Chris set the reusable Viegut Funeral Home bag on the conveyer belt, went through security and waited. He wore the only pair of shorts he owned and one of his fifteen black shirts long since stained by various foods from working at Tokyo Joe’s. The shorts and shirt were way too big, but nothing fits well on his skeletal frame. I watched him pick up his backpack, put on his sole pair of sandals, and glare at the people around him. He is as misanthropic as I am, as our dad was.
And then I wondered what the sentiment was behind giving grieving families a reusable bag. Did they think we would take it grocery shopping and use the logo to make store clerks uncomfortable? Could it possibly get me a discount on avocados? I stared as the bag disappeared into the x-ray, imagining pouting at my fellow hipsters at Whole Foods while placing $7 apples in the bag that once held my dead father.
A TSA agent hauled the bag off of the belt and looked at us apologetically. (In the first draft of this essay, I accidentally typed the word “haunted” instead of “hauled.” I have never been prouder of a Freudian slip.)
“Is this yours?” We nodded.
“Is it remains?” We nodded again.
“Okay, I’m going to have to test the container, but don’t worry, I won’t open it.” He placed Dad on the screening table, put on surgical gloves, wiped Dad’s box down with a pad.
I laughed and turned to Chris. “Dad would’ve loved being pulled aside for extra screening.”
Chris bared his cigarette-stained teeth in a smile. “Nice,” he said, “Well-done.” That was high praise indeed from my brother, so I beamed until we got Dad back into his grocery bag and headed towards the gate.
Dad was half-black, so he hated airports. He’d get pulled aside for screening every time we flew, undoubtedly aggravating his sense of superiority. There he was, a Harvard graduate and multimillionaire, flying first class, getting frisked by a sweaty, miserable-looking white man who found him “suspicious.”
I supposed that Dad’s posthumous airport strip-search was an upgrade from being wrapped in the tote bag and shoved onto the top shelf of my bedroom closet, but I digress.
Mom had offered to keep Dad’s ashes until our trip to Hawaii. That made me very uncomfortable, but not because my parents had been divorced for eleven years. I worried that Dad would haunt her for the rest of her days, or worse, be forgotten alongside the ashes of our eight family pets, the oldest of which died twenty-some years ago. Thankfully, the pets aren’t organized in the storage room like some disturbing veterinary mausoleum. I’m pretty sure there are two pets in the kitchen on the built-in desk among the printer and piles of papers or nestled between the bowls of coins and rubber bands. One is definitely in the coat closet. There are probably a few in the basement and maybe even one or two in the garage. The point is, the awkward TSA agent was not the worst thing that could’ve happened to Dad on the journey to his final resting place. His final resting place could have easily been in a box of VHS tapes labeled Christmas lights.
Mom, Chris, and I met Justin at the gate. He’d refused to stay with the family the night before, opting instead to stay in the whale’s tail hotel attached to DIA. He sat with one leg spreading impossibly far, his artificial leg off and propped against the seat next to him. He stared angrily at his phone. His shaved head, tight shirt, and tattoos did nothing to lessen the aggression on his face. When he saw us approaching, he smiled without teeth, stood, and hugged each of us. At least his hugs were welcoming.
On the plane, Chris placed Dad under the seat in front of him, which was a nice gesture for the man so used to flying first class in life. It was especially generous since Dad died homeless and bankrupt, so at least his ashes got to relive some of his former glory. I could almost see him sitting there next to Chris, his noise-cancelling headphones on, nodding his head to his favorite song: “Tomorrow.”
Yes, from Annie. Dad’s two favorite songs were “Pachelbel’s Canon” and “Tomorrow.” When I was seven, I gave him my Hanson CD because I didn’t want it anymore, and he told me, “those girls have beautiful voices.”
Dad abhorred traditionally “black” things. Rap music infuriated him, as did AAVE. He used to call me Whi-nay-nay as a joke and he was quick to stereotype those around him. It was as if he resented those people who did not have his specific combination of drive and intelligence, and he constantly took that out on the world.
