It’s time. Time to take a wet paper towel to the top of my bookcase. The bookcase that has been sitting here, undusted, for seven months. I’ve avoided this chore simply because I find it annoying. Having to move all the picture frames, all the favorite books on display, all the knickknacks from inside jokes and miniature mementos just to wipe off a surface that will inevitably get dusty again. Pointless.
Today the bookshelf dust has grabbed my attention. I was looking for my copy of Bluets because it’s just been one of those days—where chaos keeps on coming, making impacts and rippling out, echoing along with everything else that has gone wrong. Since this is not the first time a single day has felt like one big production of disarray, I know what to do to reset my nerves: ingest 240 doses of Maggie Nelson’s poetic exploration of her blue collection. During this search, my eyes eventually drifted up to the top of the bookcase and I saw something that I, for some reason, had yet to notice.
My father’s ashes are collecting dust.
There’s more to dust than its unpleasant aesthetic. There’s some symbolism and metaphors its existence has accumulated. Dust also functions as a measuring mechanism. Its height and density speak to how long something has gone untouched. Understanding the symbolism of dust is easy, but accepting what it actually is, what all it is made from, isn’t.
Particles in the atmosphere are unavoidable. They’re fact. Pollution, soil. The results of an active volcano. The dust that resides in human environments has a variety of ingredients, too. In the home, in the office, in all of those small spaces we’ve constructed to live and breathe in, the air contains a cocktail of fibers, hair, and minerals from the outside world. Meteorite bits, even. Plus this: dead skin cells we shed by the thousands—daily.
Because microscopically speaking, 40,000 deaths happen to each one of us, each day. Layers of us leave, jump ship, fall off, fall down. Which is to say that the particles all around us, the accumulated atmospheric specks that gather and coat our lives, consist of what our bodies leave behind.
When my father died, I surprised myself by keeping parts of the life he left behind. I never thought I’d want a dead man’s possessions—especially not from the man whom I saw as the catalyst for every problem in my life. A few weeks after he died, though, I got an inexplicable urge to keep reminders of him—objects that created the story of his life. Sweatshirts. Wallet. Belt buckle. Pen. Even AA coins from his erratic attempts at sobriety, too. I didn’t understand why I wanted mementos, wanted to keep him near me, in my life.
Throughout the nine years after his death, I hauled his favorite sweatshirt and childhood baseball glove around the country with me each time I moved, but I never realized what the impetus was to keep some of his shit. A thought slowly formed and revealed itself through each of those years, and it’s what kept me from tossing his objects away. Each memento was part of a story, stories that together created a fuller understanding of my father. Objects as trailheads to some of his tales as told by my family. Like the marble paperweight on my desk. A decade after Dad’s death, his own father died from liver cancer. I lived in the same city as our grandfather, but Kate was states away. She and her partner flew in for the funeral and stayed for five days. That first night, while we were all just hanging out and catching up on life, Kate looked at my desk, saw the small slab of polished marble. Regardless that ten years had passed since our own father’s death, Kate recognized that squat polished rock, recalled some memories, some impressions of Dad that never existed in my experience of him.
Though the paperweight held little meaning for me, other than the fact that it was his, for my sister it was a memory from the time during that summer when she was sixteen and worked for him. This was when he was sober—those years before the cluster headaches and the depression hit him—and so my sister’s stories are about what our father was really like: fun, engaging, playful. Loving. Like what an actual dad can act like. This wasn’t the father I had, wasn’t the man that I knew—the one who hermitted himself into his room, crawling into a bottle, furling into a drunken stupor after he was fired.
She told me about his humor and kindness. His appreciation of well-made pens—like the one of his that I have—because he respected his secretary’s need for his hand-written directives to be legible. My sister spoke of how he loved us more than he showed. That he, like everyone, was just trying to find a way of life that made him happy. With each recounted story, I stopped considering the objects I saved (read: “my dead father’s shit”) as heavy luggage I hauled from one apartment to the next for reasons I didn’t know. Instead, and for the first time, I saw him as a human. Saw his humanness. Saw my father as someone I wanted in my life. Too bad he was dead, but at least I had those two tablespoons of him.
