Sunday, July 11, 2010

Face to face with "ashes to ashes"

Today a group of friends and I spread the cremated remains of Steve Rotty and Carol Nichols at Cahoon Hollow Beach in Wellfleet. Judy, Steve’s wife, flew out this past week from Long Beach to participate in this ritual for Carol, and she brought Steve’s remains with her. (She spread some of Steve remains at his parent’s gravesites earlier this week.)

Judy and Carol were lifelong friends from Braintree. Steve was also from Braintree and grew up a few streets from the Nichols family. All three of them were lifelong friends.  Judy was joined by eight more of Carol’s closest friends. Ann and Cathy were lifelong friends of both Carol and Steve. I never knew this group got together in the Wellfleet/Provincetown area each year, every year, since high school. (Steve and Judy moved to Long Beach shortly after they were marries, so Judy missed these group gatherings until this past week.) I’ve been renting in this area, either for weekends or for weeks on and off for the past 20 years. I’ve been going to this beach ever since Steve introduced it to me. (There’s a small container of Cahoon Hollow Beach Sand on my desk at home. When Steve was sick, I sent him a container.)

Both Carol and Steve developed cancer and left us all way too soon. I met Steve Freshman Year at Northeastern over a card game. I met Carol shortly afterwards at one of the MANY parties Steve threw at his parents’ house in Braintree. Carol was always a lot of fun – and we HAD a lot of fun at these house parties (Thanks to Steve’s Parents!) and at the beach parties Steve organized at Cahoon Hollow. I’ve been going to this beach ever since I first attended/survived one of these beach parties. (Judy has video that I will try to post in the future.)

Judy organized the beach scene today: We each had a small plastic pail of remains and a small plastic shovel. We were well away from anyone and well out of sight, too. (It was an overcast day when we arrived, and the beach was not very busy.) Everyone was asked to do what they wanted to do. When I got my pail, I took good look at what was in it. The irony of Steve and Carol together one last time wasn’t lost on me – she was a ball of energy at those parties, and having met several people who worked with Carol, she was a great colleague and friend, too. Steve and I did a lot together (including Best Men for each other), and we got to spend a solid week touring Utah, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho in 2001. Steve used to call me on my birthday – he never missed a year. I still don’t believe he isn’t calling again this year: Steve died on December 12th, 2007. Carol died on June 4th, 2009.

Some people walked off together or alone and spread their remains down the beach. I waded out into the water and spread mine on the waves. I love these waves, and Steve introduced me to them.  They are usually pretty big, and today they were epic. Almost no one at the beach was in the water today – too likely to take a beating. I wished I had worn my bathing suit instead of shorts for a moment, but I didn’t want to leave the group. I’ll be back to swim. The water was surprisingly warm today.

When we got back together on the beach, we took some photographs of the group and headed up to The Beachcomber for lunch. We had some laughs over lunch, and I think that took the sting out of the day for many of us. I have made a few tributes to Steve (including the tattoo that starts on my right shoulder) and I paid him another one today that I know he would have appreciated: I passed (legally, except for speed of course…) every car I saw today between the moment I left my driveway until I reached the Route 6 Harwich exit (where I stopped for breakfast with my family.) We used to drive kind of fast…not recklessly but with precision. (We were engineering students; need I say more?) On our 2001 road trip, Steve told me I was the only one he felt comfortable with when riding as a passenger in a car. I’m the same way – I hate being a passenger, and I knew I would get where I was going when Steve was driving his red Dodge Dart back in school or that 4WD rental out west.

I used to quote an excerpt from Jackson Browne’s For A Dancer when I had to talk about people passing: “I don't know what happens when people die. Can't seem to grasp it as hard as I try.” I know I’ve written this in condolence cards and thought it frequently when looking at death, including on the ride home today. I thought I’d revisit the entire song today:

Keep a fire burning in your eye
Pay attention to the open sky
You never know what will be coming down
I don't remember losing track of you
You were always dancing in and out of view
I must have thought you'd always be around
Always keeping things real by playing the clown
Now you're nowhere to be found

I don't know what happens when people die
Can't seem to grasp it as hard as I try
It's like a song I can hear playing right in my ear
That I can't sing
I can't help listening
And I can't help feeling stupid standing 'round
Crying as they ease you down
'Cause I know that you'd rather we were dancing
Dancing our sorrow away
(Right on dancing)
No matter what fate chooses to play
(There's nothing you can do about it anyway)

Just do the steps that you've been shown
By everyone you've ever known
Until the dance becomes your very own
No matter how close to yours
Another's steps have grown
In the end there is one dance you'll do alone

Keep a fire for the human race
Let your prayers go drifting into space
You never know what will be coming down
Perhaps a better world is drawing near
And just as easily it could all disappear
Along with whatever meaning you might have found
Don't let the uncertainty turn you around
(The world keeps turning around and around)
Go on and make a joyful sound

Into a dancer you have grown
From a seed somebody else has thrown
Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own
And somewhere between the time you arrive
And the time you go
May lie a reason you were alive
But you'll never know

Carol and Steve dancing in those waters off Cahoon Hollow Beach.  Running in and out over the sand together.  I like that.



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