Grief Ghosts Scattered Among the Stars and My Father’s Ashes in the Ganga
On space debris and a father’s remains.
There are over half a million pieces of space debris currently in orbit. Each of these pieces once came from a thing that was alive and not-alive, machined together by warm hands and metal ones, then propelled into space with heat flaming under it. Each of these machines did its job, or didn’t. It scanned the earth or the sun or a different celestial body. It delivered supplies to the international space station, where heartbeats float in air conditioned spaces. Now, there are space race remnants, the Sputnik. Darling Laika—the first dog sent into space—soft corpse, desiccating in the tomb that was selected for her, before Sputnik 2 burned to ash in the upper atmosphere. Space, I’m certain, is full of ghosts.
NASA states that the most harmful pieces of space junk are the ones that aren’t trackable—flecks of paint, metal minutiae, the whole becoming a part, the part becoming utterly lost, until it is found enough to cause harm. It’s these fragments that can’t be tracked that can destroy, their effect like sandblasting. They can cut grain-sized holes into precious equipment, they can sandblast solar cells, scraping the upper layer from the delicate machinery. They’re not just ghosts, they’re poltergeists.
After my father died, the concept of his cremation, of his body becoming so much unlike a body, shocked me. I didn’t want to see his ashes or hold them, and I never did, allowing my mother to take on the labor of scattering.
My mother is always telling me what she wants done to her body after death. Scatter my ashes on a beach, she says, alone, in the sunrise, and maybe some in the mountains too. Here’s the number you’ll need for the safe deposit box, and here is the canyon I want my body to end in.
My father never told me such things, though he’d always been death-facing, haunted, perhaps, by the sudden spoil in his own mother’s pancreas that led to a death so sudden my father wasn’t able to say goodbye. No one in my family is particularly Hindu. I left the religion on purpose, while my mother eventually confided to me that she never thought the gods were real, only symbols and stories and rituals. My father didn’t seem to care about god at all, unless he found a way that god could make him look good, like when he gave up meat on Thursdays as a symbol of piety, which he routinely bragged about until the end of his life. But after my father died, we didn’t know what to do with what was left of him. Would he have wanted his ashes to live with us? Would he have wanted them scattered somewhere majestic, as my mother does, a beach with feathered waves, or an otherworldly canyon?
My mother made the decision for us. She took his ashes across the ocean (not being aware that human remains are heavily policed, she slipped through the TSA’s fingers by luck), and dumped them by the banks of the Ganges in Kolkata, where countless others have placed their loved ones in water that was once clear, but now is a toxic sludge, bringing pieces of what used to be people down to the mouth of the great blue bay.
I feel guilty about how we let my father end. Not resting in the sea, but poisoning it. And I couldn’t help but think of those million bits floating in the sky—when we bestow purpose, or a kind of life, into an object, we never expect its ghostliness. Here is a list of things lost in space:
A thermal blanket
Multiple garbage bags
A pair of pliers
A briefcase-sized tool bag
And here is a list of things that I have lost:
My father’s body
His old shirts
His new shoes
His nail clippings
His salon-cut hair
What does it mean to be a piece of something? All those ashes in the Ganga—do they cling to each other, remembering? And those satellites, flecks of paint, nuts, bolts, dead metal drifting through the outer reaches of what we call the world, are they lonely? I think of how deeply my grandmother loved my father, how she, according to family lore, never criticized him, even as he threw whole potted plants off the balcony at passing pedestrians, the potential for a cracked skull nothing more than a game for him. Even as he filled the bottom of the bed with mango cores that sweetly festered in the heat. He was her son. Her person. The boy she dreamed of. Does it hurt to be made with so much desire, only to end up as nothing at all?