Now, his ashes sit in a wooden box on the top of my bookcase, covered in dust.
Despite my aversion to dusting, when I see the layers of fibers and dead skin cells, I wet a paper towel. It’s the symbolism that prompts me. Its meaning of the passage of time, things gone untouched, and the fact that I was surprised by the dust.
I feel a little guilty about all of this—as if I forgot about Dad.
Which I did.
I forgot about Dad.
The concept of dust collecting on ashes intrigues me. Dead human skin cells accumulating on dead human body ashes. Fascinating. Mirroring my reaction to dust, I become curious about the story of what’s inside that little wooden box—the ashes, their abstraction. What parts of my dad—his body—I now keep near me. This time, my intrigue isn’t rooted symbolism or metaphor. This isn’t about religious beliefs or spirituality. It’s not about the cost of burial, or where we can go and what we can do to remember our dead.
My interest is about logistics.
Cremation is a type of combustion. A vaporization. Oxidation. All of this in the context of what to do with a dead body. My mother, for instance, shoved Dad’s ashes underneath the stairs in her basement. Almost a decade later, we excavated him so I could put Dad in a small wooden box in order to be closer to him.
Through cremation, the body returns to its basic chemical compounds. Gasses. Ashes. Mineral fragments. This process speaks to the only accurate thing we can do with our dead: figure out what to do with them, where to place what remains.
But first, logistics: Nine furnaces with four openings can hold up to three normal corpses. Then, 1700 degrees (Fahrenheit) is applied and a half-hour later incineration is complete, the body now back to those basic chemical compounds. Gasses. Ashes. Mineral fragments. Elements that all fell down, eventually burnt out. The body’s basics distilled, then collected. However, at this point what’s really left are just burnt bone fragments. They are then swept up and tossed into a Cremulator—essentially a high-capacity, high-speed blender. Twenty minutes later and you either get four pounds of female ashes, or six pounds of male—both with the zest of other incinerated bodies. As in, an unavoidable consequence of cremation is that the tiny residue from a previous charred individual remains in the chamber, resists being swept up. Ashes mingle.
Who, I wonder, is my father’s urn-mate?
Who, I wonder, is the “I” that coats him?
Which is to wonder which “me”—the despiteful daughter or the understanding one—exists in the dust that his ashes have started to collect.
Also: Amass. Assemble. Compile.
These are the things I have done, am doing. Voluntarily or not, my cells vault and land on the nearest surface. The dead cells aren’t entities I can control. Sure, there’s lotion and soap and water and clothes and a number of things that I can use to cover my skin, to keep my epidermis—all of it—with me. Ultimately, though, I don’t have a say on the biological ways of my body. Nor the roles that chemistry plays. The performance of genetics. Anatomy has a mind of its own—even breathing is an involuntary process. Blood pumps automatically. Nerves have conversations and never care to enquire about our input. Dead skin cells flake off, flock together, stockpile themselves on my bookshelves, regardless of my desires. Nothing can stop their deaths. Not me. Not even themselves.
Apoptosis is when cells condense, shrivel, fissure, die. Because when cells aren’t killed by outside sources—blunt trauma, sharp objects, hot surfaces, and all the possible side effects of having a vulnerable, permeable membrane assigned the task to keep each cell safe from what surrounds it—they die by suicide. Cells are born with the instructions and skillset to create biochemical events that will change them. Morph them.
Billions of cellular self-destruct buttons pushed daily through two different avenues. Intrinsically: a cell senses stress, then begins to remove itself. Extrinsically: a cell sees how a situation is going to play out, then signals a cell to begin to fissure away.
Biologists call apoptosis a highly regulated and controlled process. That it can’t be stopped once it has begun. That some parts of a cellular body will engulf the harmful contents inside itself before they can spill out and cause damage to surrounding cells.
Analogies abound. Intrinsic avenues are used. I’ve always wondered about what made my father take those final sips, if something in him had been growing since his birth to one day activate his eventual self-made end. Maybe he saw that he was the problem, that he was what was causing his nuclear family stress, and so he took the intrinsic avenue to death.
