The sea was rolling and the sun was setting across the Gulf of Mexico. Off the starboard side, the lights of Key West began to flicker in the darkening sky. The port side looked to the sail-dotted horizon that leads to Havana.
The silvery, sand-like remains of my father and my uncle were packed in four plastic bags inside a bright blue Tiffany’s box. Beside this box, stowed out of the wind under the boat’s teak bench seat, were three bundles of white lilies. My wife was holding an open bottle of Dom Pérignon in one hand and our one-year-old son, dressed in his sister’s hand-me-down pink life jacket, in the other.
He was the only one of us too young to take Dramamine and had already been sick twice. The Champagne was parental medicine. Our 4-year-old daughter, Theodosia, was staring wistfully at the boat’s handsome 40-ish captain and owner, Scott: a former Chicago corporate climber who worked in “procurement,” until he decided to procure a different life in Key West. Now he runs a charter company out of the Stock Island Marina.
We were waiting to turn into the wind before we opened the bags and spread the ashes; a necessity I understood from personal experience. When my paternal grandmother died, my father orchestrated a ceremony involving a pair of limousines to take the family out to the cattle farm that once defined them, by then owned by strangers. Past the single-story farmhouse on the railroad tracks where they’d grown up, to scatter her ashes under the cottonwood trees (in reference to a line from her favorite song, Don’t Fence Me In). An ad man to his bones, my father branded the experience with mimosas in Mason jars, consumed liberally on the outbound journey. My aunt lost her barometric awareness at the bottom of her drink, and when she flung a heaping scoop of ashes into the wind, they coated her newly inherited mink coat like flock on a Christmas tree.
I would get the wind right today. Scott swung the wheel around and the jib flapped loudly until it filled again from the other side. We were pointed in the right direction. I’d been living alongside my father’s ashes for five years; they resided in a zip-tied bag, sealed in a black plastic box, inside another box, placed under our bed. And all that time they lived in my mind, too. Silently asking for the right moment and place to be scattered. It was finally time to let them go.
I sometimes wonder what unread books I will leave behind. And also, whether books we intend to read but never do are a symbol of procrastination or ambition. My father was a writer, too. He left many books behind among his belongings; some dog-eared with use and others never cracked. I had to pare them down, and the cookbooks were the first to go, except those where he’d written in the margins. The self-help and relationship books went next. I kept his high school and college yearbooks, and the classics he’d been lugging around since his college English classes. The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again.
My wife could understand the yearbooks, but she couldn’t wrap her head around why I would keep three of my father’s large coffee table books about Airstream trailers. Neither could I, really. The Airstream was a late-life dream of his. One he began nurturing after I’d grown up and left the nest. I only knew about it from the playful arguments he’d have with his husband, which led to the ultimatum: “You can have a puppy or an Airstream, but you can’t have both.” They got the puppy, but my father never stopped daydreaming of that glistening travel trailer.
I don’t know the origin of his Airstream fantasy. During the golden age of the travel trailer, he was the son of an alcoholic cattle farmer and a school secretary, wrestling with his sexuality in rural Northwest Louisiana. It isn’t hard to imagine how, as a child in the late 1950s, seeing one of those majestic silver cylinders in a magazine would’ve been as exotic and alluring to him as an ocean-liner or the Orient Express.
It was the polar opposite of the only kind of travel my father knew. When his family traveled, they’d get up at 5am for a one-hour trip to visit cousins in the next parish. They’d pile into a Ford Fairlane with a painted-steel Coleman cooler stuffed full of foil-wrapped fried chicken, cornbread, and jars of sweet tea. In the back seat, my father and his two brothers and sister had to dodge ashes from my grandfather’s unfiltered Camels that blew into their window every time he dangled his sunburnt arm outside between drags. After a 6am roadside stop to eat, they would get back in the car in time for one of the children to get sick. By 7am, with two out of four kids now holding wet rags on their foreheads, and all of them dusted with cigarette ashes, they would arrive at a cousin’s house only to be asked by the bleary-eyed host to go drive around the neighborhood for an hour, because everyone inside was still asleep.
Somewhere along the way, my father’s boyhood Airstream dream was sidetracked by others. He married my mother, and then I came along. He launched an advertising agency out of the back of his MG coupe, and within a few years he was doing commercials with Orson Wells, rubbing elbows with Madison Avenue ad men at the Greenbriar, and getting his name in Adweek. By his late thirties, he came out of the closet. My parents separated. He left the Deep South for the gay epicenter of Seattle, Capitol Hill, where I spent my high school years living with him. Right before I went off to college, he met the man who he would later get married to three times. They traveled the world, flew on the Concorde, and went on Safari in Africa. And one of their favorite places to visit was Key West.
