The 4th year.
Much of my memory of that day at the funeral home is now faded and vague – a side effect of four years time that is both soothing and fiercely bitter. I am thankful for the reprieve yet still consumed by the constant fear that I will someday soon forget everything. And so I hold on. The good the bad the ugly replay over and over in my mind, a fitful and fruitless task changing nothing only creating cautionary gaps to be filled by my minds wandering eye and the distraction of times incomprehensible lapse. And while it is true what they say, that time has a way of healing, the reflection in the distance that time provides carries with it an underbelly of radical romanticism that the present moment could never withstand. Allowing a nostalgia that can never be surpassed or reposed – the longing lingers.
A piece of my displaced anger at the end of Kai’s life cemented itself, unjustly yet perfectly situated, in the delicate finality of that god forsaken urn. I have spent years obsessively hating this inanimate piece of crafted clay as if it somehow owed me more. As if it, itself, stole his flesh and blood right from my arms.
We were seated, side by side at a heavy carved wooden table that occupied most of the dimly lit room. We sat close, his arm accidentally brushing mine, touching for the first time in what felt like forever. Last night was the first that we shared a bed in almost a month. The night was calm and unbearably lonely as we clung to opposite ends of the mattress, unable to connect with anything except for the darkness and silence that engulfed us. Every breath I took felt foreign and forced. My mind raced with thoughts of all that I had just witnessed. Thoughts of the nights he slept here alone while I held our baby between those hospital walls counting his dying breath. For months we had done nothing but pull apart from each other and pull each other apart – engrossed by rage and blame. Anything to avoid the sadness.
But today he sat close and for a moment I felt a warmth radiate between us. I wanted so badly to grab his hand beneath the table and just start running, leaving this unimaginable life behind. I searched for a sign that things would be ok, cataloging the 10 years we had spent building this life. We did so many things well together. We absolutely failed at watching our son die.
A large binder slid across the table, opened to the section labeled “baby & child.” They were smaller than the rest, a detail I had not yet considered. Pink and blue lacquered boxes adorn with silver letter blocks, angels, teddy bears and other guilefully trite tokens of childhood. They were worse than I had ever imagined. We both winched in pompous unison, agreeing without a word that our boy would never fit into any of those boxes.
Together we had imagined something a bit more organic. Something made of natural material with a soft feel. Something beautiful and handmade that could go largely unnoticed so we could display it anywhere at anytime like a little secret that could live among us. I had spent nights imaging crafting something out of Koa wood, perfectly imperfect, made just for him. I would have been happy with a pine box tacked together with old black nails. Anything but the ones presented on this glossy magazine paper.
My eyes fixed on the half drawn window, blinded by the reflection off of the bright white building that stood next door. The dark walls and thick drapes tried desperately to shield us from the outside world. I wondered what it would be like to work in a funeral home, to live in this darkness day after day. I wondered how it felt to navigate the constant barrage of differing grief that must sit, side by side, at this table. I wondered how many times that binder had been opened to the section for children and babies. I wondered if we would someday have to split the ashes like flawed and feuding parents fighting over custody.
“I kind of like this one” Mark said, pointing to a pale peachy, cream and grey hand made ceramic that came in both adult and child size. It was the opposite of the ones found on the baby pages. It represented nothing of Kai’s life which somehow made it slightly more bearable. Deep down I know he picked it because he thought it would be of my taste. We were both grasping, once again in opposite directions.
I glanced down and without much thought or hesitation I consented.
As the funeral director proceeded with paperwork and planning, the book lay on the table in front of me demanding my attention. As I glared at the glossy catalog photograph of the baby sized urn that we had just chosen for our son – smooth, round, a soft peachy pink – I couldn’t help but notice its fleshy qualities. My heart raced as my mind flashed back to the pale pink and grey that filled my babies newly departed body. A comparison I knew Mark would never understand – a description I reserved for a dear and understanding few until today.
Months later, as we divided our assets (to which there were few) and parted ways the urn remained in my custody, a privilege and a burden I have since struggled with. Together, Mark and I contemplated a burial plot for the urn, but in the early days I could not imagine having Kai that far away. And so it sat, precariously placed on the edge of our tiny mantle. I fantasized about it falling to the ground and cracking open, imaging what it would feel like to touch the ashes glued inside.
One of my few regrets in Kai’s life, is not staying longer with him after he had died – walking out those hospital doors never to see his body again. A regret there was no avoiding, as no amount of time would have ever been enough. The ashes in that urn were my last chance to see and touch him again.
When Mark moved out I offered to split the ashes, hoping this would force us to crack open the urn. He declined and the burden and my curiosity only grew.
Eventually the urn moved its way off the shaky mantle and into the safety of my bedroom where it quickly blended in amongst the backdrop of my dark and cluttered life. Over the years there were times I resented it, always sitting there across the room. I wondered what someone would think if they saw it there, IF I were to ever invite anyone in again. I felt guilty for my resentment and for letting it fade into the clutter. Every few months I would pick it up, dust it off and gently shake it from side to side listening to the fragments of my former life.
Finally, after three years of anguish and fear – images of ash flying uncontrollably into the the air – I sat beneath the mantle, a fire warmly flickering beside me, preparing to crack open the urn. I placed it carefully into a small paper bag which sat atop a delicately arranged layer of tissue paper that surrounded me, chisel in one hand and hammer in the other. If the urn smashed wide open the ashes would be contained and any spillover would be caught in the tissue paper which would then be added to the fire, a much more palatable solution than breaking out the dust buster.
With one last pause, imagining it shattering into a million pieces inside the bag, I wondered if I would now miss the urn. It had become a part of our story, a relic much more present than I had ever intended. I placed the tiny chisel in the small gap between the base of the urn and its securely glued cover (previous post here) and with one gentle tap the top let go of the base, separating into two perfectly intact pieces without a speck of dust being disturbed.
My body visibly deflated as I exhaled in awe. The permanence of the glues bind had cracked and yellowed with time, leaving it vulnerable to my tools and primed to my curiosity. Years of anticipation and wonder, and a quiet sense of thanks, quickly filled the the space between my two hands – each holding one side. Cautiously, I peered in to finally see what was inside.
A plastic bag, twisted and tied, safely and unexpectedly held Kai’s ashes inside the urn. Gripping the knot at the top I gingerly shook it back and forth, transferring small amounts of it’s content little by little, like sand filtering through an hourglass. The entire bag fit into the palm of my hand. Small pink shards floated atop the fine grey soot, like broken sea shells on the sand at low tide.
It amazed me how different this all looked. As I held the bag between my hands, I searched for the largest broken piece I could find. There was some comfort in seeing these tiny but tangible pieces of him sifting between my fingers.
I carefully scooped a small bit of ash into 5 tiny envelopes, one for year since Kai was born. I sealed them with brightly colored tape and string, and slowly shook them, listening to their delicate song. I Squeezed each envelope one by one between my fingers, creating tiny dimples in the thick paper that perfectly transcribed, like braille, the contents within.
Over the next 4 weeks, traveling through southeast Asia I released the envelopes one by one when I felt closest to Kai – the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia- each time sharing his short life with someone new.
The fifth tiny envelope was discreetly placed in my brothers grave this past July as we buried half of his ashes. The rest of Kai’s ashes still sit in the urn in my bedroom with less burden and more comfort, waiting to see where it will take me next.