Mom shuffled along the pier stretching into the St. Lucie River beside her lifelong friend Reene Zeigler. I trailed behind, bright sun, a stiff November breeze, and memories of this sandy town where I’d lived during eighth, ninth, and tenth grades distracting me from our mission.
Mom was in her mid-eighties and shaped like one of those toy clowns that you knock over and they pop back up. She’d outlived my health-nut father and my hard-drinking stepfather. Today we’d spread Dad’s ashes off the dock at Sunset Bay Marina in Stuart, Florida. Tomorrow we’d travel up the coast to spill my stepfather’s in New Smyrna Beach where he’d owned Behrens’ Book Store for years.
It was November, 2009. I’d ushered Mom—and my two fathers in a suitcase—through security at the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport a few days earlier. A TSA officer glanced up at me like I was trailer trash as she tested my Ziploc bags of paternal remains with an eyedropper.
At the end of the pier Reene joined her husband, Bill, where he stood with Cash Adams and Bob Caffrey, two of my father’s swimming buddies from the late forties at the University of Miami.
Mom wore the pretty peach slacks and a coordinating top with tiny flowers I’d bought. She’d always favored zebra prints and I wore solids Jackie O. might have bought if she’d gone garage saling with the two of us. We’d always hated each other’s taste, but now Mom’s neurons had aged just enough for her to wear what I laid out.
Mom wandered perilously close to the edge of the dock, her expression vacant.
I hooked my arm through hers, hoping to pull her back into today. “It’s the ashes—not you—we’re putting in the drink.” I smiled at my joke, tucking her closer to my side.
Mom looked up blankly. “Ashes?”
I squinted at the sun, high over Roosevelt Bridge. “Remember, Dad turned yellow. We found out he had liver and pancreatic cancer. Then he died in the hospital bed the hospice people set up in my office.” I glanced at Mom to see if she tracked with me, but I couldn’t tell. “A year later Ralph went to the hospital while you ate Raisin Bran… and didn’t come home. We’re spreading their ashes.”
“Oh goody,” she said in the syrupy voice I’d heard when she told me she was divorcing my father and any number of sad occurrences she wanted to soften for me.
My head jerked up, sarcasm rising to the surface. “Don’t sound like you offed them yourself. This is a solemn occasion.”
“No… no. Everything is peachy cream. Your father loved Florida. Ralph loved Florida. This is where they belong.” She gave me an all-is-right-with-the-world smile. “I’m glad Cash came. Don’t you think he’s handsome?”
Mom’s perennial crush on Cash always annoyed me. “I can’t believe I schlepped Dad and Ralph across the country to pay our respects and you’re planning your next husband!”
Mom grinned. “Did I ever tell you I once saw Cash’s hind quarters?”
“What? When? Gross. He’s ancient.”
“It was a long time ago. I didn’t think it was gross at the time.” Mom wrinkled her brow in puzzlement. “Maybe you’re right. God knows I’ve seen more than my share of wrinkly behinds as an R.N.”
I shuddered. This was way too much information.
Mom’s grin returned.
I let go of her elbow. “Quit thinking about Cash’s butt.”
Mom sobered. “You’re right. It’s a solemn occasion. And happy.”
“How is saying good-bye happy?”
“Neither one of them was any great shakes as a husband.”
I nodded. Nor had they been great fathers. I led Mom to the end of the dock where the others waited and passed out small baggies of Dad from my shoulder bag.
The Zeiglers, Cash, and Bob Caffrey shared memories of my father. They spread out along the dock emptying their gray dust in silence.
I handed Mom the last bag. “Shake it out on the river.”
“Who’s this?” Mom said.
“Dad.” I tried to lighten the moment. “Feel how light the ashes are. He was 120 pounds to Ralph’s 300.”
Mom fisted the bottom of the Ziploc and upended it.
A cloud of ashes swirled in the breeze, the heavier bits sinking, the ashes following.
My pieces of Dad followed hers. I blinked several times and collected my emotions.
We watched Dad disappear in the green water lapping against the pilings.
Behind us the others murmured and retreated down the dock.
I dreaded going through this again tomorrow. I turned Mom toward the marina. “Dad and Ralph would have been P.O.ed if we’d launched them into eternity together. They hated each other.”
“Your Dad was a druid and Ralph was a Lutheran. They’re probably not even going to the same address.” Mom shook her head sadly. “…if they’d only been Catholics.”
Dad was technically a Neo-Gnostic, but I wasn’t going to correct her.
I looked over my shoulder at the spot where we’d left Dad. Under too few happy memories and too many regrets flowed a river of love as deep and wide as the St. Lucie. I fluttered my hand at the water. Bye, Dad.
[Literary license: As far as I know, my mother never saw Cash’s “hind quarters,” but the underlying sentiment is factual.]