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TILL DEATH DO US PART
Long before Dad became ill with lymphoma, Mom insisted that he tell us what he wanted done with his body when he died. She'd already expressed her own wishes to me, and in her pragmatic way, she wanted Dad to figure out his while he still had his druthers. I was home for a visit when she raised the topic, and the three of us were watching the hockey game on TV. My parents were finally living in a decent house by then. Grandpa Ford had bought it a decade earlier for $6,000, and Mom and Dad gave him $50 a month until they'd paid it off.
I wasn't prepared for the discussion, but there was no stopping my mother once she got going. "Tell Lorna while she's here," she said, "and while you're not in a coma or anything."
Dad looked as taken aback as I felt. He didn't even glance at her but kept staring at the TV, although hockey wasn't really his thing. He preferred world wrestling or baseball. "I don't know," he finally said.
"Well, I'm going to be cremated. Do you want that too?" Dad said nothing. "There's no sense in buying plots-that's just a waste of money. Besides, with the kids so far away there'll be no one here to take care of them."
"I guess that would be okay, to be cremated."
"What should we do with your ashes?"
There was another pause, as Guy LaFleur scored a goal against Toronto. A minute later, Wendel Clark got a penalty for elbowing. "You could hire a plane," Dad said, "and drop the ashes over the roof of the house."
My father loved planes. In the mid-forties, as the war was coming to an end, he'd gotten a job driving the flight crews to Swift Current's small air strip on the edge of town. Decades later, my brother ended up in the Air Force, flying search and rescue helicopters over the Atlantic and the North. Every time a helicopter went over their house, my parents would stand in the yard and wave, just in case it was my brother somehow wired like a homing pigeon and heading west.
"That's just like you," Mom said, "to come up with something expensive. We can't afford a plane. Besides, I don't want you hanging over my head on the roof for the rest of my life!"
Dad looked confused. He sipped at his beer, the organ in Maple Leaf Gardens blasting out its maddened song.
"What about the garden?" I asked.
"That's a good idea," he said. "You could dump me in the garden."
"No way. I'd be tasting you every time I ate a potato." Mom turned to me, and then, with a mischievous look, said, "Maybe we could pour him in an empty beer bottle, pop a cork in it, and throw it in Duncaren Dam."
"That wouldn't be a bad idea," Dad said. Relieved at his response, I laughed. He and Mom did too.
Duncaren Dam was a good choice. During my summer holidays before high school, Dad and I went fishing almost every Sunday afternoon at the dam in his speed boat while Mom worked at the swimming pool. The first day he'd pulled the boat into our back yard on Fourth West, Mom was furious. There was barely enough to make the rent or buy groceries, yet he'd bought a boat. We didn't know where he'd found the money, but his pockets were bottomless when there was something he wanted.
At Duncaren, Dad would drink three or four beer, tipping the empties over the gunwales to fill them with water, then letting them sink. "Don't tell Mom," he'd say, and I never did. We'd go home to the chicken she had fried in case we didn't catch any fish, our faces red from wind and sun. I'd always say I'd had a good time.
I didn't let Mom know I usually felt lonely and bored in the boat with my father-I could never take a friend because I didn't know what kind of condition he'd be in, and he and I didn't find it easy to talk. The usual routine was to roar back and forth across the water several times, sit fishing for what seemed like days to me, then zoom from one end of the dam to the other until the motor was almost out of gas. At last we'd putter into shore, where Dad loaded the boat onto the trailer and we'd start the forty-or-so-mile drive home. Sometimes I'd get to water ski if it wasn't too windy. Our game was that he'd try to dump me, yanking the steering wheel rapidly to the left, then the right. It was a source of pride for him when I stayed upright, banging over the hard, bumpy wake, skis rat-a-tat-tatting like a machine-gun in a gangster movie. I loved the noise, the ferocious rush of the wind and my father's head turning to look back at me while I swung from side to side like a crazed pendulum, almost lifting off into the sky.
My parents' faces flickered in the fiery action of the hockey game on the screen. "Where are you going to be?" he asked and looked at Mom. "I think I want to be with you."
I waited for her to say something like, "That'd be a first." Or, "You want to be with me when you're dead? You never spend any time with me now." But she didn't lash out. Instead she got quiet, and the hockey game suddenly became interesting again. I let my eyes rest on the lamp on top of the TV. Although the brand of our television had changed over the years, from a wooden-encased Fleetwood to an RCA to a Hitachi, the lamp had been there since Dad brought home our first set the year I was eight. It was a square piece of plastic with a light bulb behind. When it was turned on you saw a cowboy in silhouette, riding a horse, with an orange and yellow sunset blazing behind him and a dog trotting alongside.
After we watched the Leafs kill their latest penalty, Mom told Dad she wanted her ashes scattered on the farm where she grew up, by the fresh-water stream that ran into the lake. "You remember where that is," she said to him, "the green spot just beyond the quicksand where the cow went under." She'd told me she thought it was as good a place as any.
"That's it, then," Dad said. "I'll go there too."
"And I don't want a funeral," she added. "Just the family. They can sing 'How Great Thou Art' by the lake, and someone can read the 23rd Psalm."
"Okay by me."
"Well, that's that," Mom said. "Lorna, let your brother know."