My Blog

My father and I were never close. We were opposites, both physically and personality-wise. I once thought a drunken stork had left me on the wrong doorstep. I eventually realized fate really was that cruel. He was a hard-working executive who traveled the world, and was rarely home. I was a “lazy daydreamer” who played sports, read books, and valued close friendships. He was the hammer that drove the nail. I was a flat head that endured his punishment.

Our fiery relationship mellowed with the years, grandchildren, and frequent emails. The past damage was too deeply seeded. I didn’t cry while standing over his deathbed. It seemed hypocritical.

My father’s final wishes were to have his ashes spread in the Pacific waters off Maui. My wife and I vacation there, so I wasn’t surprised when this task fell on us. What surprised me was the comedy of errors that followed. It was a comedy—one that saved my relationship with my father.

Our fun started on Maui while standing patiently on the rear stairs of the Pioneer Inn adjacent to the boat slips in Lahaina Harbor. The late-afternoon sun was sinking toward the mountain peaks of the island of Lana’i. My wife was dolled up in her Sunday finest. Me, a black Hawaiian shirt, khakis, and sandals. Pop’s ashes were in an urn that resembled a plastic shoebox. I’d arranged the burial ceremony by phone, and had been told to wait on the steps for a Polynesian priest named Kalami. We’d know him by the “zero” on his hat. Kalami was late. The sun needed for our sunset burial was sinking fast. This was Maui, where everything moves slower. We didn’t panic.

“Are you the Bookers?” asked a deep voice from the base of the steps.
I peered down at the smiling face of a large Polynesian in his late-fifties. A cap, bearing an “O” for University of Oregon, topped off his long, graying hair. A baggy, short-sleeved shirt hid his girth. His voluminous shorts masked huge thighs. He was straddling an antiqued bike that seemed to predate Lahaina’s whaling days. The bike’s front basket contained an equally battered bible, a conch, and a plastic grocery bag filled with leis. This had to be Kalami, but he appeared like no priest I’d ever met. And on a bike? Really? My father was kicking in his box.

“That’d be us,” I acknowledged, trying to hide my snicker.
“Aloha, I’m Kalami.” His smile broadened. He thumbed toward his rear. “That’s Richard. He’ll video the ceremony if you’d like.”

I glanced behind Kalami to spy a Mainlander in his mid-twenties who appeared trapped in the 1960s. The hippy was clean shaven and well dressed, but his bleary red eyes suggested he was high. Richard ignored us while staring absently out at the incoming surf. His bicycle basket contained a bulky video camera that appeared recently salvaged from the pawn shop.

We haggled over video prices on the way to the boat slip. I declined the service. The rest of the family hadn’t cared enough to attend, and I’d have to be ready to blow out my own brains before watching a video of my father’s funeral.
We halted halfway down the boat pier next to an old charter fishing boat that’d seen better days during the Johnson administration. The decks were scarred, clean, but there wasn’t a soul on board. The sun continued its eternal path, uncaring. The irony of it all was just hitting me. I knew my father well. He’d probably envisioned a grand sendoff from the stern of the USS Missouri, its massive 16-inch guns blazing, a marching band playing, and the flag fluttering at half-mast. Instead, he was going to be heaved from the back of an old fishing boat like unwanted fish entails. Life, and death, aren’t always kind.

“Richard, go find the captain,” Kalami said, instructed. Richard stared back, slack faced and clueless. “Go check the bar up at the Pioneer.”

Richard scurried off. Kalami instructed us on the Hawaiian traditions and meanings behind the ceremony. He was a kind man, full of good humor and cheer. He questioned us about my father’s life and religion. He never verbally judged my dad’s lack of faith, or why a lifelong Michigander wanted his ashes tossed into the Pacific like fish food. He just smiled, and regaled us about his own adventures at the Detroit Auto Show one year during the dead of winter. A warm-blooded northerner, Kalami was not.

Richard reappeared. He was followed by a surly, pot-bellied man who appeared older than Moses, and was attired in a filthy T-shirt and shorts. As an added bonus, he coughed and spat like a late-stage tuberculosis patient. I feared we might be having two funerals at sea that evening. After another phlegmy coughing spasm, our captain motioned us all aboard. I don’t recall him speaking the entire voyage.

We secured our bench seats behind the boat cabin as the captain headed out of the harbor and into the Au’au Channel between Maui and Lana’i. The ocean was calm and pleasant, almost inviting us to bury our dead. The sea breeze was humid, invigorating. Humpback whales surfaced and blew in the distance off the starboard bow. No Hawaiian sunset had appeared so beautiful yet fleeting. Despite the magnificent setting, I knew my high-browed father would be insulted by his lowly sendoff. He’d been a powerful business tycoon that demanded the best of everything. Kalami was not the Pope. The boat and captain were downright scary. My wife and I hardly represented a cathedral crammed with weeping mourners. Again, the irony struck me as amusing. Even my wife gazed about with a barely constrained smile.

