A Homecoming After All
By: Ranjit Singh
We scattered my brother Steve’s ashes into Potomac Creek last month.
Steve died in March. He was sixty-eight. I got a glimpse of his death certificate, issued in Huntsville Alabama, where he’d lived for years at the end of an itinerant life. The white form listed so many maladies, each of which seemed capable of ending a human life in and of itself. The final rectangular box simply concluded: “Natural causes.” That a man his age—still years from old—could die from nature’s toll tells you much about Steve’s time on this Earth.
Two dozen family members gathered on our family’s Unicorn Farm in southern Stafford County, Virginia, to bid their sweaty good-byes, led by a Baptist minister. Some spoke in remembrance. They offered respectful and affectionate but also ambivalent eulogies; those who knew Steve struggled to make sense of his life and what he meant to us all.
A few things were clear. Steve was not a good father. His three grown sons, now fathers and even grandfathers themselves, spoke of his heartbreaking absences. They delivered their final thoughts with varying levels of emotion, perhaps in proportion to their respective ages and thus levels of exposure to—and crushing disappointment in—Steve. For the youngest, Steve the father existed largely as a painful hole in life’s heart.
People also acknowledged that the heart that failed Steve was generous if it could be corralled for a moment. A model of soft-spoken elegance, his first wife attended the ceremony—I think mostly for her sons’ sake. She and her second husband were responsible for the boys’ success in life. Breaking the cycle, each son developed into a caring and present father.
Steve had buried two other wives, both of whom suffered from multiple, long-term ailments exacerbated by poor nutrition, obesity, cigarettes, and more. I suspect they, too, died of “natural causes.” And he loyally saw them through to their painful, gasping ends.
Our family often says that Steve’s life resembled a country music song. One son eulogized him as the living expression of the lyrics of Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and the other singers Steve had loved since childhood. For me, that is perhaps Steve’s greatest legacy: He introduced me to the generation of chiseled, impossibly handsome singers who sang of scrapes with the law and the hard lives they lived. Music that is as much philosophy as an art form. “I Walk the Line.” “Mama Tried.” Songs sung by men in black, songs of temptation, uncontrollable impulses, and a genuine yet doomed yearning to do the right thing. As I grew older, I came to love this deceptively simple music. Not until grad school did I read of theodicy: the philosophical attempt to reconcile the evil of the world with an all-good and all-powerful God. Theodicy challenges the idea of God itself. Steve never knew this learned word. But he knew the interior struggle. And, according to those closest to him, he found God in his final years.
That is no banality, finding God as life ebbs. It is an accomplishment. Steve—whose first name was Pearl—joined our family as a foster child. He was born into hard poverty in West Virginia. His alcoholic father disappeared, his mother burned to death before his eyes in a cooking accident with an outdoor stove. The state took him away, and my idealistic parents took in this 12-year-old boy along with other foster children—each, in effect, a living experiment. One child, a girl, was simply too destructive and had to go, in my mother’s telling. Steve was the one who stuck. With different hair and skin and eye colors, we never looked like brothers. But Steve always introduced us as such and left it to strangers to puzzle it out for themselves. We were family.
Steve visited the farm most years, arriving in September, until his last wife passed, and his own body couldn’t make it anymore. We didn’t talk much; he could be monosyllabic. He had more to say to my older brother, who had shared more of life with him. Steve knew he was dying. His music of choice does not encourage turning away from such evident truth. He asked to have his ashes scattered on the farm. In an orderless life, the farm was the only place he could reasonably think of as home.
In the late afternoon humidity, we gathered to trek down past the barn through overgrown fields and the bramble of late summer. Some mourners wore cowboy hats, others sandals and exposed midriffs. Together, we made a path over a stream toward the derelict pond that once watered livestock and had long since silted up to mingle with a swampy corner of the Creek. Grazing goats observed our slow progress through the sharp cattails and thorns.
Steve’s youngest son opened the urn and tilted his father’s ashes into the shallow water. What dust didn’t fall straight down hovered awkwardly in the air. Bits of Steve drifted back towards the black, brown, and white family that often missed him in life, and now inhaled him in death. It was okay to make jokes.
Ranjit Singh teaches at the University of Mary Washington and is writing a book about life on Potomac Creek. This essay first appeared on his blog https://on-the-creek.blogspot.com/. Follow him at @3lions99.