John David Riess, 1939-2010

Tomorrow, I am burying my father’s ashes in a little cemetery in southern Illinois, where he can be laid to rest near his parents. It’s an odd kind of closure.

Some of you know that my father crashed back into my life rather suddenly last October after a 26-year radio silence. He had abandoned our family when I was fourteen, having taken all our savings and driven off into the proverbial sunset. It took us years to recover from the ricocheting losses, both emotional and financial. And for me, there was always this strange feeling of disconnected connection, knowing my father was out there somewhere, wondering if he ever thought about us. Each Father’s Day, I would imagine what he was doing and try to picture what his new life was like.

This year, Father’s Day was a little different. I knew exactly where the old SOB was and what he was doing: he was in ashes on a shelf in my office, awaiting his final resting place. It was the most patient I’d ever known the man to be.

This morning I took out an old Hawaiian shirt of my dad’s, one of the few things I had kept of his after he left us. In fact, when I got the call last October that he was dying, I had grabbed that same shirt from my dresser because I had a sudden impression that he might like to see and hold it, a reminder of happier times. I once saw a picture of my parents on vacation with friends early in their marriage, smiling and squinting at the camera. My father was wearing that shirt.

But when I arrived at the hospital, he didn’t recognize me, didn’t regain consciousness. He never saw the shirt, which in my mind had grown to symbolize something important, its vivid red color and loud white flowers a sharp reminder of how bright the future had once seemed for my dad. The fact that he never saw the shirt while he was dying seemed a confirmation that something vital had been lost a long time ago, that the connection between Dad and the rest of our family had indeed been severed.

I dug around for the shirt this morning because I am going to bury him in it, in a manner of speaking. I have wrapped the shirt around the grim and colorless metal box that holds his ashes, visually claiming a relationship that he chose to sever with his past. I want Dad to go into the eternities with a little piece of his family, of his life with us. I enjoy picturing his afterlife as something like that vacation photograph from forty years ago. Somewhere, he is wearing that flamboyant, ludicrous shirt; there are hibiscus flowers; there is laughter and friendship.

Despite everything, that is what I wish for my dad.

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