I can taste the ocean on your skin,
Because that is where it all began.
We all go back to where we belong,
We all go back to where we belong.
—REM, We All Go Back to Where We Belong
As I began to formulate this plan to sail to the Virgin Islands, another idea came to me. It’s a thought that I only shared with one person on this earth until now, my daughter Emma—and I shared it with her after the fact, after the deed was done and could never be undone. When I told her about what I had done, I cried. The best I could do was get out two or three words at a time and then sob. Even as I write this and see it in black and white, and contemplate sharing it with all of you, my throat catches and my eyes well.
Colleen used to love to wear these kitschy tee shirts with ocean and beach motifs and sayings. One read, “Seas the Day”. Another, “Save the Sea for Me”. A holiday shirt with pink flamingos wearing Santa hats exclaimed, “Seas & Greetings”. In putting together this post, I had to look-up the actual definition of “kitsch” because I wanted to make sure the impact of the word matched my intent. The definition I found is, “art, objects, or design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality, but sometimes appreciated in an ironic or knowing way.” Based on that definition, the word is befitting because others certainly appreciated the shirts in a knowing way. She must have had eight or ten of them and she loved them because she loved the beach and the ocean. I hope some residents of Wayside House are enjoying them now.
It gets me thinking to a Florida winter vacation we took in the early 2000s. We were staying in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, just south of Pompano Beach. It was our last night of vacation and the next morning, she was flying back to Pittsburgh with our two kids and I was off to a client in Chicago. The kids were just old enough that we could leave them alone for an hour or two while we went for a walk and got a drink. It had been a wonderful vacation and, at the bar over a cocktail, she said how much she loved it in Florida. Not only the gestalt of Florida but the climate made her arthritis and stiffness feel so much better.
In the 90s she struggled with rheumatoid arthritis and lupis. During one dry Pittsburgh winter, she took to wearing bandages on her forearms so that her weeping wounds wouldn’t soak the sheets as she slept. Her symptoms followed the etymology of the word “Lupis”. Years ago, it was thought that those suffering with lupis had their limbs gnawed upon at night by wolves—thus lupis from the Latin for wolf. Although she was outwardly symptom-free by the early-2000s, she still had a lot of inward joint pain and stiffness.
I replied that I liked Florida as well and, given that I traveled for a living, could live anywhere close to a major airport and Ft. Lauderdale checked off that box.
The next morning, on my flight to Chicago I was reading some work emails and saw that my company had posted a position in India. In reading the position-description, I was an exact fit. I forwarded the email to Colleen with a note to the effect of, “Why don’t we do this for a year or so and use it as a lever to get us to Florida?” Surprisingly but unsurprisingly, Colleen was all-in. She was never halfway about anything.
In retrospect maybe moving to Florida wasn’t the best idea. Some lay blame on the “Florida vibe” as a significant contributor to Colleen’s struggles with addiction. While I ascribe to the notion that there are no strictly-geographic causes or cures, I also recognize that Florida isn’t the easiest place to maintain a clean and sober lifestyle. To this day, it pains me when I walk in our local grocery store in Pompano Beach and the first thing I’m confronted with is the week’s wine special. All-in-all, we will never know, what’s done is done and besides, it’s not the point of this story.
The point of this story is about an idea I had that I hadn’t told anyone about. As you probably know, I’m a pretty open person but this idea seemed better off as my own secret. It’s about Colleen’s body—and a beautiful body it was. It matched her mind, intellect and spirit. To see her dancing was a thing of pure beauty that I will never fully remember but never forget.
Over the years, she and I had talked a bit about death and our wishes. We both agreed that we would like our bodies to be cremated. In late-August last year, I signed the paperwork for her body to be transported from the Broward County Medical Examiner to a funeral home for cremation. Shortly before her cremation, Colleen’s parents, Dianne and Terry, her brother Tim, our son Jack, and our great friend Mike spent an hour with her body. The thing I remember most, and the only thing I remember clearly, is stroking her forehead and hair and feeling the slight but unique indentations of her temples. A few minutes later, I was hugging Jack and felt those same features in his skull.
