On Easter Saturday morning 2016 I took my mother in law to the airport in my backpack. You did read that correctly.
No, I am not a serial killer who had carved up her body.
I am a devoted son in law who was privileged to accompany Nanna’s ashes on her last aeroplane ride to Sydney.
Our family was gathering to spread Nanna’s ashes on her beloved Sydney Harbour on Easter Sunday morning. My wife, Linda, was flying back from Tasmania where she had completed a special bush walk with her younger brother the week before. Later in the day our older two children, Monique and Liam, and their spouses, Jeff and Rachael, were also flying from Brisbane. We were joining our younger daughter, Imogen, who lives in Sydney.
Nanna was in a beautifully decorated special container and I had a letter from the undertaker to prove her bona fides. I went to the airport earlier than usual given it is a peak day for flying. I had some trepidation about clearing security. I need not have worried.
It was a plus to fly on a busy day as there were more security staff on duty. I approached one of them, who looked like he had some seniority, and showed him the letter. I mentioned the journey’s purpose. “I could not think of a better place to end up,” he remarked. He asked me to follow him. He moved me up the line and he then accompanied Nanna through the security line. He briefed all of the staff along the way and personally observed the monitor as my backpack moved along the conveyor belt. He then handed me the backpack in a very reverent manner and said “Happy Easter for this special journey.”
Thank you Qantas.
I texted Linda soon after arriving at the Qantas Club and organising breakfast. “Nanna and I are in the Qantas Club having brekky after a special escort through security.” I could not help but think that in life Nanna would have been both embarrassed by and loved this attention. It seemed a fitting start to this final journey which we had delayed since her death and funeral Mass in April 2015. Linda decided to coincide the sprinkling of ashes more closely to Nanna’s next birthday, the first one that we would celebrate without her. The Easter Sunday final farewell was planned for convenience of family members. There was a striking religious symbolism.
We gathered late Saturday afternoon with all of travellers staying together in a hotel in the street where Imogen lives. We had a great meal in a Syrian restaurant that evening and discussed the next day’s plan. Rachael had previously decided she would not participate as the Sunday was her 30th Birthday. Our daughters arranged for a morning pamper package for her.
We had breakfast together and then Linda and Imogen gathered some frangipani flowers from the neighbourhood trees. We all then walked, mostly in silence, for about 20 minutes to where Linda had prearranged a water taxi.
The water taxi Captain was fantastic and could not have been more caring and gracious to Linda. When we informed him that Nanna loved country and western music he arranged for some Johnny Cash music to blare out as we traversed Sydney Harbour.
The morning was dull, grey and overcast with a slight swell on the Harbour. It seemed fitting as we sat together in silence, except for Mr Cash, as the Captain steered the boat to a suitable place downwind from where Linda could spread her mother’s remains.
Nanna would have loved this trip with her precious eldest child and her eldest grandchildren. Sydney and it’s harbour were special places for her where she grew from a country teenage girl into her young adult years when Sydney was full of WW11 soldiers and sailors.
I was thinking how Nanna loved boat trips. A Paddle steamer on the Murray River, a boat cruise on Lake Burley Griffin, the Brisbane River City Cats and a south East Asian Cruise were some that came to mind. I once had to accompany her on a speedboat trip from Couran Cove when we were there for a family wedding and she spied a brief getaway opportunity.
As Linda sprinkled her Mum’s ashes on the harbour a slight puff of wind flicked some onto the side of the boat. Linda said, “We know you loved boat cruises Mum, but you do have to get off this one.” As in many of our family situations humour is not far from pathos. The Captain helped Linda wash reverently the few remaining remnants of Nanna from the boat. It was a final blessing.
I had searched through Nanna’s CDs and found a song Flower on the Water from a John Williamson’ album. It was so fitting to play as we sprinkled frangipanis on the water and the sun broke through the rain on cue.
“All we can do is throw a flower on the water, look for the sun through the rain.
Lay a little frangipani gentle on the water, remember how we loved you.”
After a time of allowing us to sit and reflect the Captain took us on a short tour of the Harbour and talked about some of his regular clients, such as the Turnbulls and Hugh Jackman, when he is in town. No wonder Nanna wanted to stay on the boat!
When we got off the boat we bought some champagne, including Nanna’s favourite pink, of which there are legendary family tales. We walked to Imogen’s flat where Rachael joined us. We sat on the floor and had a picnic housewarming and told stories about Nanna for many hours. I noted that we were gathered in an upper room, drinking wine and eating in memory of her. Strangely parallel to the great Christian Feast celebrated that day.
In the evening of the same day we gathered in a Greek restaurant to celebrate Rachael’s birthday. A fitting end to a precious family ritual weekend, especially given Nanna’s Greek heritage.
On the way back to the hotel we had a family group photo taken at the fountain in Kings Cross. This was the first one without Nanna. It has replaced the previous one as my screensaver. I will get around to printing and framing a copy as a memento of this final journey.
Our Easter weekend last year was a very special way for our family to enter into the mystery of death and to celebrate the journey of life through creating and participating in a meaningful series of rituals. At times like this, when the Christian Churches in Australia are ‘on the nose’ due to the Royal Commission into Sexual Abuse, some us feel a need on occasions to create our own rituals that respect the best of the Christian tradition and enable us to honour those who are resurrected from this life.
God bless you Nanna – remember how we loved you.
Damien F Brennan
Published March 2017