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Article: The Terrible Puzzle and The Terrible Prize

The Terrible Puzzle and The Terrible Prize

The Terrible Puzzle and The Terrible Prize

I’ve reached a point in my grief stage where I don’t have any more uncontrolled sobbing sessions. Not that I had many of them, anyway. When my brother died, I had seen it coming for ten years, the whole time hoping he would escape the worst yet secretly thinking that no, in fact, he wouldn’t.
The funeral home gave us one of those woven-fiber recyclable shopping bags like you get at the grocery store, except this one was black with the funeral home’s name on it. I had seen the bag once or twice at my parent’s house, really hadn’t paid attention to it, mostly because I didn’t want to pay attention to it. I knew what it was and what was in it. 
My parents weren’t much for setting up shrines or anything. I think the bag sat on a shelf inside their laundry room. One day while I was over at their house, sitting on their sofa, I heard my Dad shuffling around in there. He came out with the bag, set it down gingerly on the tile floor. 
“Do you want to take this?” my Dad asked me. “If I keep it, I don’t even know what I would do with it. Probably scatter it on a trail at Lake Park or something.” 
Recognizing this statement more as decree than as a question, I told him sure I’d take it if that were what he wanted. I’d figure it out. When I went to leave, I picked up the bag for the first time. It was heavy, much heavier than I anticipated. It had to weigh 10 pounds. When you think of someone’s ashes, you usually think of some dainty amount. Less than a handful, something you could serenely carry in the palm of a hand.  Just enough to be blown like the seeds of a dandelion flower;  the bits of your loved one sailing to heaven and the eternal cosmos to join our benevolent ancestors. 
It’s not like that at all though. The bag is heavy, cumbersome. You know you’re carrying a body, or what used to be a body. And it’s a strange sensation. You feel the strap pull down on your hands while walking to your car. You know that you’re carrying everything your brother ever was: all the laughs and all the inside jokes. There’s all the times when being the older brother he took care of you, and then the times later when he became a manic-depressive alcoholic and you took care of him. An abbreviated lifetime’s worth of pain and promise, and now all that’s reduced to a bit of hand luggage that you’re about to stuff into your vehicle’s trunk.
I wasn’t used to seeing his remains then. I wasn’t comfortable with what they were. I didn’t quite understand. But later, I would. I think I mumbled “sorry” when I accidentally knocked the bag into the bumper of my car. As if he could still feel anything. 
Chris was my oldest brother. After him came Matt, and then me. With Chris gone, it was down to the two of us. I hadn’t thought much of the ashes when my parents had them. It wasn’t my responsibility—they were holding on to them, and they were going to do whatever the hell they wanted to do, or not do, with them. But once my Dad asked me to take them, a new urgency weighed on me. 
“Your brother needs to be buried,” I told myself, “or as close to a burial as you get once you’re just ashes. The sooner you can spread his ashes, the sooner you can get this period over with and start moving on to the next part.” 
The thought of my brother’s remains sitting on a shelf in my China cabinet for decades was unsettling. I wasn’t going to let it happen. So I called my other brother Matt and told him of my plans to spread the ashes deep out in the forest, probably that weekend. No sense in waiting. If he was going to be in town and wanted to come, then that was fine. Otherwise, I’d tell him about it when I saw him again. I wasn’t expecting Matt to want to go or to have any part of it, mostly because I had become so focused on my particular problem and my now hyper-focused desire to see my brother off in the best way I knew how, as quickly as I possibly could. 
So when Matt asked me if I could wait to do that until he could come down, and also could he have some of the ashes to do a ceremony of his own, I was caught off-guard. That response wasn’t in my pre-arranged category of ways that he would respond to me. Me dividing my brother’s remains was not a thing. Not now, not ever. Never. 
And yet, for some reason, I wasn’t able to verbalize all that while on the phone with Matt. Instead, I think I stammered and told him, “okay.” 
Not okay. 
It really is amazing, the things you can do when you have to them. It’s amazing what you can do when you have to do it. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do that, at least not without throwing up all over myself and all over my brother’s remains, creating an un-siftable disgusting pile of living human vomit with non-living human ashes. Hell, I hadn’t even looked inside the bag yet. I had no idea how this thing worked. But I would know. 
When the day came to do it, I waited until my wife was at work and no one was home. I lifted the black tote bag, heavy with Everything That Used to Be My Brother, and opened the side door to go out in the backyard. The thought of performing work which I assumed was going to be less than hygienic, inside my kitchen, was another idea that I wasn’t yet ready for. So I set the bag down on my patio table, on my wooden deck, surrounded by tall monkey puzzle pines and oaks. I had no idea what to expect, wasn’t sure how the ashes were actually contained, so every step I performed I did so slowly and eyes wide, as if a cobra was going to jump out at me. Silly, right?
Inside the black tote bag was a large, thick black plastic box with a big sticker stuck on the top. CHRISTOPHER C. SCHRADER. Sure, why not. This was the second instance when my brother’s death was something less than I’d imagined. I thought it would be some heavy rosewood box, polished and glowing. Instead it was like a larger version of the old plastic boxes you’d get VHS cassette tapes in when renting them from Blockbuster Video. 
I lifted the box out of the bag and set it down on the tabletop. I had made it to Part 2 of The Terrible Puzzle. The black Blockbuster box wasn’t quite designed to be opened again, at least not easily. There were large plastic tabs which held the cover in place that seemed to be one-way tabs like on a zip-tie. Once they locked in position the lid could only be pushed down—it couldn’t be pulled out to access The Terrible Prize inside. 
So I pulled out my pocket knife to pry the lid off. Again, as gingerly as possible. My brother was inside there, so I made sure to limit the insertion of my knife under the lid as if it were still possible to hurt him. *CLICK* one tab was disconnected. *CLICK* two tabs. I breathed out. 
