My father was born on the Fourth of July 75 years ago in a house in rural Kansas. This was his holiday. So we chose the day to scatter his ashes in the place he loved most: the sea.
We decided to go early, when the fishermen go, long before the boaters with coolers of beer. My son, Austin, woke us at sunrise and we headed out in the Boston Whaler after the sky had turned from pink to blue. It was a little late by the fisherman's clock, but early enough to find glossy water and still air.
Mom and I had been dreading this day for seven months. "It just seems so final," she said. We'd decided in December to wait for a day when the weather was pretty and the water summer blue. Dad's ashes stayed tucked in the hall closet, not forgotten, but hidden from view, in a modest brown box inside a parcel that came in the registered mail and remained unopened.
It hit me yesterday that he's gone. Really gone. For Mom and me, it hadn't seemed real. Until now it had seemed as if he were simply away on a business trip. I spent the day wrangling all sorts of emotions. I picked a fight, projected waves of anger at innocuous things, sulked and moped and stomped around before I realized what it was really about. Underneath the layers of denial lies a rawness that's hard to face.
Dad's sister requested a portion of his ashes. We weren't quite sure what to put them in. We searched the house for something appropriate, something meaningful or symbolic. But nothing seemed right, and the hour was approaching. We settled on a small, white aspirin bottle with a tight seal and the label removed. We could find something prettier later.
I carried Dad's ashes to his tackle room. They were heavier than I expected. I searched for something to use as a scoop, something that wasn't a spoon. There was nothing. I opened the box, unfastened the twist-tie that sealed the clear bag, and used my hands. The ashes were a fine gray dust, uniform and free of chunks of things I was terrified to find. My pulse quickened and I tried not to think about it too much, that this is all that's left of my father's body.
I left the bottle on the rigging table and carried the box to the dock, where my husband, Eddie, Mom and Austin were waiting in the fishing boat. Dad's fishing boat. It was the first time Mom and I had been out on it without him. We crossed the bay in a heavy silence. A pod of dolphins surfaced.
We planned to scatter his ashes at the tide line, the visible threshold where the water shifts and the baitfish feed. We'd briefly considered doing it at a reef where we fished, but a reef seemed too static. The tide line is capricious, and always the first stop on a fishing trip, to fill the bait well. This morning's incoming tide had pushed the tide line to the bay side of the Destin Bridge, near the shallows where boaters gather and drink. Not Dad's scene. So we motored out through Destin pass, into the open gulf.
Dad had been fishing these waters for more than 30 years. He loved trolling for king mackerel, bottom-fishing for snapper, trying to coax grouper out of their hiding holes in the reefs. He enjoyed the minimalist approach of fly-lining, letting live bait on an unweighted hook swim around in the deep blue. He tried chumming once, and we reeled in one beautiful mahi mahi after another, their rainbow skins turning yellow in our fish well. But that seemed cheap. Somehow, like cheating. We never chummed again.
Today the water was an achingly beautiful blue, as it usually is this time of year. With few words, Mom and I together emptied the bag into the blue. I didn't know what else to say except, "Bye, Dad." The water turned milky for a brief moment, and then the gray swirl drifted away and vanished. We cried quietly, eyes stinging with salt and sunblock. Then we rigged a solitary rod and trolled.
The water was freckled with rising baitfish, and another pod of dolphins surfaced nearby. Then we witnessed something special — a huge manta ray taking flight, leaping twice into the air. None of us had ever seen that before.
Stare into the sea with the sun behind your head, and your shadow has a halo of sunshine and sea. It has filled me with wonder since I was a child. I wanted to feel a presence. I'm still pondering what I felt. Mostly a combination of peace and emptiness, a sad void deeper than the blue.
If Dad had been here, we would have caught a fish.
Kim Cross, the editor of cookinglight. com, was a St. Petersburg Times intern in 2004.