BY SOPHIA STARMACK
My partner Dion and I huddled against the chilly April morning, waiting on the Provincetown pier for the whale watching cruiser Dolphin IV. Once we were out in Cape Cod Bay, I pulled up my hood and slipped off to the aft deck, a little ceramic urn concealed inside my coat pocket.
The jar carried my sister Peggy's ashes. I had duct-taped it shut and carried it on the plane to Boston, wondering what I'd say if security asked to inspect the contents. Was it illegal to fly with cremains? On the long bus ride up the Cape, I jammed my hand into my backpack again and again, making sure the jar was upright, the lid still on.
I had been stoic through Peggy's death, making phone calls in the quiet zone by the elevators, asking for the DNR forms, stepping out from Peggy's room to tell the night nurse we were ready. I'd wrapped my mother in a blanket, made myself stand at the foot of the bed as the nurses pulled out the gummy tubes and made my sister look, one last time, almost like herself. I'd helped my mother crawl into the sheets, where she wrapped her arms around Peggy and let her daughter's heavy head fall.
I watched the wake of glassy waves rolling behind the Dolphin as if it were a crystal ball, trying to recall what had been said in those last three minutes in the hospital, the snow falling on and on outside the window with its relentless hush. But I only remembered Peggy's face, already slack and spent, how she turned a faint shade of blue that was different, even in the plasmic hospital light. Something left, and the room was quiet. Then the resident came in with his stethoscope and chart and practiced kind words and sent us home.
Before Peggy died, I'd been arranging this whale-watching trip for the artists and writers at the Fine Arts Work Center, where I was living that winter as a Fellow. Back in Provincetown, I threw myself into more projects, baking bread for farewell parties, proofreading manuscripts, wearing out my boots on long walks in which I tried to outpace my grief. I rocketed between exhilaration and catatonia, chattering on at warp speed and then, just as suddenly falling asleep, sometimes in the middle of dinner. Now, out on the Dolphin IV, the salt spray lifting my hair, Dion's arms steadying me, something weighty and solid settled into my chest. The clay jar rubbed at my hip.
Human ashes are strangely benign. After the first plunge of my fingers into the tightly packed baggy nestled in the clay jar, I felt no hesitation, no distaste. I reached into my coat again and again, opening my hands to the winds that raced after us. As I released the last fistful, a baby humpback—graceful and surreal, with a mouth half as long as its body—rose from the surface, opened its jaw, and crashed back under at exactly the point where the last of my sister had fallen. I cried a little and Dion and I both agreed: it was a perfect end.
Six months later, I pulled my winter coat out of the cardboard box I hadn't unpacked during our move to yet another Brooklyn apartment. The coat was musty, which wasn't surprising given its long tenure in the closet, but it was also stained with an off-gray smudge around the pockets and sleeves—a smear of something powdery and oddly greasy. I considered leaving it for the laundry pile, but it was a brutally early 6 a.m. and I needed something to fight off the November chill as I biked my way to the elementary school where I taught.
The sun was just beginning to bleach the sky over the low buildings of Bed-Stuy when I realized what had stained my coat—the last time I'd worn it was that day on the whale watch on Cape Cod Bay, and the chalky smear that lined the button flaps and knitted wristbands of my parka was in fact the dregs of my sister's ashes. Stuffing my chill-bitten fingers into the pockets, I confirmed: there in the seams was the telltale grit of charred wood and bone. I wiped my hands on my sleeves, not knowing if I should laugh or cry and wondering if Peggy, who loved prank calls and twisted jokes, would have appreciated this one. I wheeled my bike into the vestibule and went upstairs to set up my classroom for another day.
That night, Dion and I went to our favorite laundromat, where I folded and unfolded the coat, rubbing the white ash into my palms. I thought I had put away my grief, yet now that I was holding her again in my hands, I wasn't sure I was ready to lose this last little bit of Peggy, didn't know if I wanted to scrub away this sudden pain. I certainly didn't know how I felt about a second internment in the Bubble Queen, a long way from the graceful curves of Cape Cod Bay and metaphoric engulfment in a whale's baleen.
I hovered by the washer, already loaded with quarters and detergent powder. In the last years of my sister's life, there'd been so little I could offer her: a song from childhood, a salad she decided she could eat, a piece of TV gossip that made her smile. I hated being saddled with another task that felt so small, so mundane compared to the tide of grief that rolled on and on. It was unbearable that my life should go on in ordinary gestures—cleaning, brushing my teeth, stacking plates and cups—when hers had drowned. Yet which was more pathetic? Washing the last of my sister down a collective drain, into the sewer system with everyone else's soap scum and lint? Or holding on to a dirty, cheap black parka I couldn't afford to replace, simply because letting her go felt too sad? In the end, I shed a few tears and jammed the coat in on top of the towels.
I hugged myself, waiting for the spin cycle to complete. Dion paced up and down the cracked linoleum, bringing me a cherry coke, punching the wi-fi password into my phone, wrapping an arm around my shoulders. But I wasn't prepared for the world of the living just yet, wasn't ready to release my guilt. There are some places so private and heart wrenching that even the people you love most can't travel with you.
That night in the Bubble Queen, grief slammed me against myself and forced me to sit still, to let its fingers wrap around me while the washer filled with silty water, drained, filled again. Life was pathetically sad and absurd in the extreme, but when faced with the choice of holding on or letting go, I knew the only reasonable move was the one that led to more life, release, a chance to use something again. I watched the tumblers spin round and round; my coat, Peggy's ashes, our sweatpants and pajamas all blurred into a formless mass, one that would emerge as the chaotic bits and pieces of laundry. We'd stand at the folding tables and pair socks, wrestle with the sheets, roll our underwear into balls, and I would pull out my coat and wear it home—not washed clean of her memory, but ready to be worn again.
Sophia Starmack received an M.A. in French and Francophone Literature from Bryn Mawr College, and an M.F.A. in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence College. A 2014-15 Writing Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Sophia’s work has appeared in Best New Poets 2012; Short, Fast, and Deadly; Her Kind; and other journals and anthologies.