I did not know when I volunteered to pick up my recently deceased dad’s ashes that I would be driving through the fire to do so. When the plan was made, the Pacific Northwest had yet to go up in flames. Arrangements were made: my father’s wife would fly down from Seattle, Washington to Bend, Oregon; my partner and I would drive up from Santa Cruz, California in Maude, our ’91 Chevy Conversion Van, camping along the way. We’d meet up at Tumalo Campground, where one third of the ashes would be handed over to me. My father moved a lot in his life; he wanted his ashes scattered in the Pacific, the Atlantic, and mixed with those of his wife when she passed. The Pacific scattering was/is my responsibility.
Around Crater Lake the smoke got thick. At one point we noticed we were the only ones driving north. Were we headed into fire? Were people evacuating? I pulled out my iPhone, checked the interactive wildfires map. If it was to be believed, US Route 97 was going to usher us between fires. We carried on.
Once arriving at the campsite, we were happy to discover that, while definitely smoky, it was bearable. And we had time to kill before the allotted rendezvous. My partner’s brother took us sightseeing. Who knew Oregon was filled with volcanoes? I swear, Oregonians are like Eskimos with their many words for snow—only they have them for lava rock. There is pumice, scoria, obsidian; there is black lava rock, red lava rock, green; there is lava rock that cooled midair into balls, lava rock tunnels, lava rock hoodoos, lava rock rivers.
Standing atop the huge Newberry Caldera (so big it’s home to two lakes), followed by a hike up a jagged, glassy Obsidian peak, it was hard not to feel the force of fire, and the part it played in the violent formation of this planet; hard not to reflect upon the ashes I was to receive, my father turned to mineral; hard not to feel the insignificance of a single life.
And looking out into the smoky vistas, I couldn’t help but think that the earth is working to regenerate herself. There have been floods like we have never seen, astronomically high winds, and fires that are burning so hot, I’m told they are essentially sterilizing the topsoil, possibly keeping them barren for hundreds of years.
It is within this vast global drama that I had an experience which, while actually tiny in the grand scheme of things, seemed to me to be quite big.
Back at the campsite, when it came time to hand off the ashes, my father’s wife brought with her two lesbians she was staying with in Bend. Let me explain. The couple, together thirty years, had been friends with my father and his wife. The doctor of the two, a nephrologist, considered my father her mentor, felt it was because of him she even went into nephrology. All this, I found out that night. Until this meeting, I’d had no idea my dad even knew any lesbians besides me, let alone had served as witnesses at a lesbian wedding! (Note: I do not believe he purposefully neglected to mention these lesbian friends. A scientist, he was much more comfortable talking about ideas and books he’d read, and rarely dwelled on topics of a social nature.)
He did, finally, come around. By the time this lesbian nephrologist had come out to him, I’d spent years cobbling together a healthier relationship with him, had won him over so completely, he’d come not only to know my current partner (twenty-six years and counting!), but also to love her. He even loved my novels! Couldn’t wait for the next one to come out. I wanted the lesbian nephrologist to know that the acceptance she felt was due, in large part, to me. Somehow, it made all those years of heartbreak seem worth it.
So I said to her: “I warmed him up for you” and left it at that.
I have yet to bring his cremains down to the ocean, but I imagine she will swallow him up, no questions asked, and what is left of his body will begin its next incarnation as it mixes itself up with the rest of the minerals at the bottom of the sea. In the meantime, I will continue to wonder what other surprising bits of his life he took with him. And, as of this writing, Mother Earth rages on.