On Not Losing My Father’s Ashes in the Flood


We couldn’t find my father’s ashes

during the flood of 2013

and thought they had been swept away. Or maybe


one of the volunteers, there only to do good, saw the jar

that held them covered with silt and threw it out,

as it went with so many things people cared for

in the buried treasure of their homes


family photographs,

manual typewriters, diplomas under glass.


After the river left our house, two of my wife’s friends

took apart our piano, which was waterlogged

and could not be saved.


And the piano, being demolished, made a concert

from the jugular grief of crowed wood, the broken memory of glue

and the squeal of screws no longer holding fast.


It ended with the crash of the great harp

onto a crib of concrete,                                           a zoo in panic,

every note the piano knew climaxed at once,

every animal howling

as the river rose in their cages.


At the news of my father’s ashes lost to the water,

my neighbours winced like something wild

had eaten a pet they’d all fed from their hands.


But a friend from Poland thought it was hilarious,

and so did I  – we both come from a long line of cannon fodder.


Dad would’ve laughed, too. I’d kept his ashes

because nothing I’d thought to do with them was right. He used to say,

If you wait, things will solve themselves –

the trick is knowing when to wait.


I was reading Robert Hass’s elegy

for his younger brother with Robert’s mind caught up

imagining a funeral

in which his brother’s body was burned on a boat in the river,


so first the fire, and then the air, and then, finally,

the river took the body – as if downstream

was another word for heaven.


We found the jar

in a box of books and a remote-controlled car

taken to the kitchen

when everyone grabbed everything above the waterline;

it had never been touched by the river.


And now it sits on a shelf in my living room,

my father’s ashes not taken by the flood

that I will not give to the air

until I have learned all he has to teach me

with the last part of the earth that was him.


from On Not Losing My Father's Ashes in the Flood (Wolsak and Wynn, 2016), Richard Harrison 2016, used by permission of the author and the publisher

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