Joseph Kellerman was sixteen years old when his mother died. But he didn't care. Joseph had been saving for three summers to put a down payment on a hot Camaro that the local auto repair guy had been lovingly restoring. The car meant everything to him. His family, not so much.
His mom was diagnosed with cancer in May. Her illness was brief, and as Joseph looks back upon it now, mercifully short. "After my mom died, I sort of drifted off into this land of my own. My car, the open road and enough money for gas were all I needed." What Joseph didn't realize was that he was running away from his grief.
At 17, Joseph hit the road. He quit high school, packed his stuff and tossed a flippant "bye" to his father. His father barely reacted, so consumed in his own grief that he was. His wife, Joseph's mother, had been gone for almost 9 months but his father remained stuck in a shell-shocked mode. Joseph took the keys, the few dollars he'd managed to save up, his bank card, and shut the door quietly, for the house was still a monument to his mother - nothing had been touched since she died, not even her make-up and shampoo in the bathroom, or her natty white robe that hung sadly on the solitary nail in the door.
Glancing back at the small white house that had not so long ago been filled with laughter and plans for the future, Joseph blinked back tears and convinced himself that the tears were casued by feasting his eyes upon pure beauty - his car. His escape. His plan.
He pulled away from the curb and almost resisted one last look at the house, trying to freeze the memory in his mind. His mom's begonias, the tilted board under the doorbell that announced visitors before they could press the little yellow button, the windchime that one of his parent's friends had brought back from China "for good luck."
Good luck, he thought angrily. Good luck doesn't take someone's mom away when they were just a kid. But Joseph wasn't a kid any more; he was a grown man, about to go make his new life.
A movement caught his eye, and he watched in the rearview mirror his father step hesitantly onto the porch. Joseph thought about speeding up, but something made him stop. His father was carrying something. Joseph waited.
"Son, can you do something for me? I don't know where you're going. I haven't been the best father since... well, since your mom left us. But," he paused, pushing down the tears. This was important and he didn't want to cry. "See, your mom, well, she always wanted to be buried at sea."
Joseph looked at what his father was holding and realized it was the urn that contained his mother's remains. His dad held it like an awkward father holding a newborn, unsure what to do lest it break.
He leaned into his son's car, and put it in the front seat. Tucking it inside the seat belt, Joseph watched this loving gesture. He hadn't been planning on going to the ocean, but why not? His father stood there, pale and broken. "Will you do that for her, Joseph?" His hand remained tenderly on the container.
Joseph stuck out his hand. "You have my word, Dad."
His father reluctantly removed his hand from the urn and gripped his son's hand. "You do that. You do that for her, you hear me?"
Joseph nodded because the lump in his throat made it impossible to speak.
His father pulled away first, moving back up onto the curb. He raised his hand in a goodbye salute and Joseph drove down the street, the small, broken man finally reduced to nothing but a speck.
He drove for hours, stopping only for gas. Eating candybars and chips, he refused to look at the passenger seat. "I don't know, it was weird, having that thing here. It didn't feel like my MOM, but it felt like she was there, watching me."
The windows were open all the way, and the sun was shining. Despite his grief, and barreling down the highway with his mother's remains strapped to the seat beside him, Joseph felt good. Unencumbered. Free. Free! He could go anywhere, do anything, meet anyone. He just had to fulfill his obligation to his mother as per her wishes and then there were no ties that bound him.
At a gas station he plotted his route to Florida. Joseph's mother had never been there, but had talked about a few times, so it seemed as fitting place as any.
He drove and drove, listening to whatever music crossed the stations, and only turning off the gospel stations. For a while he drove in complete silence - only the wind, the sound of the tires slapping pavement, and his silent mother keeping him company.
"I started to talk to her. I know it sounds weird, but I really felt she was there. Not IN the urn, but there with me. Taking my trip with me." Joseph talked to her about all the things he had never found time to when it mattered most. He told her about his dreams, dropping out of school, and most importantly, how much he missed her, and how angry he was at the world for taking her away.
"It was the first time I actually admitted to myself that I was mad. And then I got madder and madder."
"Despite his grief, and barreling down the highway with his mother's remains strapped to the seat beside him, Joseph felt good. Unencumbered. Free. Free!"
Joseph's grief stage had finally moved to anger. The more he thought about it, the angrier he became. He started to drive fast and recklessly, not seeming to care if he lived or died on that long highway. The urn sat there quietly, not judging him.
