Story: “Ashes On A Plane: My Last Trip With Dad” by Leslie Edwards
“Ashes On A Plane: My Last Trip With Dad”
by Leslie Edwards
Dad was a paronomasiac — that is, one who likes puns. This is a fortunate thing for me at this moment because I haven’t been able to sit down and write his eulogy. It’s just been an impossible psychological task. So the other day I was walking my dog Boomer and talking out loud to my dad (yes, that’s what I’ve been doing) — I told him, “Dad, I can’t do it. Just the word – Eulogy – for you of all people. I can’t relate it to you. But I have to do it. What do I do?”
“Leb,” I heard him say to me, “a eulogy is just an expression of surprise about sheep regulations: “Ewe Law, gee”.
“That doesn’t help, Dad,” I told him. I led Boomer across the street. People were staring at me. “And, by the way, Dad, people are looking at me askew because I’m talking to you a lot these days – out loud while I’m walking Boomer.”
“Askew?” he said. “To question sheep?”
“What is it with you and sheep lately?” I asked.
“Sorry,” he said. “There’s a lot of sheep up here. Or maybe they’re lambs. I don’t know. They’re kind of distracting.”
“I don’t have just one story to tell about you, Dad. I can’t say all the things I want to tell people about you in 500 words or less. “
“Leb,” Dad said, “You have the rest of your life to tell stories about me. So why not just start with the last thing that we did together, then work your way backwards.”
“Dad, the last thing we did together was too awful to talk about. You were in the hospital . . . ”
“No, not that,” he told me. “The last trip we took together. For God’s sake I never laughed so hard in my life!” And then I realized what Dad was talking about and I heard him laugh his bright hearty laugh. I burst out laughing too. Now there were about 20 people gathered on the sidewalks. They were all staring at me. So was my dog Boomer.
And so here is what happened on the last trip I took with my father.
There are TSA rules about traveling with your father on an airplane when he is no longer living. If he is cremated (which he was), you can’t check him in with your socks in your suitcase. You have to take him as carry-on – along with your laptop and lipstick. He will have to go through the x-ray machine in Security and he has to be in an x-rayable box. It can’t be a big giant Arabic looking iron urn. So — he was all good to go – the friendly Mexican cremation company had turned his body into ashes and gently placed him inside a mahogany wooden box with a pretty plaque engraved with his name. The box and plaque look exactly the same as the boxes my cats, Grommit, Gollum and Nocha, who, over the last few years, were returned that way to me — probably from the same cremation company. I wanted to put my dad up there on top of my book shelf next to the rest of my loved ones, but my mom wanted to take him to Boston – to bury him next to his own father in the beautiful and historic cemetery, Forest Hills. Along with his x-rayable transport device, I needed to have his certified death certificate and cremation certificate. I was ready – I loaded him and his papers into my back pack and we took off for the airport.
I was all nervous – Security is going to cause problems for me. They’re not going to think the paperwork is real. They’re going to pry open the box and Dad will spill all over the conveyor belt, and then guns will be drawn, I’ll be strip-searched in front of everyone, they’ll confiscate my dad, I won’t be let back in the country . . . all the normal things that used to happen to my dad while traveling when he was alive. We don’t know what it was about dad – I mean, he looked so innocent. He was so innocent – but no matter where we were traveling – whether it was by plane or simply through town by car, the “oficiales” always singled him out. But that’s another story (written by him, actually – you can read about it in our collected book of short stories “And Did You Look Upon the Wall?”).
As the young Mexican security agent opened my backpack and started to reach in to see what this cube was that they had just x-rayed – I quickly told him that “mi papa se murio” — and that this is him and I am taking him home to be buried next to his father and I have all the paperwork right there – everything exactly as Delta Airlines instructed me so go ahead and take a look. Feel free to check it out. Thoroughly.
