I have a pretty small family. My father is an only child, and my mother had a younger brother. Steve, my uncle, died three years ago. And yesterday I was walking my dog behind a scruffy guy smoking a cigarette. He looked like my uncle. The smell from his cigarette was exactly the same.
So it got me thinking about him again, and the significance of his death. Thus, I’m posting the tribute I wrote almost exactly 3 years ago:
My uncle Steve was a ball of contradictions, and awash in unused potential. He was loner, nearly a hermit, but maintained a childlike connection to his mother. When a subject interested him he trapped information like a boa constrictor, squeezing every bit of fascinating usefulness out of what he learned. So he must have known the realities of his vices, but he never banished them. In the end it was the worst of him that got the upper hand. He died alone, brought to an early end by his favorite vice, smoking.
Those of us left to mourn him were now faced with reconciling the best of him with the worst of him. No one could deny his humor, his mind, or his passion for quiet solitude in the outdoors. And I found myself besieged anew by our similarities, and aware that my mind, my humor, and my yearning for wilderness solitude fall more in line with him than even my own father.
Steve was like my personal time machine. I could look at him and see myself in two decades. Early on I recognized that what separated us was our surroundings and opportunities, not our raw material. Had I lived where he lived. Had I embraced my reclusiveness or self-education, to their fullest then I would probably end up as Steve did. He was found in his home. Naked, just as he entered the world. At first this discovery begged foul play. But the truth is it proves otherwise. Steve slept naked. He’d done so since his twenties. Just like me.
Now on a cloudy morning in December I exited my grandparent’s church and followed my grandfather to his car. The sky looked threatening to rain and I wondered about our morning event of scattering Steve’s ashes in a place he loved. Somehow, I hadn’t connected my current task to the one at hand. And it wasn’t until my grandfather opened the trunk that I realized what I was “helping him” retrieve.
In the trunk of the large sedan sat two well-sealed boxes. One, a cube the size of an autographed baseball, contained the ashes of “Troubles”, my uncle’s dog and closest companion, even to the end. The other box was bigger, the size of a shallow shoe box standing on end. Steve’s ashes, with his name clearly printed on the extra sealed lid; “The remains of: William Purvis”. You see, Steve went by his middle name because he shared a first name with his father. Just like me.
As the rest of our little family exited the church, I stood by my grandfather in the wet parking lot holding all that remained of my uncle and his dog. “Heavier than you think” my grandfather mumbled in the casual observational way he starts conversations. But he wasn’t trying to start a conversation on this near-Christmas morning. He was filling time.
“Yeah,” I said. Filling time back.
I watched him now. Saw in his eyes the same ring of tears that had been rising and falling in waves since I’d hugged him upon my arrival. I suspected that same tide of emotion had been beating against him since the Monday morning when he’d arrived at his son’s house like a thousand times before. But this morning Steve hadn’t come to the door when his dad honked the horn. And after a time the elder William Purvis got out and went into the house. He found his only son lying on the floor with Troubles standing guard above him. When he told me the story he’d maintained his emotions until he added “I only wish I hadn’t found him”. And that was the first time I saw this ring of tears.
He read the box like people do when they’re holding something that makes them uncomfortable. He read it all. Tilted the box a bit, though there were no more words, and read it again. I saw him brush his thumb over the name, probably didn’t even think to do it, and in that moment I realized the bizarre collision of realities this box held.
The name on the lid was his son’s name, but it was also his name. So in a weird way he was seeing himself as a box of human remains. Yet simultaneously he was holding his son in a size and shape which were nearly the same as Steve would have been the first time my grandfather held him. From nothing, to a baby he could hold in hand and heft the weight. And now, a lifetime later, Steve had returned. Ashes to ashes, and our task for the morning.
A church van took us to the sight. We small-talked along the way but were mostly quiet. And at a bend in an unpaved road we stopped at a conservation sight of trees leading down to a distant river. There was a sign in the parking lot, “Archery Deer Hunting Only”, and I felt Steve here in an instant. He loved to watch animals, letting them roam undisturbed. But in this ball of contradiction lived a hunter who also loved hunting deer with a bow. There wasn’t a better place to leave Steve and Troubles. They had walked this area many times… and we’d brought them back for the last time.
I helped my grandmother down the muddy bank to a flat clearing at the forest edge. Brown fallen leaves stuck to our feet, and I held on to my grandmother’s tiny hands as we all settled in a vague little clump. My mom stood nearby, quietly mourning the loss of her only sibling, but her mother stood by me. For most of my life I’ve been taller than my barely five-foot grandmother, but now, as she prepared to say goodbye to her only son, she felt smaller to me than at any time in my existence. I don’t know if she stood by me because I filled a surrogate role. Or if it was because my grandfather was now opening the box he’d carried since the car that morning. Either way, the pastor and the prayers were done, and the scattering remained.
Inside both boxes were metal-tagged plastic bags. But instead of the ash I knew from a thousand wilderness campfires, the contents looked more like tiny stones. My wife and grandfather scattered Troubles. Then he cut open the bag for Steve and handed it to my grandmother. And she did an amazing thing… For a moment she hesitated, wondering if she should wear gloves, and then she banished the idea with the same resolve a mother uses to deal with a thousand nasty substances. I helped her hold the bag, remembering my grandfather’s comment about the weight, and watched mother and son have their final moment.
She reached into the bag. Her tiny bare hand, kinked and buckled from arthritis and displaying the spots and deep blood-vessels of age, reached in, pulled the first handful of ashes, and tossed them into the forest so loved by her son. I couldn’t help but see a younger hand as she did it, and found myself flooded by the knowledge that she had already carried Steve when he was only tiny particles. And now, in the end, she was doing it again. The first. And last.
We each spread some ashes. It was like the finest polished gravel, kernel like specs of a thousand shades between white and black. Cold, and sterile, and almost chalky on the wet leaves of this winter forest. My wife sang a hymn. And each person froze in place once their time with the bag was finished. I hugged everyone in turn. We all cried.
In the end, I wandered deeper into the forest and wept. Overwhelmed by the things in me which are so like Steve, I stared out through the barren winter trees and couldn’t help but feel the time machine again. Is this my path? Is it something else? Only a line of decisions and opportunities would tell the tale. Steve died at fifty-three, made up of great stuff. What things are we accomplishing with our stuff?
No one likes funerals. They are the great inevitability, and we’ve all seen our share. But for me, seeing a body made up by man’s artistic hands and laid in a pretty box… that never had the reasonance of those ashes in the forest. Maybe it was the fact that the outdoors speaks to me like it did to Steve, but I think in many ways the issue is in the typical funeral itself. The body and box somehow cloud the holy truth of it… Man has dressed up just how little we become.
Born from nothing. Living only to return to nothing. Ashes to Ashes. Dust to Dust. I know what that means now. And knowing makes me want to Live.
As the bag drained empty my grandfather tried to say something to end our time in the forest. “He had a lot of good memories here…” He barely finished the final words before he choked them back with a wave of tears. In that moment I took in the surroundings differently for the first time. I didn’t see a place that I would like at all. For me it would never be a place of good memories or even beauty. But for Steve it was.
I thought about the things I enjoy which are only mine. Simple things. Things others would never enjoy. And I wondered if I realize how much they matter to me when I’m in the midst of them. I remember all the things I hate. I talk about it to anyone who will listen. But why don’t I share the simple/stupid things I love?
We scattered my uncle’s ashes in a wintery forest down a backroad in Missouri. What that means to my family remains to be seen. But I hope that I remember all the things that mattered in this time. They were all the little things. They were all the important things.