For four days in October, I walked around Manhattan with my estranged father’s ashes in my purse. I was there to bury him. I had no idea that by the time I flew home I’d be ready to bury my 15-year marriage, too.
My family tree had long been a family stump — the “gone” on one side (my mother, who’d died of a heart attack at 59), the “erased” on the other (my father, whose mental illness had cannibalized every part of him I had loved). The stranger who occupied my father’s body traded prescription drugs for street drugs and could tell me the names of his massage parlor girlfriends but not the names of my children. He was alive, but I didn’t recognize him.
After trying to kill himself during my entire life, this is how it ended: One car hit him, then another while he was walking home from Dunkin’ Donuts.
It was my first time back in the city in over 10 years, my first night away from my husband and children in a decade. My siblings were supposed to be there, too. But one by one, they canceled, because of money, illness, decades of residual anger. I needed the closure. So I’d go alone, with ashes my sister would mail.
I’d been picturing a petite pill bottle, 30-day Xanax prescription-size. What she sent was better suited for horse tranquilizers. If I was going to carry my dad around with me until I figured out where to let him go, I’d have to make him more manageable.
Human ashes are not fine. With a shirt tied around my face, I sifted him through my son’s plastic funnel into clear travel shampoo containers. Sharp bony bits (his vertebrae?) refused to cooperate. Underneath the shirt mask, I sweated. My glasses fogging up, I tapped the funnel against the side of the sink in a rhythm: You are gone; this is what is left. You are gone; this is what is left. In the end, he took up as little space as he possibly could — just two bottles’ worth — like when he was in a depressive cycle and his body and voice shrank so that you hardly knew he was there.
My father’s ashes and I walked north from Washington Square Park. We saw a movie, a play, an improv show. Being back in New York by myself felt like being on another planet. I could do interesting things without feeling sad that my husband didn’t want to do them with me or selfish for wanting to do them anyway. My father’s ashes and I went dancing at a terrible club. We sat in my hotel room and cried over my declining marriage.
In the evenings, I listened to tapes my dad had sent me years earlier, in a manic phase, detailing his life’s story. I tried to parse which version was real — the dad who carried me from my dorm room delirious with fever? The dad who boasted of 43 kills in four separate arms of the Israeli military? The dad whose particulate matter was caught in my eyelashes and lungs?
Every day we walked, 36 miles all told. With each step, I was losing my grip on who my father was and who he had become but gaining an understanding of who I had become and who I wanted to be. I fantasized that the hotel room was my apartment. I read. I wrote. I took three showers one day, just because the hot water felt good.
My dad went out one morning in the fog to get a jelly doughnut and a coffee, and then he made a gift of his body: He gave me permission to get on a plane alone, to breathe, to think.
Here’s what I decided: I want more.
It felt greedy, wanting more. I wanted more than my good, decent husband. More than fondness. I wanted someone to feel with me, want with me, take on the whole damn world with me. For the next 15 years of my life, I wanted more than being alone together.
The day before I flew home, my father and I took our last walk. After we crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, I found a quiet spot at the end of the pier. I’d been listening to him recollect, with awe, sneaking away from a refugee camp in Vienna, exploring the city by boat. Lowering my hands beneath the guardrail, I tapped and tapped until the cloud of white dust that was my father drifted away. Thank you, I tapped, for the dad I’d been missing. Thank you, I tapped, for the dad I’d found. Thank you, I tapped, for the dad who’d helped me find myself.
On the tarmac the next day, I turned on Bill Withers’s “Lovely Day” and sank into my seat. For the first time in my life, I felt exhilaration — not fear — during takeoff. I cried because I was sad and because I was happy. I cried because I knew exactly what I needed to do.
I didn’t unpack for weeks. “You seem different,” my husband remarked. I was. “Do we need to talk?” he asked. We did.
After sitting with my decision for three weeks, I was sure that I was sure. I met my husband in a parking lot near Atlanta’s BeltLine. He walked toward me just like he had when he was 24, coming out of the tall grass from the side of the road where we’d pulled over somewhere in North Dakota. Only this time, he wasn’t looking at me like he’d just discovered me, and I wasn’t beaming back with possibility.
I wanted him to understand. Just as I had mourned the emotional loss of my father for years before I experienced his physical loss, I had been mourning the emotional loss of our marriage during our long drift away from one another. I wanted him to understand that we were not the same people we were when we met. At least, I wasn’t.
Finding the courage at 41 to push the words, “I think I want a divorce,” out of my mouth was so much more difficult than finding the courage at 19 to say, “I think I love you.” And yet, both times, I made my mouth say the words my heart felt.
We sat together for a while, talking quietly. “I’m sorry,” I called after him as he headed for his car. Then I stood up and walked in the opposite direction. I walked as fast and as hard as I could away from the couple we no longer were and toward the person I had become.