My parents had grown up in relative poverty. Mom lived in a trailer on a dairy farm in a tiny part of upstate New York so isolated that it was essentially the deep South. Dad grew up in Cleveland in a mixed-race family in the fifties and sixties—do I really need to elaborate? They both went to college and did extraordinary things to get themselves where they were and they both had the kind of American Dream that is seemingly impossible these days. As a result of their success, we used to stay in the presidential suite at the Ritz for two weeks every summer. After the divorce, Mom, Chris, and I came back once. Everything felt off, and the employees who knew us so well didn’t know how to interact with us without Gerald around to tip outrageously. Maybe he gave thousand-dollar tips because the only other people of color we ever saw at the Ritz were staff. Maybe he liked up-ending people’s expectations, or maybe he liked to take care of the little guys—his father had been a janitor after all. More likely than not, however, was that when he was manic, he was prone to lavish gifts that made absolutely no sense to anyone but him.
The last time the whole family went to Maui, Dad left one week into our two-week trip. But now? Now we were all returning in our first—and last—family vacation since June of 2005. Dad was just glorified kitty litter, and this time he could never leave.
We spent the first afternoon getting reacquainted with the property. There had been many, many changes: the addition of timeshare properties, new poolside furniture—these gauche blue eggs that seemed so cheap next to the scenery—a shuffleboard and corn hole station had replaced the croquet lawn and mini-golf course, and the entire wing that culminated in the Presidential Suite was closed. I couldn’t even go look at the double doors that I had wandered to and from for so long. I had hoped to feel Dad’s ghost at those doors. I hoped to catch his old, healthy self, somewhere around the property from the corner of my eye. If not there, then maybe the club lounge.
The lounge hadn’t undergone major changes. The furniture had been updated, but the carpets were still teal and flowered. The biggest difference was that there were now cookies available at any time, and not just at lunch. I hoped for the miniature creme brûlées with which Dad and I had passionate and volatile relationships—we are both violently lactose intolerant—but they didn’t have them. That didn’t stop me from having one of each of the other desserts, though. I was a girl in mourning, and calories don’t count when someone you love commits suicide. It’s science.
We decided to walk to the tide pools and shell beach to scatter Dad’s ashes the next morning, feeling it unnecessary to let the man languish in his bin. It was another kindness that he didn’t extend to us: his ego and mental illness allowed him to torture us without consequences for ten years. I used to ask myself, is he awful because he’s a bad person, or is he awful because he’s crazy . . . or worse, is it both? But he was dead, and couldn’t complain, or schedule out our days. He would finally have to do things on our time. A lack of a plan was hell for him, which I thought rather fitting, given the circumstances.
In the morning, Mom and I claimed one of the spots on the balcony of the club lounge overlooking Kapalua Golf Course and the ocean between Maui and Lanai. Three minutes into our breakfast, Mom started to cry.
“We used to do this every morning,” she said. “We’d sit out here for hours, reading the news, enjoying the view, waiting for you kiddos to wake up and come join us.” Mom shook her short blonde curls, like she was trying to get the memory out of her head. It broke my heart to see her heartbroken over a man who’d left her over ten years earlier. She’d kept loving him, from a distance, the whole time. Not as her husband, but as the man who’d been her best friend and the father of her children.
Whenever Mom cries, I cry. So I nodded, cried, and said, “It feels like he’s here. Like I expect to see him walk around the corner.”
The two of us sobbed briefly into our coffees.
“I always hoped that we’d be able to do something like this—go on a family trip together again, even after the divorce. That we’d bring you kids and our spouses and we’d be some weird family structure.”
“If he had been healthy,” I added.
Mom nodded and we sat in silence with our own hypotheticals for a few minutes until, like some sign from the universe, a rainbow formed arcing from the golf course into the ocean.
Soon, Chris joined us, his plate piled high with bacon, a reassuringly familiar sight in this uncanny place. Justin came even later, his voice heavy with sleep and an edge of anger that sounded so much like Dad that I held my breath. The four of us sat at the tiny table, shooing away fat finches and even fatter pigeons as we talked about sudoku and orange juice—anything but why we were there or the memories that haunted those hallways.
After breakfast, we slathered ourselves in sunscreen and met down by corn hole to take Dad to our favorite spots.
He was heavy, though, and he dug into my shoulder as we walked or made my neck hurt if I carried him at my side. I was also concerned about getting a funeral-home-bag tan-line, but who was I kidding? While I wasn’t the palest of the Gaines family children—that award goes to Chris, who doesn’t tan but freckles instead—I don’t tan, either. That’s partially why I’m slowly covering myself in black tattoos: I want to be darker.
I let Justin and Chris carry him a few times, but I needed to keep him close. This was the last chance I had to be near Dad, and they got to see him before he died. Yes, I was being petty about the whole thing, but what else can you expect from the youngest? Dad visited both Justin and Chris two months before he killed himself, and they both knew he was living out of his car and neither of them thought it important enough to tell me.
