Tossing Jim from the Bridge by Cat Pleska
After my plane landed in Ireland, I was to meet my driver, Batty, and a woman named Katy for the trip to Anam Cara, a writer’s retreat on the Beara Peninsula. I didn’t know what Batty or Katy looked like, but Shannon Airport is small, so I felt confident I’d figure it out.
Once I retrieved my luggage, I ventured toward the airport lobby to see a line of men holding paper signs, each with names in large type, but none with mine. Then I saw a man to the back of the group who swayed from foot to foot. He had a soft, folded face and juggled a cell phone and a piece of lined notebook paper. I stepped closer and leaned in to read: in shaky handwriting in light blue ink was PLESKA. Ahh, that had to be Batty. He noticed me peering closely at the paper and he said into his cell phone, “Ah, she’s here. I’ve got her now. Thanks, Sue.” I recognized Sue as the name of the owner of the writer’s retreat where Katy and I were headed.
He greeted me and told me Katy had arrived and was waiting outside. He grabbed my suitcase and out we went. I glanced around for Katy, who I imagined as a young, petite blonde. She was petite, but her hair was white and she looked to be in her mid 70s, with a lovely, warm smile. We greeted one another. Batty loaded our luggage in the trunk, and then tucked Katy and me in the back seat and off we went, flying at incredibly fast speeds along narrow roads on the wrong side—well, the wrong side to me, anyway. It was a bit disconcerting to have Batty turn ‘round often to chat, but I was so tired by that time, I decided to leave our safety to the fates and to the unknown driving skills of a man called Batty.
Ireland’s villages hug the highway, with the houses’ front doors barely two feet away from the road. I imagined what might happen should I live in such a place and stumble about in the morning. I could become a good-sized hood ornament. Soon enough my sight fell on green fields that glowed more neon than in my native West Virginia. Yet, I hardly noticed much more as we sped toward the south of Ireland. I had not slept on the long over-night flight, flying from Charleston, West Virginia, via Philadelphia. I was crammed against the window in a row of three seats, with a big burly guy in the middle whose wide shoulders signaled a linebacker 50 years earlier and his tiny wife perched like a little blue bird on the aisle seat. The plane was hot and I spent the entire night with my right arm over my chest as there was nowhere else to place it. Katy, in contrast, flying in from Chicago, was bright and chipper and chattered steadily, having slept, she said, like a baby on the long flight. I tried not to resent her at that moment, as she was a good bit older than I and I was always taught to respect my elders.
We stopped in route for refreshments at a small white cottage with a huge window toward the back of the house that showcased a stunning, flower-filled garden and grazing sheep in the pasture beyond. We drank Barry’s tea and ate freshly-baked scones. Batty engaged the proprietor in a lengthy conversation about cousins and aunts and uncles and mothers and fathers, and I gathered they’d known each other for quite a long time. I asked Batty about that when we got back in the car. “Oh no,” he said. “We just met.” That’s how it is in Ireland, sort of like West Virginia: who do you know in common? We think in terms of relations. We ask: “Are you Mildred’s boy?” or “Do I know your Uncle Bing?” “Are you from the Hodges up Rider’s Creek or the ones with money over in Winfield?” Who are you related to might tell us a world about you.
We journeyed on and I was feeling quite woozy. Despite the fact I wanted to ogle the beautiful scenery, the colorful houses, the sheep and cattle in rock-strewn countryside, my head dropped back on the seat rest, and I drifted in and out of a deep sleep for the remainder of the trip. My head did pop up once when I heard Katy brightly say something about bringing ashes with her.
Katy’s husband, aged 87 (turns out she was 81) had passed away five months earlier. She was bringing his ashes to Ireland because he’d been in country many times to golf, and he wanted a portion of his remains scattered there. Katy is a writer, so she combined the writing retreat at Anam Cara with the opportunity to complete her husband Jim’s wishes.
“You can travel overseas with ashes?” I queried.
“Oh sure!” Katy said. “Fill out a few papers and it’s done!” I’ll be damned! I thought. Who knew?
Too exhausted to absorb much more than that interesting fact, back to sleep I went.
Once at Anam Cara, a long, ranch-style house sitting just above the banks of the River Kenmare (you can hear its rumble even inside the house), Katy and I met our fellow classmates: a third American, Lisa, and two Irish women, Breda and Christine. We were there for a week of writing with Irish author Marion Reynolds. The land surrounding Anam Cara is astoundingly beautiful. Coulagh Bay shimmered in the near distance and the ocean beyond faded into mists. I knew this would be an inspiring place and time.
The six of us quickly fell into a camaraderie born of a common goal of writing and being over 50. Katy told our class of her mission with the ashes that first evening, and said she was thinking of spreading her beloved Jim in the river. She was going down over the hill from the house the next afternoon to scout out a place. None of us would hear of her going alone. We would help Katy celebrate her husband and their long marriage and see Jim off in proper style. As Christine, the tall, sail-boating, former nurse said, “You have no family here, Katy. We can’t let you do that alone. We’ll be your family.”