Shortly thereafter her body was reduced to ashes.
While we had funeral gatherings in Florida and Pittsburgh (thanks to all who could attend), her Catholic Funeral Mass was in Orchard Park, New York in the church where she grew-up. Per Catholic tradition, a cremated body should be entirely present for the Mass (not divided), but after it can be divided. The Mass, immediately followed by a remembrance gathering, was on a Saturday and for those of you who couldn’t be there, was beautiful.
The next morning I came to Terry and Dianne’s house to take some of the ashes with me; it’s a house where I have so many memories of early-dating with Colleen and holidays made special by childrens’ excitement.
Not to be macabre but in dividing the ashes, I found myself fascinated by them, by their look and feel. I tasted them as well looking for one last physical connection to her. I took a some ashes for me, and some for Emma and Jack. The remainder of her ashes are interred in a beautiful McMahon/Prorok family plot in Orchard Park with her four grandparents and uncle.
For the past 6 months, I kept her ashes in our bedroom in a small, carved sandalwood box that we got when we were in India (my dear friend Raj who follows this blog from Chennai will know exactly what I mean). In our bedroom, I had set-up a small temple to Colleen with pictures, some jewelry, chips from her successes with sobriety and other remembrances. The sandalwood box was in the center of it all.
Through the fall of last year, I would find myself fast-forwarding to the future and if I’m ever lucky enough to live to be an old man. The thought of still having “Colleen”, or my last, true physical manifestation of Colleen confined to my mantle or my desk…it just didn’t seem right, didn’t seem befitting of who she was and how large she lived.
So without telling anyone else, I took Colleen on the voyage with me.
I am a big REM fan and I thought I had heard most every REM song there was. Prior to my trip, I downloaded a bunch of music so I could listen when off the grid. One collection I downloaded was entitled “REM Acoustics”. In listening to the collection for the first time while several hundred miles from anyone else, I came upon the song “We All Go Back to Where We Belong” (it has been added to the hjsailing playlist). Hearing the line “I can taste the ocean on your skin,” immediately brought me to tears and took me back to so many memories with Colleen. It was amazing to have never heard this song before and then hear it all alone on the ocean with only Colleen’s ashes near me.
At sunset on February 21st, the six-month anniversary of Colleen’s death, I released Colleen’s ashes in the ocean. Before I did, and similar to what I felt I needed to do in Buffalo, I felt them between my fingers. I tasted them (in case you are wondering, they taste like ashes). Coincidentally, or perhaps not coincidentally, the timing of her six-month anniversary within my journey was perfect. I was through the most of it. Success (in this case defined by reaching the Virgin Islands) was all but assured, I just had to grind out a couple more days and a couple hundred more miles. Hazel and I were in the dénouement.
It was a beautiful sunset, one that I will keep with me always.
I think it’s such a powerful analog that Colleen’s ashes are not in one place. Some are resting peacefully in the quiet town of Orchard Park, others are being tossed and churned in the sea, I don’t know what Emma and Jack have chosen to do with theirs.
Very good family friends of ours were able to attend Colleen’s Florida service and helped organize her Pittsburgh service. After the Pittsburgh service one of the sons in this family commented to his mother, who was one of Colleen’s best friends, that the two services were like funerals for two different people. I’m sure if he had attended her Mass and after-party in Buffalo, he would have upped that to funerals for three or four different people. Her life had that many facets to it.
When I heard the lyrics and saw that the title of the song was “We All Go Back to Where We Belong”, I thought of Colleen and her, or at least part of her, belonging in the ocean (I can taste the ocean on your skin). Later, during the process of formulating this post in my mind and working through a couple drafts, it occurred to me that there is a message in there for me as well. Perhaps I am getting to a place where I belong.
Thanks so much for reading, and thanks so much for your support and kind comments. In this collective journey of grief and hope that we are on together, I can’t tell you how therapeutic it is to share my experiences and feelings with my friends. I only hope that your reading and commenting is as helpful to you as developing the stories and writing is to me.