I won’t ever understand that. They knew that just a few years earlier I had flown 2,450 miles to try and stop him from killing himself or hurting other people. So why wouldn’t his homelessness cross their minds as an important fact to tell me? Chris lives a mile away from me. One mile. And he didn’t tell me our father was in town. Or homeless. Or seemingly content to be that way. None of that raised a red flag high enough for him to reach out to his sister and say, “Hey, you might want to talk to our father.”
I don’t know if anything would have prompted them to tell me. Chris blamed me for shutting down Dad’s last attempt at communication with me, but the email before that had just said “Die Stupid” and I thought it in my best interest to ignore that behavior. Justin didn’t think Dad was insane, just, as he said, “refusing to take responsibility for his actions.” I tried to explain to Justin that Dad thought our uncles and grandparents were serial killers and that the FBI was tailing him, but Justin just shrugged the whole thing off. To him, our father’s mental state wasn’t an illness; it was a mask he used to avoid repercussions.
With Dad at my side, we made it to the lava outcropping and the turtle sanctuary. The tide was coming back in and the waves were rough, smashing against the rocks and sending sea spray forty feet up in the air and into our faces. We saw one embattled sea turtle—huge, probably four feet across—take a deep breath and dive under.
The metaphors around me were suffocating and I hated it. It made me want to write bad poetry.
The family puzzled its way across lava rocks that were so sharp and angled that soon my shins were covered in scratches and I was swearing at myself for wearing flip flops. At the first sign of tide pools, everyone’s shoulders hiked upward. We were done strolling; now, we were just looking for a spot.
“Let’s find one that’s turquoise,” I said. I didn’t want to dump Dad in a one-foot tide pool that would be gone in a couple of hours, that would have been inconsiderate. I wanted him to rest easy in a tide pool that never empties.
Justin forged on ahead of us, having fully assumed the role of the alpha male, acting just like Dad would have. But one of the things I love most about Justin is that he isn’t our father.
I slung Dad around my shoulder so I could peer into the tide pools and look for sea cucumbers, or, as Dad used to call them, Penises of The Sea. I was always too grossed out to touch a cuke when he found one, because what little girl wants to touch a sea penis? In what world could I have touched one and not instantly sacrificed my seemingly bright future for a pole in a dimly lit strip club on an ignored street in the bad part of town? The man really shouldn’t have called them that around his children; though to be fair, there isn’t a better descriptor. Sea cucumbers don’t even have the texture of a cucumber. They’re not firm, not exactly. They’re like those gloopy, glittery, cylindric toys that you squeezed to watch the gloop spurt upwards. They’re somewhere between a ripe peach and a semi-erect penis.
I found one near the biggest tide pool and Mom came over to take a picture.
“Smile,” she commanded, but I could not. My gag reflex was actively engaged by this cold, wet, semi-squishy creature. I looked at her with my eyes wide, mouth opened in a facsimile of a smile. Then, hunched over, I brought the sea cuke as close to my mouth as I could, and opened wide.
(When we get home, Mom sends me the photo. It is perfect. I am crouched, a look of fear in my eyes and a grimace on my face, the cuke a cool foot away from my mouth. And there, hanging down near my ankles, is Dad. He’d have appreciated that, I think.)
Over the next ridge we found the tide pool I remembered from my childhood. It’s distinctive because of the large red sea urchin lodged in the center. Justin, Chris, and Mom gathered on a precipice with their backs facing the ocean. I was pretty sure they were one wave away from disappearing into the Pacific, but I kept my mouth closed. I handed Dad over to Justin since he’s the oldest, and we paused in silence for a minute, staring at the sea urchin.
“I hope his ashes don’t kill it,” I said. I didn’t want the creature to choke, especially on Dad. He’d done enough harm in the last years of his life; he didn’t need to hurt anything else.
At his memorial a month earlier, Dad’s brother Allen warned me that there is no such thing as “spreading” ashes.
“It’s like kitty litter,” he said. “It’s clumpy. It won’t scatter.” The thought occurred to me then that I could’ve spared myself the expense of buying litter for my new kitten, but the idea of her little paws tracking Dad around the house was enough to dissuade me.
Uncle Allen was right. Dad was clumpy and chalky and—forgive me—ashy. Justin grabbed a handful and let him go into the tide pool. Then Chris. Then me. I was crying but I couldn’t wipe my eyes because I had dead Dad on my fingers. When I first got the ashes, my morbid curiosity got the best of me and I opened them to see if they somehow resembled my father; of course, they didn’t, but I did get Dad on my hands and in my eyes and I had to wash him down my kitchen sink. Instead of reliving that experience, I let the tears fall freely. Justin did his one nice thing all week and handed Dad over to Mom. “You knew him better than the rest of us,” he said.
She took a handful and let him go. Justin moved to stand by me and placed his hand on my neck, the way Dad used to. Justin’s grip was stronger, though, like he didn’t want me to get away. It’s supposed to be reassuring, but it creeped me out. It makes me feel like I’m someone’s possession. I didn’t like it when Dad did it, and I was a kid then. At twenty-seven, I really didn’t like it. But I couldn’t tell Justin that. Instead, I tried to relax my shoulders into it and make it seem like I found it comforting. It felt like a leash.
We stared as Dad settled over the sea urchin, turning the entire tide pool a light grey. Later, I researched red sea urchins and learned that they are one of the longest-living animals on the planet. The oldest on record was well into its third century when scientists carbon-dated it or whatever it is they do to tell how old a creature is. The thought still buoys me that the urchin that ate part of my father has probably lived a really full life, and has probably eaten other people’s loved ones as well.
We moved on, rinsing our hands in a different tide pool. We didn’t speak. I closed the bag of ashes with my spare hair-tie and we climbed our way up and out, looking for shells and other tide pools.
Justin wandered off towards shell beach, and I staked claim on the tall lava rocks in-between the precipice and the beach. Chris and Mom made their way out to the very edge of the tide pools, where the rocks sat only inches above the ocean. I was convinced that they would be swept away, so I warned them of big waves and prepared myself for a failed rescue attempt that rendered at least two of us dead. “How brave,” the newspapers would say of my misguided jump into the tide. “How brave and how incredibly stupid.” But for some inexplicable reason, the waves always dissipated at the last minute. Yet I stayed sitting on the lava rock, hyperventilating, trying to will half of my family to the safety of the higher rocks.
It was in this half-panicked state that Justin returned to tell us he’d found the spot for our next dump. I called to Mom and Chris, their small, pale frames sticking out like two pieces of bleached coral on a black sand beach. I watched them climb up towards me and Justin, and noticed the way their shoulders moved the same, the way their arms were identically muscled and veiny. They both looked like flyweight fighters, which I guess in a way they are.
We turned and followed Justin’s hulking form. He towers over the rest of us both in height, weight, and muscle. It makes him easier to spot at a distance, but also makes him more frightening up close.
“Look at this.” Justin pointed down to a ledge where a tide pool ran seamlessly into the ocean. Each wave washed over the snails and coral, but it couldn’t have been deeper than two inches. We made our way down one at a time and sat on the lava with our feet in the tide pool.
I find the ocean astounding. As a child, terrified as I was of tsunamis and ghost sharks, I wanted desperately to be a marine biologist. Later, once I was medicated for my anxiety disorder and scuba-certified, I felt more at ease under the waves than above them. But sitting there on that ledge, with my family, I was struck by the beauty, the expanse, and the strangeness of it all. I wish Dad could have seen it. He was most comfortable in nature, away from people, and the older I get, the more I feel the same way.
“Any sign of his gold tooth?” Mom asked. We’d been half-heartedly hoping our handfuls would procure the melted gold of his molar, but so far, no such luck. That would have been the real souvenir of the trip, though. I imagined a lifetime of good luck bestowed upon the lucky next of kin to reach in and find the tooth, like finding a four-leaf clover or stumbling upon a bright pink, perfectly preserved, amputated rabbit’s foot.
I stood, and reached in to grab some ashes and felt something decidedly solid.
“Wait!” I yelled. “I’ve got something!” I took a step towards the pool tide pool and fell hard on my butt, fist still clenched around whatever bit of my father was too stubborn to disintegrate in the cremator.
“Careful,” Justin said. I flipped him off with my other hand, and leaned forward. Gently, I placed my fist in the water and let the waves rinse Dad off of the harder bit of Dad.
Please be gold, please be gold, please be—it wasn’t gold.
“It’s not his tooth,” I said. “It’s a button to the hiking pants he was wearing.”