Later in the week, on a rainy afternoon, we approached the long stairs down to the river, raging high and out of its banks due to a downpour the previous day. As we descended the steps, we sang over and over: “I will be with you always; always I will be with you.” On approaching the river, waterfalls thundered so loud we nearly had to shout to one another to be heard. As we approached the river’s edge, I noticed foam swirling in eddies in a small pool between rocks near the bank. The cataracts spilled down from three different heights in a rush to the ocean. Deep green water plummeted over light grey, massive limestone boulders. When I had observed the river’s head waters a couple days earlier, in the nearby town of Eyeries, it had been no more than a stream. Now, the stream had swollen to five times its size.
Our final destination was a small bridge leading from the river bank to a small island in the middle of the river. The water flowed on to the bay and then to the North Atlantic, but first, we stopped at river’s edge, a ways away from the falls, where it was a bit quieter. Each of us was to read a poem of our choice in honor of Jim. All the ladies chose poems they had written that week in our workshops. As I’m a prose writer, I chose to read Mary Oliver’s poem “Heron Rises from a Dark Summer Pond.” It was a somber, sweet tribute as we stood in a tight knot, Irish rain softly pelting our hoods and jackets.
Then we proceeded to the bridge. We climbed its stairs and were suspended over a quiet, shallow section that flowed steadily on to the bay. The water had turned from dark green to brown. Katy reminisced about Jim, what he’d been like and had enjoyed. She and Jim had a long life together, building family and navigating life’s peccadilloes as we all do. Then she brought out of her backpack a purple golf towel she’d brought from home and sewed into a carrier for Jim’s ashes, which the crematorium had bagged in two, gallon-sized, zip lock baggies.
Taking a deep breath, Katy, teary-eyed, tipped the golf towel bag over the bridge’s rail and dumped Jim out. Down he fell to the river below, intact inside the plastic, landing like a stone in the middle of the river. A stone that clearly was not going to budge.
All six of us were stunned to quiet for a few seconds then all six of us said at once: “oh no!”
Breda, I think it was, said, “Ach! No plastic allowed in the sea!” (The Irish are very environmentally conscious.)
That diverted my thinking to our beleaguered American environment, and I was mentally picturing the landfills full of sandwich bags and plastic straws, when I began to hear stifled snickers, and other quiet sounds of willing oneself to not laugh.
I felt the giggle rise in me, but before we could laugh out loud, we suddenly noticed Christine scrambling down the bridge stairs on the other end and striding to the riverbank. With her tall black “wellies” (Wellington boots) to protect her, she stepped out into the river, bent and retrieved the plastic bags and was back on the bridge before any of us had a chance to realize fully what was happening. I looked at Katy. Her initial stunned look shifted to a wide grin.
Katy took the bags and this time unzipped them and down drifted Jim into the River Kenmare. Some of his ashes caught on the soft Irish air, but the bulk landed in the water. We watched as his ashes spread slowly onward, toward the bay and flowed out to the ocean. I studied the place where Jim’s ashes had landed noting their cream color against the dark brown river water looked for all the world like the foam on a glass of Guinness. I didn’t know for sure, but I bet that Jim would have liked that imagery. He certainly had loved Ireland, especially their beautiful golf courses.
The Irish still have wakes for their deceased, an occasion celebrated with libation, the best personal stories, and laughter ringing throughout the house where the dearly departed rests until the proper, solemn funeral.
And then we were all crying. We hugged each other then chattered all at once, continuing our noise all the way back up the hillside stairs, back to Anam Cara, which means “dear soul” in Irish. We stopped on the patio and opened a couple bottles of wine. We saluted Jim and Katy, and she said, “When I tell my family about this moment, though, I’ll not tell them at first about the unsuccessful tossing of Jim into the river in his zip lock baggy. I’ll keep it solemn until later. Then I’ll tell them.”
I thought: ahh, not in West Virginia, a region heavily influenced by immigrating Irish in the 19th century. The Irish still have wakes for their deceased, an occasion celebrated with libation, the best personal stories, and laughter ringing throughout the house where the dearly departed rests until the proper, solemn funeral. Perhaps an attitude we Appalachians have retained is to enjoy the funnier aspects of the deceased’s life at the time of death. Well, some of us.
That evening, I listened to my classmates’ talk as we polished off several bottles of wine. That was something else about that trip, other than the immediate bonding of us all: the delicious fresh meals three times a day and the copious amount of wine in the evenings. We celebrated the writing we’d accomplished during the day and enthused about the incredibly beautiful and inspiring landscape and listened to Irish stories and American stories. But that night, the famous tossing from the bridge story reigned paramount. None of us had previously taken part of scattering ashes, but this incident would stay in our memories a long time. The more wine we drank the louder we laughed over poor Jim landing like a plastic fortified rock.