Richard had disappeared toward the bow as if sulking over having his services dismissed. Kalami sat beside me. His huge forearms rested on his bare knees as he pulled the leis from their grocery bag. He separated the strings of flowers as he explained that my wife could sprinkle the loose petals on the ocean surface as I spread the ashes. My smile broadened. Despite his thick fingers and powerful hands, Kalami was struggling to break the thin string of one of the leis. I was just wondering why he didn’t use a pocket knife to cut the line when the string snapped. Flower petals flew everywhere. The three of us scrambled about the deck to scoop up the errant petals before they blew overboard. We must have appeared like a bumbling Three Stooges routine on that rolling deck. Our success at retrieving the flowers was minimal at best. Kalami was deeply apologetic. He used his pocket knife to cut the strings on the last two leis. My mirth was growing. This was beyond anything I had imagined.

It was time to open the urn, and get to the deed. I studied the box, but had no clue. My wife, with her master’s degree in engineering, just shrugged. Kalami grabbed the box. He began to prod and poke at the urn like a frustrated gorilla searching for a delectable treat. I was beginning to wonder if he’d done this before. Kalami set the urn on the deck. I knew what was coming, but couldn’t stop it. With a powerful swing that would’ve dazed a rhino, and a surprised squeak from my wife, Kalami punched the side of the urn. The urn gave up its dead. Thankfully, the ashes were in a plastic bag. They didn’t escape to blow all over the deck in the ultimate humiliation.

“There you go,” Kalami said with the broadest smile. He handed me the surprisingly light bag of ashes and scooped the broken urn beneath his seat. He gazed around before adding, “Okay, it looks like we’re about there.” He handed my wife the bag of flower petals and grabbed his bible.
I stood and peered about as the engines shut down and we began to slow. We were about fifteen minutes out of the Lahaina Harbor with the stern still facing the sunset-drenched store fronts along Front Street. The green, cloud-capped Maui Mountains behind Lahaina never appeared so beautiful. The slow-rolling waves were peaceful and relaxing. A spectacular Maui sunset was hanging over the peaks of Lana’i as if angels were watching closely. As I stepped toward the stern, I saw something that sobered my mood. The boat traffic exiting the harbor, huge whale-watching boats and private charters alike, had all stopped. Their glistening bows were all facing us in respect for the dead. Seeing such somber reverence from so many strangers awakened the strong emotions of what I was doing. I held the last earthly remains of my father, the man who was partially responsible for bringing me into this world, in my hands. I would never see or touch him again.

I stepped over to the port side of the stern, and took the twisty off the bag. Kalami murmured some prayer in Hawaiian as I began to sprinkle the last remains of my father into the Pacific. The surrounding boats surprised me by tooting their horns in a strange farewell chorus. My wife had placed her comforting hand on my shoulder, and I was about to lose it. Then I noticed something both horrifying and yet strangely amusing. My father’s ashes weren’t being swept away by the waves. They were washing back and sticking to the side of the boat! It was as if Pop wasn’t ready to give up the fight and wanted back on board. I had no recourse now. I continued to sprinkle the ashes as Kalami switched to another prayer in English.
I finished my spreading and peered down. My father was still with us, only now he was plastered on the side of the boat. My only hope was that he’d wash off as we made our way back to the harbor. Other thoughts burst in unbidden. What would happen to Dad then? Would the fish eat his ashes, later pooping them out with the rest of their waste? Would the ashes stick in a whale’s eye, possibly infecting it and blinding the poor mammal? Or would they just dissolve in the water and cease to exist? It was a deep mystery that would have to go unsolved.

My wife and I started sprinkling flower petals after the ashes that’d remained on the surface. I heard a strangled squeak. I glanced toward Kalami. He held the conch to his pressed lips. His face was purple, and his cheeks were as bloated as a terrified puffer fish. He was trying to blow the conch, but what was coming out sounded like a condor chick being raped. He paused briefly, took a few deep breaths, and tried again. His bulging eyes appeared ready to shoot across the deck. The resulting sound reminded me of a runny St. Bernard fart. I couldn’t help it. I started laughing.
Kalami stopped and apologized.

He drew in a mighty inhalation and gave the conch another shot. Louis Armstrong would have envied the deep, natural sound that came out. Inspired, Kalami trumpeted his conch two more times accompanied by the horn blasts of the surrounding boats. I don’t know about Pop, but to me, no playing of taps ever sounded so haunting or as beautiful. It was as if, just for a moment, the whole world had stopped and listened. Then the moment was over. The other boats got back underway. Their vacationing passengers were probably chatting about the weird story they’d tell when they got home. Kalami took the ash bag from me. He threw it in the trash—some of my father’s ashes still in it.

The sun had continued its journey. Kalami remained silent on the trip back as if to respect our somber mood. Richard still hid on the bow, smoking. I figured he was toking on some Maui wowie. They say they grow the best stuff up there in those Maui Mountains in the old coffee fields. I wouldn’t know.
My wife held my hand on the trip back as if to comfort me for my loss. Strangely, I wasn’t sad. Yes, my father and I had had a turbulent past. But, in the end, he’d left me with a great gift—laughter. It was as if his spirit had arranged all those screwy mishaps during the funeral service as if to say: “Life goes on, enjoy.”
I’ll always live with the mistakes my father and I made, but they don’t matter anymore—lessons learned. We made our peace in the end. Life’s too precious not to be able to laugh at our faults. Cherish the good memories of loved ones. Dream of future happiness. Live today like there’s no tomorrow.
So, happy belated father’s day, Pop. Yeah, I know it’s a week late, ya old . . .!