Ten years ago, I went to visit them there. I was 33, single, and financing my writing ambitions as a bartender at the Chateau Marmont hotel. They had rented a house on Olivia Street with a spare bedroom earmarked for me, and I went there with some gypsy hope that a change of scenery might do me some good. On the second-to-last night of my trip, I went on a solo walk down Duval Street, as I had every night I’d been there. I bought a cup of 7-year-old rum at a curbside bar, wandered into a dodgy outdoor music venue to people watch, and in the crowd of sorority kids in function T-shirts stood a tall brunette in a cocktail dress and heels. And my father didn’t raise me to dream small.
“Can I buy you a drink,” I asked.
“No,” she said. I nodded, ready to walk away. “I already have a drink, but you can buy me a shot,” she said in a deep Southern drawl.
She invited me to a drag show the next night, either to test me or to get rid of me. She wore a blonde wig out that evening and didn’t mention it, which was as good as camouflage in the drag bar. She thought she was bringing me into her turf, but this turf was mine. I’d been around drag queens half my life. The show (neither the best nor the worst I’d seen) was followed by karaoke, and her best girlfriend was clearly the kind who takes it seriously. I figured I had her gay friend’s approval in the bag, but I still needed to get the girlfriend on board. So, I went up on stage after the friend and sang my best safe karaoke song: Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler.
The next morning, I tiptoed out to the pool patio in search of the blonde wig that had gone missing during a late-night swim.
“Does this wig make me look fat?” asked my father, sitting in the hot tub, drinking a cappuccino, and wearing the wig.
“No, I think it suits you,” I said.
“Who might it belong to?” he said, blowing nylon bangs out of his eyes.
His future daughter-in-law, as it turned out. I threw away a first-class return ticket to LA and stayed for the rest of her Spring Break. Four years and countless cross-country plane flights later, I moved to her home state of South Carolina, a month before our wedding day. A few months later, my father and his husband sold their house and moved to South Carolina with hopes of becoming grandfathers soon.
Less than a year after moving across the country, my father was suffering from what he thought were allergies. One night, in a panic, he asked his husband to drive him to the emergency room. He was short of breath, and they diagnosed him with the flu and double pneumonia. I drove the hour and a half from Charleston to Beaufort to visit him in the hospital. We joked a little about him dodging a bullet, and I told him I’d be back to see him in the morning.
But that night, he was taken to the ICU for emergency intubation. We would never speak again. I moved into his house to be near the hospital, and my wife commuted three hours a day to help support me during his month-long stay. His death, at 64, was more of a decision to turn off the machines, when it became clear that he had already made his decision to let go. And with that, whatever was left unread or unwritten, was left to us.
My father’s death upended our naive notions of ideal marital timelines. And about nine months after losing him his first grandchild was born. We gave her his middle name. He got a grandson three years after that. But this man who loomed so large in my life, could only exist to them in stories and in spirit as the “Pops” he always imagined them calling him.
The way this return pilgrimage to Key West came together had a strange air of being a little out of our hands. Susan and I would sit on our couch nightly with a bottle of red wine, and any time we came to a fork-in-the-road decision, we’d ask ourselves, “What would he do?” Where to stay between Charleston and The Keys when the best places don’t allow children? “He would take an Airstream,” I said. How do we make scattering ashes feel special? “He would charter a sailboat,” my wife said. My eyes teared up as I nodded. “And have his granddaughter toss flowers in the sea,” she said. “And toast him with Dom Pérignon,” I said, because it’s what he served at three of his four weddings (all three of which were to the same person). We weren’t planning, I realized, so much as channeling.
My father had a gift for creating rituals. He gave me hand-engraved Sterling silver ornaments on Christmas eve every year as a little boy. On the fifth anniversary of his advertising agency, he sent a limo around to the homes of his employees to deliver each of them a Baccarat crystal decanter, engraved with the agency logo, with a handwritten scroll inside inviting them to dinner in New Orleans. He lit a candle in his window every night between Thanksgiving and Christmas, every year after his brother died. He spent an entire year buying different sets of china and flatware on eBay, just so each table at the rehearsal dinner for our wedding would have its own signature patterns. Originating rituals was one of his favorite forms of self-expression; the others being swear words, crocodile tears, and belly laughter.
His father was known to throw a Christmas tree out on the lawn — lights, tinsel and all — after he drank too much Old Charter, became fixated on some minor slight, and decided to teach his kids a lesson. He desecrated rituals, which is probably why my father put so much effort into sanctifying them. Whatever ritual would lie at the heart of our Airstream trip, it had to be crafted in the spirit of the romantic, indulgent, and even frivolous ways my father made life feel extraordinary.
