Heavy Artillery

I don’t know if my grandmother’s dying wish was for her cremated remains to be shot out of a cannon. I do know that people deal with death in different ways, and that my dad, when faced with a complex problem, will more often than not turn to heavy artillery to solve it.

When my grandmother died, my dad became completely and totally engrossed in building her ash cannon. He special-ordered pipe and gunpowder and blueprints. My mom was horrified at his long hours in the garage and often took my brothers and me aside to tell us sternly, “Under no conditions will you shoot me out of a cannon when I die. You hear me? NO CANNON.”  

This was not the first time my dad had become obsessed with launching a parent’s ashes skyward. About a year earlier my dad’s father had, on his deathbed, communicated his wishes that his ashes be “put into the jet stream.” My dad had taken to that project with similar vigor, and within days of the funeral he’d transformed his office into a makeshift meteorological headquarters, every surface covered in giant grids and diagrams. He spent months studying wind patterns, and somehow convinced the National Weather Service to supply him with a number of big, white weather balloons.

When I got up to go to the bathroom at two or three in the morning during this time, I’d see my dad hunched over a map in his dimly lit office, calculating the aerial route of his father’s ashes. Sometimes he would look over at me and nod, and I’d nod back.

The day came for liftoff, and all the cousins, aunts and uncles on my father’s side congregated at our house. This side of the family wasn’t exactly chatty — in fact, most of our gatherings consisted of sitting in a circle of chairs and staring at each other while slowing chewing baked beans — and the occasion of launching our grandfather into the atmosphere had somehow left us with even less to talk about. How does one make small talk about the weather when the weather is — if all goes according to plan — about to carry your dead grandfather away forever?

My mom nervously added more carrot sticks to the already-full bowl on the kitchen table and then yanked me into the laundry room. “Under no condition will you launch me into the jet stream when I die,” she hissed. “You hear me? NO JET STREAM.”        

Meanwhile, my dad was proudly showing his brothers the weather balloons when he realized, in all of his meticulous preparation, he had forgotten a fairly important component of the operation: containers to hold the ashes in the balloons.

The cousins and I milled around the kitchen while my dad and his brothers rooted around in the pantry for a makeshift urn stable enough to survive the flight. Finally my dad emerged with two big cans of Quaker oatmeal. He dumped the contents into the garbage and siphoned the ashes into the cylinders at the kitchen table while the family stared in silence, pretending this was normal.

With the ashes distributed between the two oatmeal cans attached to the balloons, we all walked up to the field to watch my dad release them. They took off without a hitch, soaring effortlessly into the clouds and out of sight. It was really beautiful. A few of the cousins and I clapped, because it felt like the thing to do.

But the cannon was different.

While we could all see how the jet stream weather balloons were a fitting send-off for my grandpa, a hard-to-please naturalist, no one really understood why our soft-spoken grandmother was going to be blasted out to sea. The cannon brought up questions about my dad’s side of the family that we’d never thought to ask in the silence of holiday gatherings. I was 17 when she died, but she had been so shy and reserved, I couldn’t tell you much about her. Was she obsessed with vintage weaponry? Was she was secretly feisty and explosive?

Was my dad completely off base or was the cannon a perfect tribute to someone we never really knew?  

During the months my dad was building the cannon, we’d hear explosions outside and not think to call the police. Once, my dad came limping into the house looking like he’d just seen a ghost. We found out later that the cannon had misfired, simultaneously sending projectiles dangerously close to my dad’s private region and shattering a headlight of my mom’s Volvo the night before she had to drive to the airport for an early flight to New Jersey.

My dad says now that the cannon was shelved for “technical difficulties,” but I’m guessing my mom said something that night to the effect of “Cannon or me. Decide. Now.”  

And then there was no cannon.

The mode of grandma launch was switched to painstakingly designed ash packets that my dad referred to as “grenades.” He ordered special paper that could stay together in flight but would dissolve instantly in water and he tested different sizes and shapes, finally deciding on a folded canvas design that bore a striking resemblance to spanakopita.

Once more, I found my dad holed up in his office into the early hours of the morning. One night, I saw him there, folding small pieces of canvas at his desk, and I found the curiosity and courage to walk in and put my hand on his shoulder.

“What was she like?” I asked.

My dad was quiet for a long time. “She had a wicked sense of humor,” he finally said, a shy smile spreading across his face. “She loved to laugh.”

When the grenades were ready, the whole family gathered again, this time at the Oregon coast. Again, we mingled with cousins wordlessly in the beach parking lot while my dad distributed the palm-sized grandma grenades to his three brothers.

After a short discussion, the men pointed to a craggy rock face beyond the sand dunes riddled with “Danger” and “No Trespassing!” signs.

“That’s the place,” my dad said.

Wordlessly, we started the trek.  

We reached the rocky mass and my dad started to climb. His brothers followed. I took a spectator spot at the base of the cliff next to my brothers, and we watched the men teetering on top. Every few seconds, one of them would slip or be blown off balance and very nearly meet his fate in the churning saltwater below.

“We need to make sure to synchronize our throws and account for wind speed here,” my dad yelled against the loud gusts. His brothers nodded. For a moment, there was stillness and silence. My mom leaned over to me and said, “Just put me in a vase on the shelf, OK?”

My dad pulled back his arm like a pitcher winding up and bellowed, “NOW!”

I heard a thump and a stifled whimper from the cliff top. I looked up to see that my uncle Joel had failed to synchronize — his grandma grenade had collided with his brother’s arm and punctured. A gust of my grandmother blew back into Joel’s face and he lost his footing, nearly falling into the sea. My dad caught him as my aunts screamed, and the ashes showered down from the cliff top.

Joel struggled to right himself, and I looked around at my cousins through the cremated remains falling between us, like bits of cotton floating on the coastal breeze. It was kind of lovely.

My dad and his brothers staggered back down the rocks, buzzing with adrenaline and soaked with sea spray. As they approached the rest of us, I saw something I hadn’t seen in a long time: my dad was laughing.