My Father’s Ashes

Before last week, I’d always thought funerary ashes were something to scatter – at a beloved place – not something to ever keep. The very idea of having someone’s ashes nearby, or in my home seemed, well, unpleasant. Beyond the obvious, there was a sort of ‘out of fashion” feeling to the idea. In fact I got a lot of laughs out of the scene from the film “Meet the Parents” where the uptight character played by Robert DiNiro reads an ode to his mother. As the family gazes up to the mantel, her ashes ensconced in an urn, there is a shade of the misguided or even perverse in the moment of filial intimacy. (What happens next is really taboo, and will probably either offend you or amuse you).

Still, the message came last week and hit me quick – I was being shipped a portion of my father’s ashes. My sisters already knew what they would do with their packets of ash, arriving via USPS in a cardboard mailer. They would take them to special places…Colorado…California…places of beauty and places of good memories with him. I loved it. Yet I felt anxious and uneasy about my own decision. My Dad traveled far and wide, for business and for fun. He tried everything he wanted to do – from piloting a glider alongside a hawk, to teaching and mentoring business school students, to living fully and completely until complications from Alzheimer’s took his mortal life.

I clenched my fists and tried to fathom it. Ashes. How weird.

As I contemplated what place I’d been the happiest with my Dad, it wasn’t in my home state of North Carolina. I knew the best moment of my time with my Dad – hands down. Though, as it was considered, it turns out there were many to think over and choose from. The best memory was a ski lift, and a powdery breeze on a sunny day, pines and the cleanest air in our lungs, runs that smoothed and bounced us a little and made us wide and peaceful; silent and peaceful and happy. Together.

That run called “Harriet’s Hollow” was the place our finest daughter and father connection lived. Yet as I contemplated going there, or maybe paying a pilot to fly there, I knew I was on the wrong track. What if it rained the day I went? How could I trust a pilot if I wasn’t going to be there? I knew that even when we try and go back we cannot, as the river is never the same twice. Add to that the pace of modern change, and the way that newness brings intensity and at times anxiety to our world. How could I make a day in 2015 compare to that one fine day possibly a decade ago? The day I had with my Dad and skied the best ever, no worries or bumps or spills. Just smooth sailing. I knew trying to recreate that was not possible and possibly could disappoint me.

As it turns out, after some thinking, I understand now that I want to be nearer to the ashes. Nearer! Surprise. Now they are something more personal, something not abstract. And, they are a sacred substance to me. And now I get it – I understand that they are not him. As my partner Daniel put it, that is not him, it is the ashes of a fire that consumed him. What a beautiful way to say it. My father’s ashes.

My father’s ashes are here now in my home, in a special box that stands on end and looks like an old fashioned, fascinating book. I put a picture of it up at the top of the blog. On the book shelf where this book sits, I have my journal, and my daily reader,  and a box he once received that had his name inscribed. It’s a way of remembering this month of my life in 2015, when the ashes came, and where I came to know and understand even more what it means to me to be my father’s daughter.

God bless my Dad, may he rest in peace.


Scars & the Stories They Tell (Thank you, Gospodin Spassov)


A few weeks ago I was in a difficult accident involving my bicycle, a pile of gravel and a right turn that never was completed. Before I could even react to the spin of my wheel in the gravel, I was face down hard on the concrete street near my house. Quickly I staggered up, headed home and then on to the E.R. with my partner, Daniel. At the hospital the doctor slowly pulled one of my teeth out of a gash in my lip, cleared gravel out of my grated mouth and other road rash areas, informed me that I had broken a tooth, and then, finally, stitched up a big gash on my knee and let me go home.

As I contemplate the slowly healing slice on my right knee – free of stitches, yet still not closed up, still open and showing my gooey insides to the world – I find myself thinking about Ivan Spassov, the Bulgarian composer who, for a few months in late 1996, guided me in music composition, and in life. The reason I think of him is because of a conversation we had one time, about scars.

Spassov was one of the best men I’ve ever known. He survived the untimely death of his daughter and continued to embrace life. He directed one of the top conservatories in Bulgaria and wrote brilliant music up until the weeks before his death of a heart attack in late 1996. It was my great fortune that in 1996 I was in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, studying music at the conservatory Mr. Spassov directed, as part of my research for a Fulbright Grant. Right from the start he was gracious and friendly to me. We sat, week after week, at the piano in his large office. He’d often smoke a cigarette as we talked, and occasionally he’d perch the filter end onto the piano with the smoking end out over the keys. My eyes would watch the smoke as he demonstrated harmonic ideas and compositional transitions. I would distractedly monitor the ash as it became longer and longer – surely it would drop onto the piano keys soon. But it never did.

Spassov had studied modern music composition in Bulgaria and in Poland and wrote and conducted a wide array of arrangements and compositions. “During his time in Poland Spassov learned and mastered serial techniques, and was the first Bulgarian composer to employ aleatoric devices and graphic notation.” (  During our tutorials we talked mostly about music and occasionally about life, too.

One day I came in to my lesson a bit upset.  The weekend before I had been shopping in Sofia in a large crowd. Someone tried to steal my wallet by taking a knife to my bag. Though she didn’t get my wallet, the knife left a huge rip in the bottom of the bag. I had sewed the rip up but it left a long scar. I showed the fabric scar to Mr. Spassov (or, Gospodin Spassov, as I called him in Bulgarian). I said, “The bag was special as it was sewn for me by my grandmother. And now it’s ruined with this big scar!”

“Ruined!” he exclaimed, “Nonsense! It’s not ruined. It’s not ruined at all.” He looked keenly at me, as he did when he really wanted his point to sink in. “Scars,” he said, “become stories. Scars are how we show we are alive. It makes the story richer. Don’t feel this is ruined at all!”

It’s been close to 20 years since he told me that, but it resonates in me like a truth that can’t be denied. Life without scars isn’t really life at all. Or, if anything, it is the new life of a baby before the scars that will come begin. I think of Spassov as I look at the new scar forming on my knee this week. The scar that will tell the story of my bicycle accident in the summer of 2013, and of the doctors who stitched it up, and of Daniel who held my hand, and of my fantastic skin and cells that healed it.

Thank you, Gospodin Spassov.

Your former student,

Laurel Isbister Irby

More about Ivan Spassov: