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September 2, 2012
VANCOUVER, BC, Sep 2, 2012/ Troy Media/ – Dad died on the 8th of February 2006 after a long drawn out fight with Lewy Body Dementia.
Such a death is not sudden: from the onset of first symptoms, to increasing befuddlement, to complete body shut- down took eight years. When he died we had a family service of remembrance in an Anglican church, where the children and grandchildren told stories about their Dad and Granddad.
His body was cremated. His ashes were picked up in a small cardboard box at the crematorium by my sister. She took them home and, for the last six years, they remained on a basement shelf in her house.
Several times during this period we gathered as a family to discuss Dad’s ashes and what to do with them. He famously said to us all, as we were growing up, ‘I am a man of science.’ He was a professor of Pediatrics, and had spent his entire professional life caring for sick children, much of it as the Director of the Outpatients’ Department at the Vancouver General Hospital. He never went to church, except for weddings and funerals. To be honest, he often mocked organized religion. All the same he was a spiritual man, and never more so than when he was with his family at our summer camp at Roberts Creek, or on long drives exploring the outback of B.C.
Our discussions about, ‘What to do about Dad . . .’ were frankly inconclusive. It was always hard for Mom to participate fully, and the children and grandchildren gradually got used to Dad being ‘down in the basement.’ A morbid sense of humour began to develop, as in, ‘Let’s go and ask Dad what he thinks . . .’ or ‘Should we take Dad out for some fresh air?’ In retrospect, it was our collective family angst about next steps that spawned the humour.
Meanwhile life rolled on for the rest of us, and Mom’s 90th birthday loomed as an important family milestone. Plans were made for a wonderful summer party out of doors at Vancouver’s Brock House, a public amenity that fit our family’s values and pocketbook perfectly. Last Sunday about 100 old friends and new gathered there to celebrate Mom’s varied and wonderful achievements in life.
I knew Dad would be there spiritually, but wasn’t quite ready to find his cardboard box strapped into a seatbelt in the back of my sister’s car. My stalwart nephew Henry took me aside and explained the plan: ‘After Granny’s party is over, we are all going as a family to Spanish Banks to scatter Granddad’s ashes – OK Uncle Mike?’ It made immediate sense to me. Dad loved walking his dogs Chester and Osler (named after Sir William Osler, his favorite medical hero) along Spanish Banks, and he and Mom were a fixture amongst the earliest morning walkers in the neighbourhood. It certainly made more sense than the basement shelf.
By about 4 p.m., the last of the birthday guests had left, and the children and grandchildren along with our spouses and partners were fully engaged in the plan. Mom was collectively told that we thought, ‘Now is the best time.’ She thought about it, expressed her surprise, and then joined in the throng, some 15 strong, that climbed into the family cars to drive to the foot of Tolmie Street.
The beach was packed, and on the grassy foreshore young families were setting up folding chairs and barbecues preparing for Sunday evening dinner at Spanish Banks. I looked out at the point, immediately to our north, and encouraged everyone to assemble at a vacant stretch of waterfront that provided an unobstructed view of English Bay and the North Shore mountains. Henry cradled the cardboard box in his arms, and purposefully walked to the gathering spot. Mom elected to watch us from a discreet distance, seated on her favorite bench.
At this point the three children had a family caucus. It was jointly decided that each of us present, in order of birth, from oldest to youngest, would take a handful of Dad’s ashes and scatter them in the tidal waters. It fell to me to begin. Henry opened the box. I put my right hand into the grey ashes of my Dad’s remains. Immediately I thought: ‘I am a man of science.’ I repeated those words as I scattered the ashes in the waters at my feet.
Everyone followed, some silently, some with their own words, and when we had all finished, we stood in a family circle in one collective embrace. I looked around me at all of the youth, energy and potential for the future – and knew that Dad was continuing on in us.
Troy Media syndicated columnist Mike Robinson has lived half of his life in Alberta and half in B.C. In Calgary he worked for eight years in the oil patch, 14 in academia, and eight years as a cultural CEO. Now back In Vancouver, he is still a cultural CEO, but also has business interests in a resource company and mutual funds.
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