Instead, the young man yanked his hands back as if he had just touched a hot stove – and stepped back. He looked over at his colleagues and whispered quickly to them. They all stopped what they were doing, stood in a reverent pose and bowed their heads. The young man said to me, “I am deeply sorry about your father. Passe, por favor.”
“Muchisimas gracias,” I replied gratefully, zipping up my bag. And as I picked Dad back up, the young man crossed himself and gave me an earnest nod of approval.
And you see, this is why my dad loved Mexico so much. Why he loved the Mexican people.
Which now brings us to the American people. And that particularly slack-jawed, gum-chewing, indelicate and totally graceless brand of American – the TSA agent.
We had to change planes in Phoenix and Mom and I were waiting in a long line for security after re-checking our luggage and going through customs. It was an interminably long line and they were making us step aside and wait even longer because there was what seemed to be a convoy of wheelchair riders – like a hundred of them – all getting a free ride from airport workers – all getting to move right along passed the rest of his standing bipeds – one after the other just zipped through without any problems, each one getting a friendly smile from the airport employees. Note to self, I thought: Next trip, wear fake cast.
So we are waiting and waiting and waiting and a single mother is in front of us also waiting and waiting and waiting, but with her bored and agitated, ADD’d 10 year-old son who is about to lose his mind and his bladder. I am tired and bored and agitated too and as we near the conveyor belt, agents start yelling at us to strip. Take off the belt! Take off the shoes! Take off the jewelry! Take out your freakin’ change you stupid cows hurry up folks, hurry up, move along, move along move along! (You know, just a quick aside about how much better Mexico is — they don’t make you take all this crap off. They just want you to put your bags through. They are possessed of a miraculous common sense in this regard).
So we have to pull out about eight of those gray plastic trays and we start pulling things off ourselves and filling them up – because now they expect you to sort and organize your attire – jewelry in there, coins in that one, shoes in this one – no no you can’t put your jacket in with the shoes, you fool, it has to go in its own separate tray! What, were you raised in a barn? Move along move along move along!
Right now I don’t give a shit about informing the agent about my dad’s condition prior to loading him on to the belt. Dad is getting heavy and I am getting crankier and my bladder is fuller than the 10-year old kid in front of me. The kid is making faces at me and I feel like giving him a sneaky kick in the ass when his mom isn’t looking, but then I realize that I really don’t feel like actually doing that because kicking 10-year olds is really not in my nature, so I forget all about it and start walking behind him and his mother in my bare feet wondering if I will go through the full-body x-ray machine or just the regular one.
Miraculously, I just have to walk right through the regular one – no beeps – no wanding, no nothing. I’ve made it through fine.
And then I hear the conveyor belt come to a grinding halt. All noise seems to have stopped. It is totally silent. All talking has ceased. All I can hear is my nervous breath and beating heart as my eyes make contact with the Stopper of the Belt. With the 350 pound angry power-hungry TSA lady-agent who is holding my bag. And here it is. Welcome to America.
“M’AM!” She roars across the airport – across the hordes of teeming half-naked travelers — roars roars roars at the top of her deep hot angry lungs. “HAVE YOU GOT HUMAN RE-MAINS IN HERE?!”
The wriggling, twitching, bored ADD boy in front of me jerks to a halt. He swings his head up towards me – his jaw has dropped to the floor and his eyeballs bug out – his eyes are stretched out so wide they almost snap out. He breathes in sharply. The kid thinks I have a head over there in my bag. He’s right. I do. Kind of. The bored, twitching, face-making kid thinks he’s looking at a serial killer. I decide to make his day by letting him think so. I look at the kid and wink and without looking away I speak up loudly to the agent: “Yes m’am, I sure do.”
And then I hear my dad chuckle. I hear him start cracking up as he always used to when the two of us would just bust up over something ridiculous and hilarious. I can’t contain myself any longer and I burst out into laughter. The big mean angry TSA lady is stomping over towards me. As she jerks her head for me to follow her, the sound of my dad’s laughter from the backpack she is holding rings through the air. I start weeping. With joy. With despair.