Three cars in an unofficial funeral procession convoyed across the Richmond River. Travelling with headlights on and at twenty kilometres an hour we were lucky that the Pacific Highway police patrols were all on lunch or dealing with more pressing matters in the hinterland. A speeding ticket for obstructing the flow of interstate traffic and trade would have been most untimely.
The southern bank was accessible via a narrow dirt switch-back to the left of the bridge. It was well worn and led back under the hugh steel framing. There it opened out into an area clearly used by locals to park and fish or park and snooze. It was pleasantly cool.
A young fella was casting his line fifty metres downstream. He was standing at the end of a small timber jetty, five metres long and low to the water. It was perfect for our purposes. I wondered how he’d feel if eight of us were to saunter up beside him and begin emptying a box of old man’s ashes into the river. We could try and pass it off as “burley” but the cremation had successfully eliminated anything nutritional.
We looked around for another approach to the bank. It had been raining and the pooled muddy water made us play a game of hop-scotch as we searched for a point of access.
My brother and I took the lead and quietly reconnoitered the area while the remaining six hung back in a silent cluster. We balanced on roots and mounds of sodden bank and spied a spot sheltered by an overhanging willow where the water was clear and slow moving. You could see the sandy riverbed.
“We’ll do it here” I called back over my shoulder.
The silent cluster moved forward hesitantly, carefully negotiating the puddles. An awkward silence fell over the group. Nobody quite knew what came next.
A speech? Some ceremony? A story? None of us had done this before – at least not successfully. At least at the funeral service there had been a sense of order. Some routine to follow set by thousands of feet and families before us. A welcome; A eulogy; A song, maybe a prayer; A few tributes and stories and then the curtain; And a wake. We’d done that part well. But here? No curtains. No funeral directors. Only us and the feet of the local fishermen before us. We hesitated.
The moment seemed suspended in time. Eight people, plus dad in his box, waiting for inspiration.
“Have you got something prepared?” queried my niece who was four months gone with her first child. She was very close to her poppa and as idealistic as her grandfather was atheistic. She was in the grip of morning sickness and the challenge of navigating her spiritual path through the miracle that pregnancy had offered her. Her quest for meaning and for the world to be a more compassionate place ached for this moment to be special.
Each of us had a special relationship with this old man in the box. He had been the most spiritual of atheists imaginable. He would not have know Zen Buddhism from a full strength beer but he embodied a Zen quality. Infuriatingly at times.
His lack of attachment to material things went as far as refusing to let us decorate his nursing home room (more of a stall – a box not much larger than his current ashy abode). Eventually he relented and allowed two photos to grace his walls – one of each of his son’s families. Strangely, no photo of his beloved wife of fifty years adorned those walls. Perhaps detachment was also emotional protection. He refused to dwell on the past and saw no value in exploring or dredging up old emotional ties. Only his sister could trigger in him the old stories, including the old hurts. They were like twin minds.
“I don’t want to give you advice luv, but I reckon you should just let him go. In the river. He’s not expecting anything special”
The twin brain had spoken and settled it.