Travelblogue VI (final episode): Ashes and Dust

The surgeons who repaired my CSF leak used cadaver skin to fashion the part of the repair that was on the “brain side” of my skull. Since the procedure, I have joked that any behavior on my part that struck someone as odd should be chalked up to a random person’s DNA being pressed right onto my brain—just like in those B movies in which a character’s severed hand is transplanted with one from a serial killer, which leads the character to then become a serial killer, too. I have hoped that my cadaver was an artist or—at the very least—a creative and compassionate person, with less tendency toward fear and procrastination and more inclination toward math, drawing, and making healthy food choices.

The fear of surgery was considerable. I bucked up publicly, but in private I trembled. It was to take place on February 14, and February 13 of this year coincided with Ash Wednesday. I was alone in my apartment (still recovering and in treatment for meningitis), and I took to ruminating over what could go wrong, what accounts were not settled, how much I wanted to survive, what people cleaning out my apartment would think about my music and books if I didn’t (but I didn’t have time to go through them and discard the stupid ones). I thought about the Christian ritual of the imposition of ashes, and its relationship to mortality and penitence. I was in no shape to go to a church, and so I reclined on my sofa, wrapped in a quilt, and lit a match. Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. I extinguished it, let it cool, and harvested the ash from the match head. Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. I made the sign of the cross on my own forehead, site of the leak, with a finger. Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.

Somehow, improbably, standing in the dust of the high desert of Marfa at the end of 2000 miles of driving, I came to the liturgically and theologically bizarre conclusion that I was, in fact, not on vacation, but was on a pilgrimage, and that the ground and the air there were as holy as the water of Bernadette’s spring in Lourdes.

I left renewed, if only ephemerally.

Car antics, laughter, and cherry-lime slushes with Chad hadn’t hurt, either, and I felt a genuine lump in my throat when I had to drop him off to meet his family at a travel center on I-10 and continue my journey alone. As romantic as the notion of a solo, contemplative road trip had sounded to me, I had underestimated the right-setting of uninterrupted time with a kindred, generous soul (who, like me, would sing all the parts of Bohemian Rhapsody—melody, harmonies, and instrumental parts—simultaneously and at full volume). As I continued, I visited friends in San Antonio, had fried chicken and peach pie with cousins at “heaven’s cafeteria”—Bryce’s in Texarkana—and pressed on to Little Rock to see friends there, as well.

In the South, there are ceiling or oscillating fans in every room, and people still say yes, ma’am and no, sir to strangers and elders.

And finally, after nine days on the road, I reached my destination: Bee Branch, Arkansas, where I would spend nights in my uncle’s cabin and days attending to the work of going through my father’s things in the house down the road—my father, who had never discarded a negative, a contact sheet, a letter he had received, a copy of one he had sent, a draft of his books or speeches, a document, a bank statement, or a tiny pocket day-timer in his long life. Whatever I had remembered of him through my own experience, it was now being re-framed through what he had chosen to keep, and by the stories his brothers and sisters were telling me about him.

The more time elapses since his death, the more I feel I am running after his truck, Old Blue, down the road in Van Buren County, the road dust mixing with the exhaust trail, running, grabbing at it all.

He was the one that knew me. We shared a reputation for being quirky, peculiar, always-sure-if-not-always-right, intense, competent, generous with things and sometimes stingy with patience. I have his big personality, his tendency to hum under his breath, and his obsession (especially earlier in his life), with making a picture of everything I see.

I love this clip. We were on a road trip to see family in Nashville, Arkansas. I love that Dad is so eager to show my cousins and me his newfangled instant camera. I love that I will always remember him this way. I love that I am smiling and hugging and curious, freely swinging on an open car door—where I am not supposed to be—and I love that I have just re-acquainted myself, over the last 6500 miles, with that girl.

When I consider The Project Room’s question of how we want to be remembered, I know that the humble and truthful answer is not about My Life’s Work or my Contributions to Society—it’s about this. Just this: being no stranger to swinging on an open car door, and being smiling and hugging and curious.

Jenifer Ward is the Editor of Off Paper and Dean of the College at Cornish College of the Arts. Read her entire road trip series here:

#1: Travelblogue I: Solstice

#2: Travelblogue II: Perigee

#3: Travelblogue III: Key Lime is the Color of Grief

#4: Travelblogue IV: Road to Nowhere

#5: Travelblogue V: Marfa,Texas (art not included)