“Alright, Dad. Let’s do this,” I muttered under my breath as I gingerly placed the heavy cardboard box in my carry-on bag.
I quickly checked underneath my childhood bed for anything I may have left behind, and then completed my standard mental checklist before departing for the airport.
Eyeglasses and wallet, check.
Cell phone and computer, check.
My father’s cremains, check.
Seven days passed since I received the phone call on New Year’s Day. “Dad died,” my brother’s said in a cracked voice. It was not a surprise, but hearing the words sent a shock through my body.
“Leave it to Dad to delay dying until the first of the year just to get that last tax break,” I responded, deflecting the pain I felt in my heart. My father spent the last three weeks in Hospice care, and finally succumbed to the grapefruit-sized tumor that infiltrated his nicotine-filled lungs.
The next week was a whirlwind of funeral arrangements, paperwork, and purging. My mother believed the best way to get through a difficult time was to stay busy, so she attacked the clutter accumulated after three years of tending to my cancer-stricken dad with the same determination she used caring for him. The days passed quickly planning for funeral services and visitors, returning hospital equipment, clearing out closets and wrapping up his estate.
In between, we reminisced and divvied up special items my dad held dear to his heart. My sister took the vintage records, my brother staked claim to the monster movie collection, and I scored the broken pinball machine. We met with the probate attorney and sold his car, a gigantic 1984 Grand Marquis that my mom couldn’t back out of the driveway. We accomplished so much each day that there was never a second alone, so there was never a moment to shed a tear.
My last task was to bring my father back to Connecticut to spread his ashes near the property of our childhood home. According to him, it was the place where he had the happiest memories. Although we had not lived there for 15 years, I promised my dad that I would make it happen, despite fearing the new owners would call the police thinking I was spreading Anthrax.
Before zipping my carry on, I placed a copy of my dad’s death certificate alongside the Taylor & Sons Funeral Home box. “Just show them this letter before you pass through security,” the funeral director solemnly told me. “You’ll need to run it through the X-ray and they may do special testing on it for security purposes. They’ll know what to do.”
“Well, we are in Florida. I imagine this happens all the time,” I joked as I thought again about the irony. A man who smoked for fifty years literally reduced to ashes.
I drove alone to the airport and for the first time felt the soggy weight of my heart as I tried to distract myself by creating a to-do list for the week’s work I missed. Stepping into the long security line, I struggled controlling the anxiety that suddenly crept into my body, causing my hands to tremble. “Deep breaths,” I chanted to myself as I watched the slew of elderly grandparents patiently wait for loved ones to walk through the Arrivals gate.
My heart beat in my ears as I stepped up to the conveyor belt. I kicked off my leather sandals and placed them in the gray bin. I lifted my laptop out, and then my quart sized Ziploc filled with trial-sized toothpaste, makeup, and eye drops.
The only thing remaining was the carton holding my dad. A man larger than life reduced to six pounds of dust.
I felt the panic rising in my chest as I stared into the depth of my luggage. A flood of memories rushed my brain, as I tried to wrap my head around a world without my father in it. There would be no more letters in the mail with a $10 bill and a newspaper clipping of a salmon recipe. No more phone calls filled with off-color jokes or political debates. No more advice about insurance premiums, fights with my husband or job decisions.
I jumped when a businessman placed his hand on my shoulder to let me know it was my turn.
As my denial went into over-drive, I deliberately closed my bag, placed it on the moving black belt and walked through the metal detector without a beep. As I hastily grabbed my items from the tray, I could see the security screener out of the corner of my eye staring at what must be my father in the X-ray machine.
The sweat was beading on my forehead when a large man in a royal blue shirt approached me. I envisioned him interrogating me about the dangerous materials in my Vera Bradley luggage, placing my name on the FBI’s “Watch List” of criminals no longer allowed to travel by plane. I briefly considered running out of the airport, anything to get away from discussing what was in that box.
“Miss, can you step over here please,” he said with his arm stretched out to the right. My face turned hot as I gathered up my things and followed him barefoot to behind the screening area. He leaned in and whispered, “Are these cremains in the box?”
I hung my head down and for the first time since hearing those dreaded words, I wept. Somehow I landed on a hard plastic chair, and a wad of kleenex magically appeared in my hand as the tears stained my face. “Yes,” I told him in between heavy heaves. “Yes, my dad. My dad is gone.”
“I am going to take it right over there and test for any flammable materials per TSA regulations. You may watch from here as you catch your breath,” he said, ending with a close-lipped smile. It clearly was not his first time seeing someone ugly cry in the middle of the airport.
A few moments later, I tried to sniffle back the emotion that comes with losing a parent. As he handed my dad back to me, I met his eyes and said, “I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me. I just couldn’t get the words out.”
“It will get easier,” he said as he touched a gloved hand to my arm.
I knew he wasn’t talking about getting through airport security.