“I don’t want to go all the way to Chicago with your dad in a box on my lap.”
“Where am I supposed to put him? If I put him in the trunk, the box could tip over. Just hold him, it’s not that big a deal.”
It’s a big deal. Maybe I should drive and my husband can hold his father on his own lap. But he wants to drive. It’s what will make it feel right, being in control of the car, of himself. I feel the weight of my father-in-law’s ashes on my legs, the cardboard box too flimsy for its job, if I lifted the lid, I’d see the heavy plastic folded over the gray dust. It feels too familiar, too familial. How well did I even know him? How would he feel about me holding his ashes? Be careful where you put your hands, I tell myself.
On the way out of town, we stop where my son and his girlfriend are living. The August air is hot and thick even with the car’s air conditioning running. The box sticks to my pants so I lift it up, my pants wrinkled and stuck to my legs. Finally, they stumble out of the house, our son tucking his polo shirt into his pants and his girlfriend limping in very high heels, both looking put-upon as if two days’ notice of when we would meet wasn’t nearly enough. We caravan onto the interstate, their car rumbling behind us. I know without looking that neither of them is wearing a seat belt. So typical of my son, risking his life when I am already holding a box of ashes on my lap.
At the cemetery, I sit while my husband comes around to get the box. I won’t carry my father-in-law to a crowd of people waiting at his grave site. There could be glory in it, faux importance as if he’d picked me to be his single pallbearer, but everyone would know the truth. I was better than the trunk, that was my qualification. Besides, it is his sad son’s job.
The cemetery is flat and treeless. Efficient to mow but you could be anywhere or nowhere looking for someone’s grave. When did it become too much trouble to mow around a headstone?
My mother-in-law is here already, buried in one of the flat indistinguishable graves, a plot with her former husband’s name on it right beside her. I have to hand it to her, she never gave up on reconciliation. He may have wandered off but she’s got him now and for eternity.
I can feel her telling us we should have made better arrangements to bring him here, some transport more distinguished, a hearse with a driver in a black suit. How cheap and casual to bring her beloved to his grave in a box on my lap. My husband would shrug this off but her imagined words sting me.
At the end of the service, my husband shovels dirt on the box in the grave. He hands the shovel to someone and that person to another. From the back of the crowd, my son’s girlfriend steps up and asks my husband if she too can shovel and he says yes, although he looks puzzled. She plants one foot forward, shovels a small mound of dirt and sprinkles it on the grave. It occurs to me that she is serious about my son, maybe she loves him and wants to honor his grandfather. And I’m glad for that and for this day.