I buckled the lid slightly with one hand, enough to get four fingers of my other hand under the lid and pry it the rest of the way off. Finally, I could swing it open and get to (what I hoped) was the reason I’d come all this (mental and emotional) way.
It was there, finally. Another large, clear thick plastic bag was secured with a small, thin metal collar on the knotted end. Inside I could see my brother’s ashes, packed tightly and looking like what’s left in the bottom of a charcoal grill hours after it’s burned out. Mostly it looked like fine gray sand, but of course, I didn’t have it open yet either. 
As with the black plastic tabs, the thin metal collar that held the knot in place for the bag was another thing that was never intended to be opened again. I fooled around with it for a minute, trying to find some good way to open the bag respectfully and keep things civilized, impersonal, something other than what this was. 
And, of course, there was no good way to do that. The metal collar had been crimped into place, and it wasn’t coming off. The only way to get into the bag now was to slice the top off. This was where things got funny (not funny) for me because the ashes were so fine that their residue coated the entire inside of the bag. I realized that there would be no way for me to cut into the bag without also cutting into some of the ashes, which used to be my brother’s body, and I didn’t think I was ready for that. But this was just one more step of things that I hadn’t been ready for the day before, which now needed to be done. So I did it. 
I couldn’t close my mouth the whole time I was slicing through the top of the bag. My mouth was open, gaping as if it couldn’t believe what the rest of my body was doing. But I did it. A little puff of smoke or the finest of the ashes puffed out as I opened it. I closed my mouth. 
And there it was. There it all was. Now with the bag sliced open, I could really get a look at what was inside the bag. It still looked like very fine gray sand, but I could make out little white bits of bone too. You would think they were pebbles, except for you could see the little tiny bubble-looking holes where the (I guess) the marrow had been. 
Half of the job was done, but I still needed to separate the ashes so that Matt would have some and I would have some. I had brought out six gallon-sized Ziplock bags for this so that I could have two triple-bagged portions, each with half of the ashes. Tucking each bag into the next, I felt good about the preparations I’d made. It would take a lot to get through those bags. And unlike the funeral home version of the bag, I’d be able to open the bags in a more dignified manner by simply sliding the little zipper on each successive Ziplock.
I positioned the empty Ziplock sarcophagus carefully, trying to get it to sit up straight even though it was empty. This is where it would have been really convenient to have someone holding the bag open for me, though I’m not sure who would have volunteered and I’m not sure I would have wanted anyone to volunteer. 
The moment of truth. Using both hands to steady the heavy, sliced-open bag of cremains, I tilted it ever so slowly until it began to separate and spill into the open Ziplock bags. Again, mouth open. I watched the gray sand slowly fill up one bag, then I moved it over to the other bag and filled that one. I wanted both bags to be equal, not like it matters at all, but it seemed to matter then, so I picked up each of the newly consecrated Ziplock bags in each of my hands and juggled them a little, testing their weight. They weren’t quite equal, so I fed one into the mouth of the other and made them equal. 
This was probably the most surreal out of all the surreal moments which made up this task. Weighing what used to be your brother in your hands, keeping one eye on the tiny fragment of bone that missed the bag and spilled onto the glass tabletop, thinking to yourself to remember exactly where that is because it looks just like any other tiny speck of shell or rock and you don’t want to just leave that sitting there on the table, and finally just breathing out, and you’re okay with it, and it’s over with. 
By now, I was okay with all of it. I closed each of the Ziplock bags and compressed them into the other so that the outermost bag had room to open the zipper without fear of tearing. The one piece of bone which had fallen on the table I swept into my hand as you would a crumb. The bags were closed by then, and I wasn’t going to open them. I was done with all that. So I swept the one bone into my hand and carried it over to the base of the monkey puzzle pines in my backyard, which seemed as good a place as any, and let it fall there. 
Any other day, any other time, I would have said that all the remains needed to go into the bag. “Respect the sanctity of your brother’s body,” I would have said. “You can’t just sweep a bit of his bone into your backyard, where the raccoons piss and the rain pools up behind the deck.” 
And yet, any other day and any other time, I wouldn’t have seen that no matter how well I tried to shake the funeral home’s plastic bag and get all the contents out, the ashes were so fine that they still coated the inside of the bag. There was nothing I could do about any of that. I wasn’t about to wash the bag out and then filter the contents. All you can do is all you can do, so the piece of bone fell against the base of the pine, and maybe it’s still there, and maybe it’s not. 
I took all the pieces inside, one at a time, even though I had two hands. I didn’t want to trip and spill anything. I slowly washed the knife off in my kitchen sink, letting the water run over it more than I needed to. The residue from the ashes was on the knife as well, and this washed down the drain. I took a paper towel and wiped down the edge of the blade. I’d love to say that I used a consecrated, one-time ceremonial knife. But it wasn’t that. It was a good pocket knife, and I wanted to use it again, to slice an apple or open a box, whether or not I’d used it to filter and sift my brother’s remains. 
The world keeps spinning. What you think you can’t do, somehow you find a way to do. When you know you’re done, and then you find that somehow you’re still not done, you still find a way to go on. That’s what taking care of my brother’s ashes taught me. 
Written By Andrew Schrader
August 12, 2021
Andrew Schrader is a commercial pilot and Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) Structures Specialist. He never got the chance to fly with his brother, and he regrets that. But the pain gets easier every day, and if he can do it, then you can do it too. Reach out on Facebook or Instagram, @reconresponse or



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