|July 11, 2006|
Ashes Mixed with Water
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
As I write this, there are 2540 American servicemen and women dead in Iraq. At least 50,000 Iraqis have died from war-related injuries since the fighting began. According to UPI, in the United States, that would be the equivalent of 570,000 Americans.
More than 400,000 have died in Darfur, and between now and the end of the year, nearly three million are close to death from hunger and HIV/AIDS in southern Africa.
Then there are the deaths that are far more personal and much too close to home. Last week, my dear friend, colleague and mentor Jack Sameth, a television producer and director whose career in commercial and public TV spanned almost the entire history of the medium, died of a heart attack. He was 79 and had battled emphysema for several years.
Just a couple of days before, another friend and colleague, George Page, a public television programming executive best known as the host and creator of the "Nature" series on PBS, died, too. In the combined small worlds of public broadcasting and my own head, the two deaths last week were like a mini-version of the famous Fourth of July in 1826 that saw the simultaneous passing of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.
George gave me my first job writing a documentary film; Jack, as a friend recently said of another mentor, believed in me before I did. He put me to work on nearly two-dozen television specials about music and the arts and introduced me and others he loved to such wonders as Christmas in London and the beach at Saltaire, Fire Island, where he had a beloved cottage called the Gray Gull.
In December 1992, we stood on the walkway of friends next door and watched helplessly as a fierce nor'easter tore the house away. He carried on, seeking safer -- and higher -- harbor in Northport, Long Island.
Jack's death came just weeks after my own mother's, so in a matter of days it feels like not only has an era ended but that I and my friends and family have undergone total immersion in the nature of bereavement and the logistics of memorial services.
To me, there has always been an element of black humor in the enterprise of planning funerals (I will never be able to get out of my mind the old Mike Nichols and Elaine May routine about a discount funeral director: "I was just wondering, would you be interested in some extras for the loved one? How about a casket? It looks better.")
Our mom opted for cremation, which opened a whole other realm of options (Dorothy Parker's wish that her ashes be thrown in a certain someone's face came to mind. The family competed to guess who would be on our mother's list of throwees.).
Choosing an urn for the ashes (or as the funeral business prefers, "cremains") took a while. Much as the great cathedrals of Europe feature varied and elaborate reliquaries containing bone fragments of revered saints, today, you can find containers to satisfy virtually every need or taste. Some divide the ashes into several smaller urns so that all in the family can share; others have them placed in keepsake boxes and picture frames or made into jewelry. There are even companies that use a heat and pressure method to turn the cremains' carbon into diamonds, although it's a process that takes several months. Superman's a busy guy, you know, heavily scheduled and often overbooked.
Suffice it to say, if you ever need a cremation urn modeled after the fuel tank of a Harley-Davidson, I can steer you in the right direction. We turned down the models shaped like giant scallop shells or outsized acorns and opted instead for a simple wooden box, not dissimilar from my father's casket, because we chose to place her ashes with my father in their joint cemetery plot.
Mostly, that is. We had set aside a minute portion to spread on the water of a nearby lake she loved. It seemed appropriate.
I remember being taken out aboard a boat on the very same lake right after my father's funeral, just as a respite from the mourning. There is a solace that comes with the waters of a lake or river or sea. They calm and soothe, relax the mind and heart, purify and clarify the soul.
Now, friends took us on their vintage boat across the lake and my sister quietly let the spoonful of ash fall from a tiny cardboard box into the water. It looked like the fuller's earth my father used to sell in his drugstore.
Fire had turned the body to ash; water put the fire out and swallowed up the ash. From water came life and now our mother's life resolved -- dissolved -- in its depths.
We carry on. In the traces of lost family and absent friends, we'll move forward with those we have still, or have yet to meet, and try to cherish them until our own night arrives.
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
Copyright 2006 Messenger Post Newspapers
Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes a weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York.
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