I handed it to Mom, who agreed. “Huh,” she said. “Weird.” She passed it to Chris who shrugged but then placed it in his pocket.
Dad died in those hiking pants you get from REI that zip off into shorts. There was something poetic in the idea that some detail of his former adventurous self managed to survive the metaphorical flames that ate his mind and the literal flames that ate his body.
Handful after handful, we let Dad go. I had stopped crying, and so had everyone else. But we weren’t speaking. We were just giving Dad the reverence he always expected—but rarely got—when he made us all play golf. He often took things more seriously than we did and was baffled and furious when we didn’t conform to his expectations. We learned to stay silent during golf games, but that usually meant we were making faces at him behind his back or trying to bite each other’s fingers without catching his attention.
“Shell beach?” I asked, and everyone stood. We could see it from our perch.
This beach is a hidden gem on Maui. It’s open to the public but not advertised—I don’t even know it’s name—and it’s only accessible with amateur climbing skills or by kayak. Justin and Chris decided to climb the lava rocks to get to the beach, a perimeter climb I’d never seen them do and had no interest in watching, so I turned away and walked the path to where you can climb down.
Once on the beach, we delayed the inevitable. I looked for shells and found half a pooka, sliding the bottom jaw of the shell into my pocket. Chris climbed all the way up to the cliff on the other side, perching like a bird. Justin skipped rocks or stood, idly scratching his hairy six-pack like a contented bear. Mom sat and watched, Dad at her feet, which reminded me of the time he fell asleep with his head on her lap in the condo at Kapalua. He left a perfect imprint of his ear on her leg. We even took a picture of it. It’s currently in a family photo album alongside a picture of me in a grass skirt and coconut bra, the cups so large that they wrap around the sides of my body.
Then we started building cairns. On little ledges around the beach, we piled six or seven smooth pieces of coral or lava. We alternated between black and white, because we’re obnoxious and best wanted to represent Dad’s heritage, and Dad would’ve rolled his eyes at the gesture.
Twenty minutes of silence passed. Justin stepped away from his last cairn, his face drawn tight, his mouth in a grimace. “Let’s do this,” he said, and he beckoned to Chris. We took Dad’s plastic bag out of the travel urn and, as a family, waded into the water up to our knees. Justin stood in the center, where he thought he belonged, and the rest of us were in a semi-circle around him.
“Wait for the waves,” he said. As I counted the swells, I thought about how scared I used to be of beaches, and I remembered the time Dad tried to convince me beaches weren’t disaster factories. We swam out beyond the break and floated, and it was wonderful, until it wasn’t. Until a jellyfish lashed out at my ankle and then wrapped itself around Dad’s arm. He helped me swim ashore and walked me to the lifeguards who inspected my one sting and told me how to take care of it. Dad had bumps wrapped around his arm and shoulder, like tribal scarring. He hadn’t even flinched. He was so good at hiding his pain.
“This one,” Justin said, pulling me back into my body as the perfect wave came and we moved to dump Dad in the ocean, gold tooth and all. But a gust of wind came, too, so Dad was half swallowed by the sea and half coating Justin from thighs to chest. The tattoos on his arms turned gray, and his body hair clumped with what was left of our father.
Mom, Chris, and I tried, and failed, not to laugh. “Typical,” Justin said, and waded deep into the cloud to rinse himself off.
There was no glint of a tooth, so I held out hope that it ended up in either mine or Chris’ keepsake urns. Mine sits on the shelf alongside my 50th anniversary edition of Lord of The Rings and my LOTR bookends. Since my love of Tolkein came from my father, I like to imagine that I am the owner of the One Tooth to Rule Them All.
We climbed the incline away from the beach and turned to look. Dad had turned the whole bay an icy blue.
A catamaran came around the corner. We’d been on that boat as a family, both for snorkeling and whale watching. I’d thrown up over the edge of that boat several times. It, too, was part of the family.
“Hey, wasn’t Dad a Gemini?” Justin asked.
“Yeah,” Mom said. “Wow.”
The Gemini crossed the bay, Dad’s ashes like tendrils reaching towards its wake. We turned to head back to the hotel, empty travel urn in tow, the reusable bag from Viegut Funeral Home ready for its next adventure.
Whitney Gaines is a queer, biracial writer and teacher living in Denver, Colorado. Her comedic nonfiction has appeared in The Southampton Review and is forthcoming in Harpur Palate. She was a recommended humor writer on WordPress, where you can still find her blog Highest Form of Whit.