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February 6, 2001

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Road Trips

by Debbie Lindsey

Sandwiched between my feet on the floorboard of the car, Dad took his last road trip. My father's ashes, unceremoniously bagged within a black plastic box, mingled with my brush, lipstick and keys inside my purse. Never again could my girlfriends nag me about my big tacky tote bag of a purse - it was good enough to be Dad's shroud.

Dad had just returned from Pensacola. One more Florida excursion for Dad had been assured, as there was no facility in Mobile for cremation. I like to think that the driver took Dad on the scenic route. At the funeral home the director assisted with the opening of the small box in which Dad's ashes were encased in a mini landfill of Styrofoam peanuts -- only the best for Daddy!

Attempting to brace myself for the upcoming ceremony I observed the Ziplock of ashes (not a very favorable likeness of Dad) until the shock wore off a bit. Then to the car where Susan and Mom idled and off we drove to Dairy Queen. After we fortified ourselves with large strawberry shakes, my sister, Susan, resumed driving with Mom riding shotgun and Dad and myself in the back seat.

Susan had begrudgingly agreed to the waters at the Grand Hotel pier on Mobile Bay as the place of interment. With rush hour traffic building and Susan questioning the legality of throwing one's ashes off the private pier of a resort hotel, I too began to question my choice of location. But the wheels were already in motion, and so was my stomach. It seems that Dairy Queen shakes disagree with stress.

During this darkly humorous ride through towns linking Mobile to Dad's destination, my mom Veronica restlessly looked out the window at decoratively lit trees lining the streets of Fairhope. Susan and I distracted Mom with these post Christmas/pre Mardi Gras lights just as she had when we were kids sharing the beach towel covered back seat and little else for forty inexplicably estranged years. The estrangement of those years dissolved while sharing in our parents' drama. Perhaps Mom sensed this because she giggled slightly and began to smile. Although Mom unwittingly added macabre humor at times, she felt none. Her life was now the living parallel to Dad's tragedy. Increased dementia resulting from her Parkinson's disease made her blessedly oblivious to some of the day's events and gave her an occasional respite from the reality of her loss. Charitable as the respites were, the illness maligned her to a mere memory of who she was. Dad was the first casualty of her disease with a piece of my soul following for not intervening in Dad's self-infliction of caregiving to his cherished Veronica. In my eyes Dad was above being old and had always outwitted his high blood pressure as I tried to outwit my guilt.

By the time we drove past the nonexistent gun slinging security at the hotel's entrance, I was overwhelmed with an impending gastric emergency thanks to the strawberry shakes from Hell. Susan pulled up to the lobby's entrance, fabricating the excuse to Mom that I was going in to obtain a brochure of the hotel and off-season rates for her and her husband Ralph's next vacation home. Nearly doubling over with stomach cramps, I grabbed my purse and Dad and climbed out of the car. I watched as Susan and Mom began their nervous drive around and around the parking area, with Mom reminiscing over summers spent as pool club members lounging in the sun, and Susan looking in the rear view mirror for imagined hotel security bent on preventing burials at sea.

Resisting memories of strolls through this lobby with Dad over the years, I zeroed in on the Ladies Room. I guess the other ladies found it a bit odd that I should talk to my purse - but I owed Daddy an apology for this undignified beginning to his funeral service. This moment in the rest room did not resemble any Hallmark Hall of Fame movie about one's final passage, but I just knew Dad was laughing.

Still wondering if I was botching this occasion beyond redemption and edging towards hysteria, I walked out the bay-front doors and into solemn perfection. There is a soothing quality and subtle strength about the bay when the tide is low and the wind and her waters are still. The lights along the pier glowed a muted yellow and reminded me of a strand of amber my aunt once wore. The beachfront was empty of people as if in deference to Dad and me. This was the gentle dignity I sought. Reality came when preparing Dad's ashes for flight. I diligently followed in my father's anti-littering footsteps by removing the ash-covered paperwork and made certain only he would enter the bay. Somehow rummaging through a loved one's ashes to pick out an identification receipt was unraveling, yet comforting to know this was Dad and not the remains of someone's beloved twenty year old poodle, FiFi. During the preparation I told my "best friend" how loved he was and how missed he would be by his friends, Susan, Mom and me.

I was inundated with recollections of summers spent with Dad at the hotel. In exchange for a modest membership fee the hotel gave us six warm months of bay breezes, cabanas damp with dripping swimsuits, and kids playing the ever-constant Marco Polo. There were long naps by the pool outdone only by long swims with Mama braving water damage to her weekly coiffure and rides home smelling of Solarcane. The hotel was a magnet attracting travelers from around the world, some famous and some merely coated in suntan oil like myself. Hotel is a simple noun by dictionary standards, but to us it meant a road trip from Mobile across the Delta and along scenic routes of dogwoods, roadside fruit stands and quaint towns with Fairhope as my favorite. Fairhope is home to Aunt Ethel with her ever-present ham lunches and dried fruit enhanced Toll House cookies (some things are best left alone). These excursions acted as definements of my family and in later years opportunities for Dad and I to converse our way into solid friendship. My reverie was interrupted by the image of Susan driving my fidgety and disoriented mother around in endless circles in the parking lot with security guards in hot pursuit. So without pause to check which way the wind was blowing, I emptied the bag of Dad's remains to the night air. Amid a sigh of relief that the breeze was taking Dad gently over the bay, and not onto my hair, I looked across the water to the shore where he lived as a child and knew this was the right place.

Turning to leave I remembered passing the Bird Cage Lounge adjacent to the Ladies Room. After debating the virtues of recycling versus the trash can on the pier, I opted for gently depositing Dad's black plastic box "urn" in the metal can, and raced to the bar.

Some people ritualistically save a rose from the spray of flowers upon a casket. Climbing into the back seat of the car, I clutched a bourbon and coke - Dad's drink of choice. Driving away, I was keenly aware of three women equally loved by Dad: Susan, who became my sister in a death, not a birth, my Mom, whom I was slowly losing in life rather than death, and myself, forever changed. Sometimes we find ourselves and others in the death of someone. I also realized, in a quirky sort of way, that all three of Dad's ladies were there on the pier, saying goodbye.

Susan never got her hotel brochure, but I got a rose - a plastic drink stir from the Bird Cage Lounge. Cheers Dad!


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