“When I die, I want to be cremated and have my ashes scattered over the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. I spent many hours flying fire patrol over those trees.” Although he was in perfect health, my father’s words proved to be prescient: He would die the following year.
* * *
We meet with our friends Paul and Teresa on the tarmac of the Pinetop, Arizona airport. A crystalline September sky greets us with a hint of fall and the scent of evergreens on the breeze. The four of us hold hands and say a quiet prayer for safe travels and God’s blessing. Then Paul takes my arm and guides me toward the single-engine Bonanza waiting for us. Teresa and my husband Larry retire to the coffee shop. They will remain safely on ground while Paul and I embark on this journey.
Paul steps first onto the plane’s wing, then turns and offers his hand to help me into the cockpit. Holding the black plastic box of my father’s ashes close to my chest, I climb into the plane. As I nestle into the passenger’s seat, I’m struck by the familiar metallic scent of the many single-engine planes in my past. The memories flood back.
* * *
My father was an adventurer, a restless spirit who was never content to stay in one place. When he was almost forty, he left a failing marriage and a bankrupt business, moved from Florida to New Mexico, and found a new wife and life with my mother. It was my mother who encouraged him to become a pilot.
Eventually, my parents would own a flying service with six planes and an equal number of pilots. Our planes ferried passengers from the remote regions of the Navajo and Hopi Reservations through dust storms and blizzards to hospitals and medical clinics in Phoenix, Albuquerque, and Denver. Thanks to my father’s strict rules, the business never lost a plane or a pilot.
My parents were bound by their desire for uncertainty, for the unexpected. They thrived when facing impossible challenges. When my father said, “Let’s go,” my mother answered, “Where to?”
Alzheimer’s Disease defeated my mother first, eventually confining her to a nursing home. My father continued his escapades alone: a train trip through the Grand Canyon of Mexico, studying auctioneering in Kansas; or living on a sailboat off the coast of Texas. And when he tired of solitude, he returned to the small town where my mother resided and told her the tales of his travels. My mother could not speak, but she always smiled when he entered the room.
* * *
Accustomed to my father’s precise demands for flight safety, I’m pleased to discover Paul has the same standards. He follows the checklist carefully, reviewing each procedure twice to confirm. I balance the black box on my lap and study the instrument panel, surprised to see how little it has changed in almost 30 years. If I had to, I could still fly this plane.
We reach the end of the taxiway, check in with ground control, and charge down the runway. My breath catches at wheels up, and I wonder if I’m ready to let my father go.
* * *
After my mother’s death, my father’s enthusiasm waned. He no longer dabbled in his workshop or walked the four-mile round-trip to town. He sank first into depression, then into illness, finally disappearing into death. Less than two months separated my mother’s passing from my father’s demise.
As their only child, I was left with managing two funerals and two estates in rapid succession. When she was well, my mother had insisted she did not want to be cremated. “It’s too much like hell,” she said. But my father was equally adamant that his body be burned and his ashes scattered across the forest lands of Northern Arizona.
I buried my mother in the local cemetery, placing both of my parents’ names and dates on the headstone. Then I took my father’s ashes home with me to Phoenix.
My father’s last request was not easy to honor. He had not flown for at least a decade before he died, and I knew no one who owned a small plane. My first resource, a friend of my father’s Episcopal priest, said he had sold his plane. He referred me to the dentist who bought the plane, but the weekend before our scheduled flight, the dentist called to say he had broken his leg in a skiing accident. A few months later, I tracked down another lead. This time, weather intervened in the form of a fierce windstorm that flipped the plane upside down and broke the propeller.
Thus, my father’s ashes remained on a back shelf in our closet for almost two years, waiting for their final resting place.
* * *
A backyard barbecue with Paul and Teresa solved the problem when I mentioned my struggle to honor my father’s wish. Paul set down his plate. “Why didn’t you ask me? I have a Beechcraft. Just tell me when.”
That evening, over glasses of wine, we sketched out a rube device on a paper napkin. The single-engine Bonanza had one vent window on the pilot’s side. We would need certain tools to make this work: a funnel, a ten-foot-long tube at least one inch in diameter, and duct tape.
Later, lost in the plumbing aisle in Home Depot, I studied washer hoses and funnels. How big a funnel? What would fit snugly into a hose? Should the hose be clear or opaque? A kindly clerk offered to help me and asked, “What is this for?”
“Science project.” Some things are best left unexplained.
* * *
Paul guides the plane in slow circles over the forest, as I peer out the window, searching for the perfect place. Below, our shadow floats over a sea of green, then glides across the silent waters of a mountain lake.
“What do you think?” he asks. “Water or trees?”
“Can we do both?”
“Sure. We’ll make a pass over the trees and then loop back over the lake.” He glances at me. “Ready?”
My sweaty hands squeeze the box. This is the last time I will be with my father. I uncoil the hose, now securely duct-taped to a funnel and pass it to him. He gives me a thumbs up after he feeds the hose through the tiny opening in the vent window.
It is time to say good-bye. I pry off the lid to the black box and rip open the bag inside.
The primitive device we built works perfectly at first. I tilt the bag gently toward the funnel, watching with wonder as tiny bits of gray ash dance through the opening and down the length of the clear plastic tubing. Paul flies in lazy eights over the forest and then back over the lake. Again and again, I pour my father’s cremains into the funnel. Then I fumble.
I’m unprepared for how unwieldy a floppy bag of ash can be, and the sack suddenly flips from my hands. A massive mound of ash streams into the funnel. It takes only seconds for the disaster to become full-blown.
The funnel clogs. Ash flies up into the cabin. Frantically, I snatch particles floating in the air and drop them back into the bag, but the funnel is still blocked, sending more ash up than down. Paul shouts, “Tap the sides. Tap the sides.”
I struggle to keep the bag from sliding off my lap while I thump the sides of the funnel and the hose. The ash in the tube has begun to back up, pushing more debris out into the plane. A fine gray mist clouds the interior, and when I look at Paul, he is coated in a thick layer of grayish white, and I know I must be covered, too. Both of us are coughing. It’s impossible not breathe in ash. I shake the funnel and keep pounding its sides with my hand.
Gradually, the funnel clears, a vortex spinning wildly into the narrow opening, and the ash begins to feed cleanly into the hose. Paul turns the plane back toward the forest and says quietly, “Let’s try again.”
I am mortified. My eyes burn with shame and pain.
For the next half hour, we fly back and forth over the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. Such beauty below, but I have work to do. Slowly, ever so slowly, I dole out my father’s ashes, one handful at a time. When the bag is finally empty, Paul scoops grit from his lap and drops it into the funnel. I do the same. But I still cannot face him. “I’m sorry. So sorry.”
Paul laughs. “I liked your father a lot.” Pointing to the crust of ash on his nose and lips, he adds, “Now I’ll have him with me always.”
Tears of laughter streak down our dirty faces. My father is at peace, and he has given me a wonderful spiritual gift: He has shared with me his one last grand adventure.