The ashes aren’t her.

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I took the day off work, to run two unpleasant errands. First, to the Dane County Registrar of Deeds, to pick up Stephanie’s death certificate. In the aftermath of someone’s death, you can’t do much, legally, without one of those. And then, to the funeral home to pick up Stephanie’s ashes. I had the foresight to bring a grocery bag for carrying the ashes home – a purple bag from the Co-Op, because she liked the Co-Op, and purple was her favorite color.

My first mistake was forgetting that it’s Wednesday, although actually this was last Wednesday. It’s taken me a week to put this into words. What a ghastly double feature; two of the worst errands I’ve ever run, back-to-back.

On Wednesday, the entire block is a farmers’ market on MLK Blvd, directly in front of the County Government Office, so I was unavoidably walking through and past farmers’ stands selling all sorts of fresh vegetables. Stephanie would’ve been delighted, and would’ve spent half an hour checking out all the stalls, and spent $30 on green peppers and leeks and potatoes and onions and celery. Then she would’ve made a week’s worth of delicious entrees. Walking past all the tables of vegetables, it was easy to imagine Stephanie very happy in the crowd. My eyes were watering before I even stepped inside the building.

The Registrar’s office is two blocks from where Stephanie used to work. We’d met downtown for lunch so many times, and walked to Monona Terrace. Even the crosswalk at the corner brought back a memory, though not such a pleasant one. There’s no traffic light and plenty of weekday traffic, so whenever we met for lunch Steph and I stood at that crosswalk for a long while. Once, while we were waiting, she told me, “If I was an attractive woman, drivers would stop and let us cross the street.”

“You are an attractive woman, Steph.”

“Not attractive enough to stop traffic.” And indeed, when a more conventionally beautiful woman arrived at the crosswalk, drivers would slow and stop and let her cross the street, and we could tag along. You could rant and rave about yet another injustice, or you could just cross the street. That day we just crossed the street.

Inside the Registrar’s office, everything was quick but not painless. I didn’t cry too terribly much, and they had a box of Kleenex on the counter. For $30 they produced five certified copies of her death certificate, and guess what? The listed cause of death is wrong. That’s weird but I’m not sure it matters, and everything else seems correct.

My eyes were blurry with tears, but I successfully drove to the funeral home. When I walked into their front office, they asked how they could help, and I said, “I’m here to pick up what’s left of my wife.” I didn’t need the grocery bag, though; the ashes were provided in a cardboard box, and the box was inside a nice semi-fancy paper bag.

The bag holding the box holding the ashes went onto the passenger seat of the car, and I buckled it in before driving home. When she was alive, Stephanie never had the habit of wearing a seat belt. If I reminded her, she would buckle up when we went on the freeway, but she wouldn’t wear a seat belt when we were puttering around town. Well, this time she let me win that argument.

You might be wondering – a cardboard box, no urn? I have purchased a nice urn and had it engraved, but I bought it on-line, not from the funeral home. Lots less expensive.

I’m not sure Stephanie’s ashes are going into the urn, though. I took the ashes because I didn’t want the funeral home to dispose of them in some other way, and I buckled a seat belt around the box-in-a-bag because, if I got in a wreck, I wouldn’t want Stephanie’s ashes blowing all around the crash scene. That would be disrespectful and gross. Beyond that, though, I don’t have much reverence for the ashes, or “cremains,” as they’re called.

That box of powder isn’t Stephanie, except perhaps in a literal, scientific sense. To me, what’s left of my treasured wife is the memories and the artifacts all over our apartment, but the memories are in me, and I’m arranging her possessions in a corner of the living room I’m calling “the Shrine.” So what are the ashes? Only an abstract, surreal conclusion for the woman I knew and loved – someone who was never abstract, always absolutely real, and will never be a pile of ashes. So the cremains are probably staying in that cardboard box, unless Steph’s parents would like a portion of them.

Posted 10/3/2018.

More about Stephanie.

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