He was pulled over by a friendly Ohio cop who had the bad luck to ask him, "Did somebody die? Cuz' if somebody didn't die, son, you're going to be coming with me to the station. Do you know how fast you were going?"
Joseph stared straight ahead. "No, sir."
"Well, son, you were going 117 miles per hour back there. I got the radar gun to prove it. Now what in this green earth could be causing a young boy like yourself be driving like such a maniac?"
Joseph considered using the "my mother died" card to get out of trouble, but instead he said nothing. The police man cut him a break and gave him a ticket instead, admonishing him to drive safe and not kill himself on the roads.
Pulling away from the flashing lights, he looked at the urn, still sitting there silently. "Not kill myself. Man, I'm not going to kill myself. I got things to DO!" he gave the urn a thumbs up and pointed the car south.
The drive the rest of the way was uneventful, even for a boy of 17 in a fast car traveling across state lines with some dead ashes. When he got to Florida, he found a cheap hotel room and rented it for a week. Then he called his father to let him know that he'd arrived safely, and was going to fulfill his promise. His father sounded very far away on the phone. Joseph chalked it up to the distance of the phone line and said he'd call his father when he was done. He told him about the trip and how the roads were from state to state, how things looked. But he could tell his father wasn't interested and Joseph could almost hear him nodding absent-mindedly into the phone out of politeness. Joseph sighed and told his dad he'd call him when it was done.
He carried the urn into the room and gave it a small pat before turning in for the night. The next morning he found a place that could charter him a trip out far enough to dump the ashes. He booked a slot for the following morning. Joseph thought about going to the beach and checking out the girls in their bikinis, but the solemnity of the situation made it feel not right. So, he figured, why not take dear old Mom out to the beach so that she could enjoy it with him before being put to rest at sea?
He rented a bike with a basket and strapping the urn in, he made his way down the sandy path. Finding a good spot wasn't easy for the beach was crowded. He made his way with his odd beach prop and found a spot for himself sitting on a dock watching the sun bounce off the water. There were kids playing and families enjoying the weather. And lots of girls for him to watch.
He was so intently eyeballing a young group of females that he failed to notice the kids behind him throwing the frisbee had gotten dangerously close. A few minutes later, one of them leaped for the toss and landed smack dab on top of the urn, knocking it over. The silt-like gritty substance began spilling out between the planks. Joseph jumped up, scrambling to contain the spillage and cursing his head off at the boys, who cowered to the side.
Soon a small crowd had gathered around to see the skirmish. Joseph was a raving lunatic by now, screaming that this was his mother who's only wish was to be buried at sea and now they've gone and knocked her into the water! He called them every curse word in the book and some he made up in his rage.
People clucked their tongues but they didn't leave. In fact they formed a protective barrier around Joseph and the boys, watching. Finally Joseph calmed down and sat down hard next to the urn. It had a big hole in one side, so he laid it with the hole facing up so that no more remains would spill out. And he wept.
One of the little boys hesitantly crept up beside him and tapped him on the shoulder. "Mister. This is the sea. All the water is part of the sea. You said your mom wanted to be buried at sea. We can bury her here." He put his tiny fingers into the urn and scooped up some of the gravely substance. He looked at Joseph for admonishment, but Joseph just watched him, as did everyone else. The little boy went to the end of the pier, and held it up facing the sun, then gently let the dust and stones fall into the water. Plop plop. The crowd was quiet. Then a little girl came up and took a tiny scoop and walked to the end of the pier and let hers drop. Plop plop. The finer dust settled on top the water, carried back out towards the sun. Several others stepped up to take scoops and drop them into the ocean. Some stopped and said a prayer, others wished Joseph's mother good luck on her journey, others were silent in respect.
One by one they came and helped spread his mother ashes. The first little boy then handed the broken urn to Joseph, urging him to spill the rest. Joseph stood at the end of the peer, its long shadow reflecting against the crashing water, and smiling at the sun, he tipped the urn so that the rest of his mother's remains drifted in the cooling air and floated on the water, plop plop, until they could no longer be seen. The crowd drifted away, leaving only Joseph standing on the end of the pier with his broken urn, saying goodbye to his mother.
Thank you Joseph, for sharing your Story with us.
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© 2009 by Kristen Kuhns and Story of My Life®