Or maybe all of this is extrinsic: Yes, genetics, but maybe there was an outside force that signaled him towards suicide. The cluster headaches, the youngest daughter who did nothing to ease his pain. I question what part I played in his death, if I became what activated his internal pre-programed executioner. His life ended when his body could no longer keep him alive, and I can’t help but wonder what part my anger towards him might have activated the self-destruction parts of him.
Either way, this is all to say that on the most basic biological level, each cell of our being knows what to do in order to do away with itself—every microscopic part of our living bodies is pre-programmed to self-destruct.
What this means:
Each cell’s story concludes with a suicide.
How many stories had my father collected?
I think of his ashes. I think of what’s on the small wooden box.
How many of my own stories have collected on top of him?
And which ones?
My dead cells contain their own stories. I’ve already shed the skin I had when I last talked to my father. We argued about ice cream as I found yet another excuse to yell at him for not caring to know more about me. A week later, when I kissed the forehead of his dead body goodbye, new cells were already growing. Always. Then that skin died, flaked off, and with each regenerated layer of flesh, I continue to grow through my different considerations of him. The layers of me that despised him are gone now, most likely, and what’s left are the memories of learning how to let go. Cells shed, and there’s an emotional release as well.
Like when I threw my bookcase away. Prior to owning the bookcase that’s currently collecting dust, I had one that my father built me before he died. It was a solid one—a bookcase I loved regardless of sentimentality. He built it during the last months of his life, during that one week when he tried to be sober. Replacing alcohol consumption with furniture building, Dad made that bookcase from the materials he bought at the Home Depot down the street. Wood, nails, a hammer, a level, paintbrushes and veneer. He built the bookcase, gave it to me with pride, and I was actually appreciative. Shortly after, though, he returned to drinking, then we fought about ice cream, then he died, and then I kissed his dead forehead goodbye.
There are some of those stories that I shed, like I would eventually let go of the bookcase he built me. Seven years after his death, I had to move across the country and couldn’t afford to haul my stuff with me. I knew I’d have to throw away the bookcase, but I didn’t feel like I could. As if releasing the bookcase from my possession meant I’d lose him again. But, as my best friend pointed out: “You won’t lose him if you throw the bookcase away. He’s already gone. You’ll always remember him regardless if you have the bookcase or not.” So I gave the bookcase to a neighbor, let go of that tangible memory, and moved across the country.
This is the stuff that makes dust: dead human skin cells shed, fallen. Billions of them. Piling. A dusty layer of dead human bits. Collecting.
The dust of dead cells that fall off. Like a leaf from a branch, like a father from a family tree. We are pre-programmed to shift into death. To leap, leave.
Because there’s the fact of proliferation. The effects of those that should die, but don’t. Cells stack up, pile, mountain beyond the limit of our internal rate of removal. This brings our bodies into a cancerous state. And so ironically, beautifully, even, millions of microscopic deaths are what keep us alive.
I’m incapable of ignoring an analogy:
Dad had too much pain, too much sadness. Frustration. Anger. Then alcohol. From this, I became resentful. Spiteful. Cause and effect spreading like cancer. And then he died. And then our relationship got better. Because when closets get cluttered, attics get dusty, basements get stuffed with useless junk, we do some spring cleaning. Get rid of what we don’t need, what no longer feels vital.
I remember how one of my childhood chores was to weed the flower garden, to make room for beauty to blossom.
Cellular suicide helps the next generation to grow. Dad did, also.
One bookcase is thrown away. Another is about to be dusted.
Through his death, our bodies have finally grown close to one another. Our story didn’t end with his last breath.
These are the layers of meaning I sift through. Sort out to find an answer. I remove the charred bone fragments of memory and blend them into a new, lasting consistency. Because our stories will continue, making new understandings and perspectives—perhaps even analogies. I let the layers of dust settle, because they point to the fact that parts of me have fallen—which is evidence that I’m continuing to live, to create more space for things to grow—like my reactions to how my father’s ashes are collecting dust. I take the wet paper towel and start wiping away the deaths that have helped me to move on, to grow.