Memorials Matter

By Anne Gagliano

I find it astonishing that I am, once again, doing something momentous on 9/11, a day that brings incredible emotion as we remember the fallen. A day of infamy, of extreme loss, of massive firefighter casualty. This day is particularly tough for those of us who love a firefighter. Seeing their faces in memoriam on the Fire Engineering Web site, all 343 of them, is so very painful, but I feel I owe them a look, a tear, a prayer of peace and of gratitude for us whom they died to save on the day of America’s great crisis. Memorials: They remind us of what we had, what we love, what we lost. Stones of remembrance to keep in place lest we ever forget.

What I am doing this 9/11 is surprisingly similar, appropriate, personal. I am memorializing my loss. My father, Ken Holland, died 11 months ago last October. He was cremated. I’ve never been a fan of cremation and this is why: It seems so irreverent. Rather pagan. Unsentimental. And somewhat gross. You hand someone your beloved parent and they hand you back a box the size of a bag of flour, containing, by the way, a powder of much the same consistency as flour—mixed with sand. It’s horrible. Shocking. Another gut-punch after a series of gut-punches as they lay dying.

People talk about spreading his ashes, but I can’t do this. I don’t want to touch the “ashes” of my father; I can’t wrap my head around the fact that this debris is his flesh—my flesh—burned down. I hate fire, for obvious reasons. But my brother insists on doing a memorial for my dad, and I hesitate. Put it off, stall. For 11 months. Unintentionally, or perhaps divinely planned, the day comes—and it falls on the weekend of 9/11.

My dad is from north Idaho, the small mountain town of Mullan, which is very near to the Montana boarder. His last remaining sibling, my Auntie Lee, still lives in the area, as do her seven children and their progeny. Everyone seems to be waiting on me. It’s tough to arrange something you don’t want to do. But slowly the plan falls into place, and the journey begins. A journey to bring my dad home. Along the way we honor the people he loved, the places he loved, and the things he loved. I dread this journey with all that’s in me; I know I will be swept away by emotions I am afraid to face and have been suppressing for 11 months. But the time has come; I can avoid it no longer.

The people he loved. They gather to honor him. At my cousin’s house on Lake Coeur d’Alene in north Idaho. It is a beautiful house on the prettiest lake of my experience. His loved ones. My loved ones. My husband holds me tight. My sons and daughter-in-law surround me with their sweet presence. My precious granddaughter makes me smile through my tears. And my Aunt and cousins lift my brother and I up with their heavenly voices as they sing our father’s favorite hymns. It’s better than church. They are the church as they minister to us with their love–love for me, for my dad. Remembrance. The tears flow; I contain them no longer. I shake with the strength of my grief. I suppress the death moan that once again threatens to break through and embarrass me. This is what I’ve been dreading, but it somehow feels good. Cleansing, washing away the pain I’ve held tight for so long.

We have come to this house after spreading some of my father’s ashes on his brother’s grave. A borrowed grave. I thought this too would be horrible, but instead, it was surprisingly good. Appropriate. Immortal. My dad and his brother Eddie were best friends in life, and now they will be together in death. My Auntie Lee was glad to do this–share her husband’s grave with his baby brother. She, and some of my cousins, circle the grave as we spread my dad’s ashes on it. We say prayers. We join the two brothers. We say goodbye. My father has a place of remembrance with the people he loved.

The places he loved. Our journey continues to the place he loved most of all. The next day we drive up the St. Joe river. It’s a long, dusty drive up a winding, treacherous mountain road. As we near “our spot,” my pulse begins to race. Memories wash over me in waves. I haven’t been up the Joe in nearly 40 years, but it all comes back to me as if I’d been there just yesterday.

We used to camp here when I was a kid. Camping was the only thing we really did as a family, and these trips ended when my parents divorced. But we were happy here. I was happy here. I saw my parents at their best. We come to our spot on the river, and it takes my breath away. It is exactly the same. The river doesn’t change. I swam here as I watched my dad try to fish around my disruptive splashing. I can see him here. I can see my mom here too. We find a nice patch and dig a hole. We put some of his ashes in it. Me, my brother, my sister-in-law, my hubby, and our kids; we circle again and say a prayer. My dad is in the place he loved.

The things he loved. We stay the night and camp on the Joe as we did in my happiest childhood days. Morning dawns on the river, and it is now 9/11. I swim in our swimming hole while my beloved husband tries to fish around my disruptive splashes. He is using a fly my dad once gave him long ago. He catches a cutthroat trout, the biggest any of us has ever seen come out of this river. With my dad’s fly. It’s as if he were there in that moment, smiling and winking from heaven and reminding Mike, he knows his flies. We let it go. It’s for him, it’s his fish. It’s something he loved.

Memorials matter. I sat along that river and said goodbye to my dad, and my mom too—as we had brought some of her ashes to spread there as well. I felt their presence that weekend in the people, places, and things they both loved. It wasn’t gross. It wasn’t horrible. It was a dignified, especially personal way to lay their mortal remains to rest. And to remember them, we laid stones on their ashes and gathered some to bring home with us, lest we ever forget. 


Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 32 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.

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