Eventually, relaxed from the wine, or perhaps a bit fuzzy from the wine, my head dropped back on the couch cushion, and I thought about my own mother’s death and funeral. I had not opted for cremation and ashes, as she and dad had purchased mausoleum crypts, and I didn’t think about the dust to dust aspect, but rather morbidly, decayed flesh to bones. I regretted I hadn’t thought of a wake, but should have as my mother was the queen of wit and comedic timing; just recounting her funny stories would fill the evening with joy. Since she wasn’t cremated, I missed the chance to have scattered my mother’s ashes over a few yard sales, because that was truly where she loved to be. I even dreamed of her in Heaven once, happily laden with clever yard sale finds. We can’t stay solemn long when it comes to death, as we never did in life. I thought: We endure because we can laugh.
When my mom died, after much illness and pain, my aunt and I planned her funeral. We and other close family members arrived an hour before the service to be alone with Mom in her casket. My aunt and I approached the open coffin and I felt more dread than I had ever experienced. I stopped at the coffin’s side and was looking somewhere up the wall on the other side, toward the ceiling, dreading to look down upon her. But just then I heard my aunt’s sharp intake of breath. She grabbed my arm and said, “Your mother is going to kill you! Oh Lord, probably me too!” Startled and confused, I suddenly looked down at Mom. Other than she looked so pitifully thin, due to the cancer, she looked okay, if that’s a way to say it. “What do you mean?” I asked my aunt.
She practically hissed, “You brought the wrong wig!”
“What? You told me to bring the one in the box!”
“She must have switched them out. She kept her most expensive, best-looking wig in the one wig box she had. She insisted we use that one!”
We were silent for a moment, both considering the consequences when we are called from that roll up yonder. My aunt was right. She would kill us both. Mom was always fastidious about her hair. It was never coiffed to suit her and she fussed every day, insisting that my aunt perm her hair each month, sometimes to a frizzed, even melted effect. Daily she wielded her mighty curling iron, invariably burning her neck or cheek with it. I used to stuff her Christmas stocking with burn cream. I said often that it was a wonder that she had any hair left. I never saw it mussed but once when she was sick and in the hospital. Then it all fell out with chemo treatments, but still she immediately bought several wigs and stylish turbans. She was determined to be properly coiffed, in death as in life. Even if it was the heavenly realm, my goose would be thoroughly cooked when she saw me.
At that moment, standing with my head hung in shame, before my deceased mother, my aunt and I did the unthinkable. We laughed, the absurd reckoning we imagined rubbing against our funny bones. Quickly covering our mouths to stifle the giggles, we peeked around us to see if anyone had noticed. I know seeing me from behind someone might have thought my shoulders were shaking with crying. Once the tears of laughter eased, then came the crying tears of sorrow. But it felt different. The depths of despair were not so deep; the laughter had softened the blow.
When my golf-loving uncle died, his children loaded his casket with golf balls, golf tees, and his favorite putter. The minister joked my uncle should be buried on the 17th green, his favorite. When my dad died, several of us family members stifled laughs when the minister, who did not know my father, talked about my dad’s clean-living. My dad was a raging alcoholic. We muttered: Is he at the right funeral?
When a family member or friend dies, we gather at someone’s house and unless a demise was unexpected or to a young person or due to a tragedy, we eat food till our bellies bulge and tell stories till our sides ache from laughing. We mean no disrespect. Besides, it’s in our genes and our history. I’d read that Appalachian humor, of which West Virginia is wholly within that storied region, was influenced by Calvinistic belief that everyone is flawed and it’s up to each of us to note that flaw and find a way, through humor, to help the dear soul recognize his own foibles. How else would one become humble?
I came out of my reverie to note my classmates sharing stories of their respective experience with funerals. I let my thoughts drift again about memorial humor until they sloshed around in my mind. Our society has become too sad, everything is too sacred. We laugh, that’s for sure, but then we are burdened about what others must think, seemingly thanks to social media, that platform where judgment is immediate. It’s not about disrespect; it is about loving life and all our foibles. It’s about humility, which has gone the way of common sense—into that great good night.
I guess it takes a good ash-tossing to realize the importance of life, and Jim’s near miss gave me the chance to think about my own demise. There were my myriad accomplishments the people at my memorial could note. My roles as wife and mother, daughter and cousin, friend. My charitable works, my writing, my devotion to my beloved pets. Ahh, how solemn that would all be
. . . I let the scenario play out and the images swam among the flotsam and jetsam of life’s achievements. Then I came awake with this realization: please, powers that be: Let’em laugh. Let’em guffaw. Let’em remember me with mirth until their sides ache. Then I’ll know they loved me.
I will be with you always, always I will be with you.