We put fine linens on the Airstream’s bed, because he would’ve insisted on it. To approximate the atmosphere of his legendary parties, we brought solar torchères, Edison string lights, a folding bar table with a linen tablecloth, a crystal cocktail shaker, and a dozen candles. A bartender friend devised two signature cocktails for us: a gin-based drink that we named “Don’t Blink,” for the boat bearing my father’s remains to sea, and a Bourbon number we called “Tammy Whynot,” which was once his drag name for a New Orleans halloween ball, and which doubled as our nickname for the 22-foot trailer. We also emblazoned this name on the Airstream’s rear window in a giant turquoise decal. He raised me with Priscilla, Queen of The Desert, and I would see him off in Tammy, Queen of The Keys.
We spent our first night on the edge of the Atlantic. The roar of the surf echoing in our riveted-aluminum alcove made it feel like we were sleeping in a first-class airline pod. As we drove into the keys the next day, the other Airstream owners we passed would flash their lights like some kind of Masonic handshake. In many ways, it captured the Airstream magic that had captured my father. But there were also Airstream realities that he never considered. That’s not to say he wasn’t handy — after all, he started driving a tractor at age 10 — but dumping a black tank, installing anti-sway bars, and getting into a fight via walkie-talkie with your spouse while attempting a three-point-turn between parked cars, would not have been his idea of vacation. By the third day, I came to realize that I was better suited for his Airstream chapter than he was.
After a night on the seawall on Grassy Key, we pulled into Key West and unhitched the trailer for two hotel nights at the marina where Don’t Blink was harbored. The morning of the day we planned to scatter his ashes at sea, I walked out of our hotel room and had to chuckle when my wife pointed out the song playing in the hotel lobby: Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler.
I was hit with a strange mix of nausea and vertigo around lunchtime. We picked up a feast of coconut shrimp, queso frito, rice and beans, and a Cuban sandwich from a place my father had taken me a decade earlier. The coconut shrimp was in honor of a roadside meal my wife and I had on that same trip. But I couldn’t eat a bite of any of it. I just lay on our bed with a wet rag on my forehead, like my father as a boy in the back seat of the Ford Fairlane after inhaling too much fried chicken and Camel ashes. My body was telling me what my mind would not admit: This was not just a big rite of passage coming, but a final one.
As soon as I set foot on the 38-foot sailboat, my mysterious illness disappeared as suddenly as it had arrived. My wife and I both shook our heads with a grin when Captain Scott told us the boat was commissioned the same week my father died. He had named the boat for the Guy Clark song of the same name, because he saw his life passing by in a blur of corporate ambition and decided to buy a sailboat and trade the Midwest for Key West.
We would be scattering my father’s ashes along with the ashes of his older brother, Tommy, in whose memory my father lit a candle every year. They shared a twin bed as boys, because they feared their father’s nightly beatings and felt safer that way. They were children working the jobs of men on the family cattle farm. Then my uncle went to Vietnam and my father went to college.
As either fate or his knack for the poetic would have it, my father died on Tommy’s birthday — leaving behind a box of his late brother’s ashes that he had been meaning to find the right time and place to scatter. But his own death would make that call. Tommy never went to Key West, but he knew it from his beloved Jimmy Buffet songs and always wanted to go. My father’s interest was in the gay scene, but both, in their own ways, felt a reason to belong there.
I knelt at the stern with Theodosia, and she eagerly grabbed the lilies while I opened the Tiffany’s box and began cutting the zip ties on the baggies. She put her little hand on mine as I poured the ashes into the bright blue water. Then she threw the lilies overboard like beads from a Mardi Gras float. The ashes trailed behind us like my father’s last ellipses, until they blended with the water and vanished.
My father was a bourbon man, like his father before him. It was the only one of his old man’s traits that he willingly took. And that night, my wife and I sat on our hotel balcony, drinking bourbon and crying together about how happy he would’ve been to see his final send off, and how it came together as if he had planned it all himself. Then again, maybe he did.
Since my father’s death, he’s gotten his grandchildren, his Airstream adventure, and I’m even working on finishing his novel. He may be gone, but his dreams have woven themselves into ours. And it seems to me now that our unfulfilled dreams and unwritten stories are a little like our unread books. You don’t have to worry about the ones you leave unfinished if you teach your children how to read.
Stinson Carter is a journalist, editor, author, screenwriter, and playwright. He is a contributor for WSJ Magazine, ESPN The Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, Esquire, Wired, and Playboy, among others. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina with his wife and two children.