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.
33 thoughts on “We All Go Back to Where We Belong (from the passage)”
You have shared a beautiful sunrise picture but description is all about sunset!!! I was in tears while you described the final moments before cremation. I do remember the sandalwood box where Colleen stays permanently with you.
This reply is however to cheer you up – you are so brave to take this solo journey and share some beautiful moments. You are wonderful man. God always bless you.
Thanks so much for the note Raj. I’m pretty sure we bought that sandalwood box at the Cauvery Imports Government Store on MG Road in Bangalore. I was reading about India’s /Modi’s 21 day lockdown. Sounds like the right thing to do but can’t imagine how hard it is/will be on the poor and destitute.
What a beautiful tribute to Colleen, Dan. I will always remember her as a free spirit who was larger than life. I can’t imagine a better place to set her free. Her spirit is dancing happily across the waves 🤗
I’m so happy that this journey has been all that you wanted and needed it to be. Thank you so much for sharing it with us in a way that makes me feel like I’m there with you ♥️
Have a safe journey back and definitely avoid any exposure to this horrible virus if you can. Love you.
Thanks for the note and comments dawn. Love you too. I’ll post about this later but found out that the BVI is on lockdown in AND out so I’m going nowhere for the time being
What a beautiful and touching story. I’m so glad you were able to share this with us. I’m sure Colleen would love to know of your journey, and now maybe she does. You hit the nail on the head when you said she was never half way about anything! She always seemed to be pushing for the positive angle especially when it was for someone else.
Take care and love to hear your thoughts
Thanks so much for the note sis!
Thanks for sharing your soul…and Colleen’s. We’re all with you. Stay safe.
Thanks Kev. Must be crazy times in your profession. I’ll try to call you one of these evenings.
Thank you for allowing us to be part of the journey and for sharing these great life moments.
Thx Jorge. Hope you and immediate Family in Florida and other family in PR are holding up through all of this
Hey buddy. Gorgeous as always. I thought all the tears were gone, and reading through I found that wasn’t true. But these are welcome tears of fond memories and not of grief. “Dancing happily across the waves” is a great way of thinking of her (thanks to Dawn in above comment). Thanks for sharing with us.
Mike. Thanks so much. Yeah as dr suess says “don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened “
Very poignant and beautiful.
Thanks so much burt
Dan, Thx for the Beautiful memories of Colleen. What a Powerful line from your post for all: “Perhaps I am getting to a place where I belong.” Be well and Stay safe. Andrew
Shanks Andrew. Yes, I never thought I’d it that way until I drafted the thoughts and read them over several times
Thanks for sharing some pretty personal accounts of your life with Colleen! Many of us will listen to that REM song and think of her fondly as I often do! Music is something that she shared with me! One day when she was still a teenager, I asked her about the “new” music that she liked and she played Bruce’s NEBRASKA and immediately I liked it. Tim also had a fondness for it and I often wonder did he get it from Colleen. The tears are flowing as i say goodbye!
Thanks so much T. Music is such a wonderful healer
I have been reading your posts after meeting with Sarah and Mike in Pgh several months ago. They shared with me your travel plans and allowed me to be a part of your experiences via this site. I feel like I am invading your privacy since I only really knew you by name in HS, yet, my heart goes out to you and your precious family. Although you have had many struggles, it is amazing to clearly “see” how you cherished your wife. I can tell that she was a very special person, and you are offering great tribute to her with your sharing of stories. The greater the loss… the greater the love. It is apparent that your choice of loving and honest words was a profound love story. Perhaps cut short, but, you have shared so many good memories between each other that so many people will never have or hope to get close to. Wishing you more insight into getting to that place that you belong, My prayers have been with you for the peace that I believe you will eventually get to. Stay safe in your travels. And love your pics! If you are uncomfortable with me being on this site, please tell me and I will totally understand. God’s blessings to you! Kathy Lesica
Kathy: thanks for the ever-so-thoughtful and kind note. No uncomfort whatsoever, I’m the one putting it on the internet for anyone to see. I find it therapeutic at this stage and spot in my life to be very open about all that happened and all I, and we, are going through. I appreciate you reading and following. Take care
Stay safe out there, Dan! Thanks for your response! And I will continue to live vicariously though your great photography during this time of shutdown.
Will do Kathy. You stay safe in the mainland US as well…crazy,crazy times. Feel free to share site with anyone who would benefit.
Dan, I may take you on on that, as I do have a friend who I believe would appreciate your thoughts and life experiences. Safe travels!
I know that you have not returned to your home, or even your home port (there is a difference), but after reading your latest post and your “idea” while planning your journey, a quote from one of my favorite stories came to mind. But first, of all the many, very many people you have met during your life, which, as of yet, is not complete, you met a young and beautiful woman who captured your attention, your thoughts and your heart line no one else. How strange, one person amongst the thousands, if not more, somehow got you to stop and think of no one else, of nothing else but her… her and only her. How incredibly strange and wonderful life is, even in tragedy, it is strange and wonderful.
There have been over 20,000 sunsets since you were born and there is one that stands out because of that strange and wonderful weirdness you were lucky enough to know. Alright, enough of my ramblings and dude, please stop tasting her ashes. I don’t know which is weirder, you tasting her ashes or that you knew what ashes tasted like be for her. This journey may be coming to a close, but it is just one of many over your life…
“In the canoe, the Indian smiled. Once he paused in a stroke, and rested his blade. For that instant he looked like his own paddle. There was a song in his heart. It crept to his lips, but only the water and the wind could hear.
“You, Little Traveler! You man the journey, the long journey. You now know the things I have yet to know. You, Little Traveler! You were given a name, a true name in my father’s lodge. Good Medicine, Little Traveler! You are truly a Paddle Person, a Paddle-to the-sea!”
Holling Clancy Holling – Paddle-to-the-Sea
Chip: thanks so much for the note. I wasn’t familiar with Holling c holling or paddle-to-the-sea. I just read about it a bit and sounds great. I’ll have to read the whole thing. Take care and hope to see you soon. Yes there is a difference between home and home port…as in I might be quarantined at my home port before I get home!
Dan, what a wonderful heartfelt tribute to Colleen. I can’t imagine the emotions you must have felt while rolling on the sea, all alone, thinking about what you were about to do. But it is so right, and you have captured that precious moment perfectly in your description. This trip has been so good for you in so many ways … but it has been good for all of us readers, too. Your powerful thoughts inspire deeper thinking in all of us, even if we’re not afloat, alone, away. This is a life-reflecting and life-changing voyage for you…Now I’m going to re-read your wonderful words and absorb them just a little bit more! A precious piece of writing.
Thanks so much Tom. Means a lot , especially coming from you. It took a lot so just published some lighter fare!
Hi Dan, I would like to take you up on your offer, as a friend of mine, I believe, would benefit from your thoughts and life experience! Safe continued travels….
Such beautiful words that bring Colleen to life for me. I so often go to call her or text her and then I remember. I’ve been reading and lurking on your blog and love it. Stay safe❤️U brooke
Thanks Brooke! There are no “lurkers” on the site though. Any and all are welcome. Not quite sure why, I find it very therapeutic to share some of the deepest things with the world. Thanks for reading and love you. You were such a great friend to her.