talked about it, on and off. But there are four sisters, and we’re never all speaking to each other on the same day. And no one wants to get close enough to my mother to go and collect the ashes, and no one wants to be the one to make the decision.

In the end, we did what we always do when faced with the “What do we do about our parents” problem: We ignored it, and hoped it would go away.

All of these years, and we still haven’t learned a thing.

My father would have loved my little farm. 

We lived on a ranch for a while, when I was about ten. And he had the same obsessive need to know everything about a subject that I do — there’s no such thing as just getting a pig. You have to know about the history of pigs, you see, and what kind of breeds there are, and why some people prefer Hampshire to Duroc, and you have to be informed enough to have a strong opinion, so you can argue about them.

Neither one of us grew up on a farm, but we want the same God-given right all farmers have to walk into the feed store on a Saturday afternoon and argue about the merits of weaning an orphan calf at 39 days versus 55.

I went to visit my father when he was dying, knowing that it meant I’d have to see my mother.

That was huge for me. I still hadn’t forgiven him for being weak enough to re-connect with her. Re-connect -- I'm not sure what the proper term is. Get back together? They’d been married for twenty years, had four children together, divorced, married others, and my father had been through a Russian bride or two by the time my mother found her way back to him. “Hooking up” didn’t seem to do it justice.

In any event, they were now living together, which meant that all access to my father came through her, and that when I called to talk to him, she’d answer the phone.

“Hello, sweetheart!,” her cheerful voice would trill. “I’m so glad to hear from you!” And she’d pretend to be interested in my children and my life for a little while, and we’d pretend to be normal, and after the games I could talk to him. But she’d stay in the background, listening intently, and interrupting frequently. She’d want to make sure he didn’t say anything terrible about her, and that if he did, she could defend herself.

When it became clear that he was, in fact, dying, I went to Arkansas to see him. He was in a hospital, recovering from the latest episode of “old age and alcoholism.” 

He was full of plans to come and see the farm — he wanted to know which kind of pigs we had, and argued Hampshire versus Duroc. He was going to fix up the barn, and had plans to conquer the blackberry bushes. “Tame them with fire,” he said. “You’ve got to show them who’s boss. There’s a reason Americans took over this country so quickly — we’re not afraid to change the landscape. The Indians never learned the first lesson: You've got to get in there and destroy whatever you need to. Make it your own. It’ll grow back.”

We both knew he had a month to live, and that he’d never get out of the hospital, but he wanted to talk about the RV trip he was going to take to come visit.

“I’ll meet your kids in Florida, and we’ll go across the Gulf Coast. Do they like seafood? We’ll start in Mississippi, and we’ll eat fried catfish, and we’ll go fishing as we go along. We can pan-fry whatever we want for dinner every night. How old is that boy of yours -- 13? Can he fry trout?”

He wanted cast-iron cookware in the RV, not non-stick, because cast iron will last forever. After the Gulf Coast, he'd come up through Texas, “but you want to get across Texas as fast as you can — we'll only stop for gas. There’s nothing in Texas worth stopping for.”

Then we’d all go to the Grand Canyon, and up through the Rockies, and finally over to California.

I asked, stupidly, if he was up for all of this driving, since he hadn't been able to walk for at least a month.

He reached for the plastic jar of pee on the nightstand next to him, and said, “Don’t watch. I’ve got to piss.”

He pulled aside the hospital sheets and held his dick in the jar as he peed.

I mused about how many lives his dick had ruined, that funny, old, shriveled piece of flesh, as he said, “I’m getting stronger every day. I figure I’ll be out of here in two weeks, three at the maximum. I’ll fix up the RV, get it packed, and we’ll be on the road by fall. I want to travel out west via the south in the winter, when the roads are clear, and we’ll come spend the winter with you."

I was 44, and my father had never visited any home of mine. Not my first apartment at 18, not any the houses since.

I wondered how my children would do with a grandfather they'd never met living there for months.

We talked about what needed fixing at the farm — there’s a dairy barn from the 1940s that always needs work, and two ancient chicken coops, and the endless blackberries.

He asked me, again, about my husband  — “Is your husband the one named Mark, or the one named David?” and said he’d like to get to know my kids. “Two boys and a girl, right? One of the boys is the good-looking one, who looks like me?”

Yes, Daddy. He’s almost as good-looking as you were.

He took on a serious tone. “No one is as good-looking as I was.”

“Did you really name your little girl Scout? Did you want her to hate you? It’s the name of Tonto’s horse in the Lone Ranger. It’s a horse’s name, for fuck’s sake. What’s wrong with Margaret or Katherine or any name that’s not for a pet?”

I tried, a few times, to talk about the reason I was there, and to discuss his death.

He wasn’t having it. “We’ll talk about all of that when I come to Washington. We’ll still have time.”

“Well, at SOME point you’re going to die. You're 80 years old. What do you want to happen when you do die?”

“I guess I’ll be worm food, and I won’t care. Just don’t do some big slobberly funeral for me.”

I pressed on.

“Do you want to be buried? Do you care where?”

“Just burn me up. Do whatever you like with my ashes. There’s a bridge in San Francisco where I was homeless for a while. I always liked it there, and you could dump them near there. Let me tell you what kind of tires I’m going to put on the RV. As soon as I get out of here — I just need a couple more weeks of therapy — I’m going to put a special kind of suspension system on the RV. It’s supposed to make the ride more stable.”

I had to leave, to take a plane back to Washington, to the farm, to my children, to my real life that he’d never seen, never been a part of. To the husband he couldn’t name.

“Please, Daddy. I have to leave. Isn’t there anything you want to say to me? Anything you regret, or that you’re happy about, or a story you want to tell? I’m pretty sure I won’t see you again. And I’m going to miss you so much.”

“Can you just cut the bullshit? I’ll see you in Washington at the farm. Go on, get out of here. And, Meagan?"
He looked at me, straight on, and we both knew it was the last time I'd see him, and he still wouldn't say it.

But his voice broke, just enough that I cried all the way to the airport. "I adore you,” he choked out. "I'll see you in a couple of months."

It’ll be two years in October, and we still haven’t done anything with his ashes.

My mother, without the tether to sanity that my father provided, has been from Arkansas to San Diego to Arkansas again, fleeing the demons that don’t seem to accept old age as a reason to slow the chase.

She’s been kicked out of yet another apartment, been into and out of a mental hospital, and still, maddeningly, passes all of the tests the doctors can give her that would take away her freedom to roam.

This last thing though, that I heard, through my mother, to a sister, to another sister, to me, via a text, would have made my father laugh.

My mother didn’t show up for a court date, and the latest landlady was mad, so she threw all of my mom’s possessions into the dump.

Including what was left of my father.

“I wouldn’t have expected any different,” he’d say. “It was just worm food. Besides, at least this way your mother can’t hold me hostage anymore.”

Meagan McGovern