On the plane, the sun has already set and it’s a dark clear night. From my window seat I gaze down at the cities that look like consortiums of stars – clusters of sparkling jewels. I’m numb, in denial. My body hums along with the plane. Everyone seated around me is in some sort of trance as we fly from Denver to Minneapolis. It’s February. I think about the outside temperature – how cold it must be at this altitude. As I watch white translucent clouds pass over the city-galaxies, my mind doesn’t allow the thought of him passing. Instead, I focus on the stars and how they meet the horizon and how the lights on the earth, from this distance, make me feel as though I’m traveling to another dimension. I remember how Dad taught me the stories of constellations, planets, and shooting stars. I remember how he brought the night sky to life.
I land in Minneapolis and call Mom to check-in. They’re at the hospital – my mother, my sisters, my father’s girlfriend, Laura – everyone. I board the second flight from Minneapolis to Duluth. As the plane moves down the taxiway, preparing for take-off, I think of how my father loved to travel. He told endless stories of road trips, camping and canoeing adventures, and hitchhiking from coast to coast. Yet, despite his wanderlust, he’d never flown on a plane. It wasn’t his style.
In the air, I close my eyes and lean back into the chair. I hear a whisper. Unafraid, I listen. It’s my father’s voice. I hear him tell me what he wants me to do with his ashes. I land in Duluth. I exit the gate and my brother-in-law greets me. He hugs me – a little too long. Then I know it before he says the words. “He’s gone. About an hour ago.”
At the hospital, I take the elevator up several stories. It’s quiet. I enter the room where Dad lies. The melody of Leonard Cohen plays in the background. His backup singers sound like angels. I look around the room. My sisters, my mother, and Laura form an arc around his bed. I look at their faces first, then cast my eyes down at the hospital bed. I don’t want to see my father’s lifeless body. But I do. I look down and see him – his chest unbreathing. His body stiff and yellow.
Laura is suddenly at my side. Her long dark hair is neatly braided and lays against her back. Her small frame hugs me. She looks at me with reassurance. Her green eyes try to council me. Her voice is smooth and calm. “He’s still here. He’s right here sitting on top of his body.”
I lose track of time. I don’t know whose tears have fallen on my shoulders, who I’ve hugged, who I’ve spoken to in whispers. Finally, one of the hospice staff asks if we’ve had time to say goodbye. Everyone nods. Two attendants approach his bed, then they wheel my father’s body out of the room. It’s near eleven at night. Mom says she’ll take me home.
On the ride home, I look out the passenger window at the familiar landscape. Pine, birch, and poplar trees cast shadows on the snow-covered ground. Suddenly, I notice flares emanating from the horizon. I wonder if I’m seeing things.
“Looks like the Northern Lights are out tonight,” Mom whispers.
Near midnight, we step out of the car and look up at the sky. Mom stands by me for a while then says, “I’m going inside sweetheart. Don’t stay out too long.”
I walk down the snowy driveway, away from the house, to get a better view. Time stops as I stand there. There is no sound except the gentle fall of snowflakes and a tonal vibration like the sound that emanates when stroking the rim of a glass. Ripples of red and blue light unfold before me…each vibrant column turns and twists, transforming itself from one hue to another. Pulsating, the sky seems larger and deeper, carrying more energy than before. Now, blue, green, and purple – violet and silver. I can’t take my eyes away from the flares of liquid color – the live painting. I want to stay up all night and watch the full story.
In the evenings that follow, I watch the nocturnal sky. Each night, there is a repeat performance. I think about how in all my years growing up at this same location, I’d never witnessed such profound displays. And yet, night after night, the dazzling aurora revisited. Days later the local newspaper runs a full section on the northern lights in Outdoors & Travel subtitled, “Shimmering night sky opens a window on heavenly magic.”
After my father’s funeral, I search for a proper container for Dad. In a little shop downtown, I find a vintage-style glass bottle shaded with his signature – purple. The night before my return flight, I carefully empty his ashes into the bottle.
At airport security, I hand a man my license and boarding pass. As I approach the next checkpoint, the x-ray scanner, I notice few people in line. The usual feel of airport unease and hurry is absent. For a moment, I forget about the purple bottle. Just before the scanner, I approach a woman. She appears to be in her mid-fifties and seems friendly, yet serious. I nonchalantly hand her my bag. With both hands she carefully inspects the contents and pulls out the purple bottle. She looks at me with fascination.
“What is this?”
Realizing the awkwardness of the moment, I form a soft smile.
“Oh, those are my Dad’s ashes.”
The words fall out of my mouth easily – perhaps too much so. The woman pauses, looks at me, then looks again at the bottle before gently placing it back into the bag.
“I’m sorry… I didn’t realize.”
Remembering my father’s words, I smile again and walk through the security gate.