Ashes, Ashes

spodomancy_on_white_paper_-_thin_ashes_01A couple of days ago, I clicked the small ornate letter T on my iPhone, as I do most mornings, and ran my finger down the appealingly slick surface, scanning the headlines in my New York Times app. Sick of the elections, racial tensions and ongoing police dramas, I kept scrolling, taking note of items but not engaging enough to actually click on anything until I saw an article titled, “Powder Tossed at Metropolitan Opera May Have Been Human Ashes.” Yep, that’s the kind of story that always gets my attention.

I won’t suggest I don’t have a certain kind of curiosity many would call morbid, though I just consider it an interest, not unlike any kind of interest anyone might have — say, in horses or sports or knitting — except in my case, it’s all things death, dying and grieving. Sometimes, it isn’t the same kind of conversation starter as other topics. Yet, sometimes it is.

I read with great interest about how a man in the audience had waited until the intermission of a Rossini performance and then apparently sprinkled something white into the orchestra pit. He was “witnessed” doing it, he was caught on video reaching into a black bag, and then — after the rest of the show was cancelled and the audience members evacuated — the powder was examined by experts. The orchestra pit was declared a crime scene! The entire debacle was called a “terrorism scare.” That’s the kind of world we live in.

As it happened, the guy was simply trying to fulfill the dying wish of a dear friend, a guy who had originally introduced him to opera. Terry, after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, had agreed to the romantic idea that his cremains be scattered among famous concert halls. When “The Sprinkler” later wrote the director of the Met an apology letter for the enormous disturbance explaining the scheme, he said, so beautifully, “I jokingly told Terry they would never be able to vacuum all of him up. He would be there forever enjoying all the beautiful music.”

I am, I know, more than likely inordinately drawn to subjects like this. I read follow-up articles in the Times and the Washington Post, the latter of which recalled that the only times the Met had ever cancelled performances partway through was for death: once for an artist who died onstage after singing an aria about death, once for an elderly man who jumped from the balcony during “Macbeth,” and once for a tenor who literally sang the phrase, “You can only live so long” (though probably in Italian) before he succumbed to a heart attack.

If this is not all some crazy kind of poetry, what is?

It all took me back to my own situation, poetic too in its way, I suppose, especially in retrospect. Eight years ago, I sat in the library of a church parish in Houston with my mother, my brother’s stepmother and a pastor I had just met. An odd grouping, to be sure, borne of a terrible situation. Together, we opened a black plastic box, about the size of a shoebox, and a plastic bag that was tucked inside that contained my brother’s ashes, the dusty stuff he had been reduced to after his — I’m tempted to say “untimely death,” but what death is exactly timely? — and proceeded to divvy up the sandy stuff into small parcels.

The plan was to distribute little dime bags of my dear brother to his friends and relatives so that pieces of him would be sprinkled throughout the world. Because he died after hiking a bunch of peaks, because all he ever really wanted was to be outdoors, because globetrotting was one of his most intense joys, we all hoped that he, like Terry, would end up in glorious and amazing places that meant something to him for all eternity.

I wonder now where the grey-white powder from my brother, the shockingly small residue of a big life, has been sprinkled. I hadn’t thought much about it after the memorial service where we discreetly tucked the parcels into people’s hands like drugs. A unique parting gift for sure.

As Terry hoped to have tiny fragments caught in the fibers of lush red carpeting above which voices would soar, I hope that David ended up mixed into the scree on enormous mountains, in the sand of expansive beaches, in the soil of a field somewhere ablaze with wildflowers.


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