by Rita Leydon ©2003
Dad died in April 2002. I got him cremated and he’d been sitting pretty on the mantle waiting for me to take him back to Colorado. Colorado was his third home. First home was Sweden where we all came from, emigrating to America in 1960. I was ten. Dad was forty-two. Second home was New Jersey where we all grew up. Dad was a genius tinkering engineer at RCA. When he retired, he and Mom lost their minds and homesteaded in the barren wilds of southern Colorado. By then, my sister and I had families of our own in the East. Two thousand miles away. I resented that my children’s grandparents choose to remove themselves so far from us. Annual cross country treks became part of the annual cycle. Seven weeks on the road became ordinary summer fare, with Fort Garland, Colorado, as the point of pivot. Mom and Dad thrived and were proud of the new life they forged with grit and determination.
Mother died first. Cancer. Five years before Dad. She was cremated and Dad spread her ashes from the bomb hatch of an AT-11 over the southern slope of Mt. Lindsey, the right hand peak of the Siamese pair that looks down over the home they built together. The other is Mt. Blanca. This was entirely appropriate. Mother was an aviatrix with an amazing record of feats in her younger years. Dad was no slouch either. Flying is what they did; what they had in common—the glue that held the otherwise mysterious (to me) marriage together. I was raised on airports. The living room of our New Jersey home was full of miscellaneous aluminum sheet panels—bits and pieces of the BD4 airplane they were building. The basement similarly overflowed with pieces of the glider under construction there. My friends were utterly fascinated. I didn’t know anything different.
After Mother died, Dad soldiered on alone for two years, stubbornly declaring that he’d never leave the house he’d built. Pride and defiance seemed to be his guiding lights. He’d rather die in his house. His monument. And he almost did. He’d gaze out at the mountain knowing Mom was there and I guess he felt some comfort in that. Who knows? He didn’t say much. Lived as a hermit. His once sharp mind was full of leaks and common sense had all but abandoned him. He didn’t call out for help; he simply landed in the local hospital and called me to report on his whereabouts—making no sense at all. A little sleuthing along alternate telephone lines confirmed that I had better cover the 2000 miles quickly and get to him. That was the end of Colorado for Dad. He survived the hospital but was a wisp of a shadow of his old self. There was no choice. He had to come back east and live with me.
I packed up his house; put it on the market and four cross-country treks later he was installed with me. That lasted three years. It was hard. He was sweet, meek and undemanding. I was angry at him most of the time. Not for any good reason and he certainly didn’t deserve it. My own kids were grown and now my Dad became my new child. Diapers and all. But the worst part was his mind—or the lack of it. No, he didn’t have Alzheimers, just a downward spiraling dementia. He forgot he’d lived twenty years in Colorado. He became simple. His teeth fell out. He forgot to put on his diapers and smiled a lot. He took on the task of managing our burn pile; sitting out there for hours methodically reducing the pile and watching it burn. Inside, he’d fall asleep in his chair, TV headphones askew, slumped to one side. I splurged and got him a Lazy Boy recliner. He was thrilled.
After he broke his hip and could no longer work the burn pile, his universe shrank and his days consisted of simply managing his own physical self. The diapers, the messes, the constant showering, and, of course, eating. Sneaking cookies into his room and keeping a huge ant population deliriously happy. Nodding off in his Lazy Boy. Dad never ever complained or bemoaned his sorry plight, and he never talked about Mom. I wished he’d die. I wished it for him and I wished it for me. I felt he was dead already. My Dad, my idea of Dad, as I knew him, was unreachable. He was a stubborn Swede. Tough as nails. Manning his ship his way to the bitter end. Had no plans to die. The vicious diarrhea cycle that held him prisoner frustrated him no end. Everything just ran through like water. He functioned on empty an amazingly long time. The last two weeks, of necessity, were spent in a nursing home. And when it was time to die, he dried up, like a leaf, and simply fell from the tree. I never considered him sick or ill—he just wore out. Nothing special or unusual. Dad had a full head of silvery white hair which I snipped off and placed in an envelope. I held his hand and stroked it until it got cold. His dead body didn’t frighten me. I felt very protective and like his guardian in his time of transition. He was my Dad.
My sister and I agreed on all the details, so the logistics of his passing were simple. We wrapped him in five white pure silk sheets and placed one of Mom’s small hand-woven tapestries inside, against his stomach and put the whole package in a person sized cardboard box. We had a little ceremony, just the two of us. Then I took charge and pushed him into the crematory oven; Ragna waited outside. I braced myself with several deep breaths and summoned all the powers in me to push three perfectly ordinary buttons which closed the oven door and started the fires. It was my responsibility. He was my Dad. I put him on the mantle and got used to him as a black box.
Ragna and I knew he wanted to be sprinkled on the mountain with Mom. At the end of September it was time to sprinkle. In preparation, I had a portion of his ashes repacked into a small box, which I will take to Sweden next summer. I’m going to plant him under a flower at the gravesite of his mother and sister—my farmor and faster Berit. He didn’t ask for this. I decided this myself.
My right hand man, Chris, and I flew out to Colorado along with our youngest son Lars. Dad was neatly packed in the suitcase with the clothes. We had a date with Vern, the same pilot who helped Dad sprinkle Mom. Weather could care less about schedules and time constraints and it saw no reason to cooperate with our plans, so we lost a day. The second day dawned heavy with rain and oppressively low ceilings. I felt utterly defeated. I hadn’t considered that I might fail my Dad. Failure wasn’t an option. I needed to spread him on that mountain. Period.
We pressed on to Monte Vista’s little airfield. I was anxious and sad. Truth is, I was an inconsolable weepy slimy mess. The beautiful twin engine AT-11 was rolled out of the hangar. Gleaming, shiny and silvery like an dazzling jewel. The AT-11 is a WWII tail dragger training ship dating from 1942. Exquisite. The Plexiglas nose yields an unobstructed view for the bombardier. That was Lars’ position. His job was to open the bomb hatch on command. He was psyched. The sky was ominous. Vern and his partner were confident that a window would open in the sky enabling us to accomplish our mission.
I broke the golden paper seal of the black box with some trepidation. With no previous experience in handling cremated remains, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel or react to the gritty stuff. Slow and steady. Easy does it. Fold back the lid. Take a look. OK. Aha, an inner sealed plastic bag. Lift out the bag. No time for contemplation or evaluation. Just do it. Methodically. Step by step. Vern had prepared a strip of old sheeting for me to wrap Dad in, but the plastic pouch still had to be opened. I cut a good size opening in the front. Stuck my fingers into the ash to feel it. Get sensory feedback. Then touched the fingers to my cheeks. This was my Dad. He felt fine. I folded the cloth around the ashes with great care so that I had a loosely wrapped parcel. With that, Dad and I were ready to roll. Blue sky pushed in from the southwest and we piled into the silvery bird. Lars in the nose. The pilot, Loren, with Chris as co-pilot. All very natty in their in headsets. Vern and I occupied spartan fold down seats in the rear. Lars tested the bomb hatch doors and we went through the motions of a dry run. I took direction from Vern on how to release the payload. This was important. This was a big deal. This was my Dad.
After a thorough checklist rundown, Lauren got us airborne. This was thrilling. What a send off! I asked Vern if Dad sat in this very same seat when he sprinkled Mom? Yes. “I bet he really enjoyed it.” Vern smiled. I knew I was doing the right thing. Next to my seat was a small porthole window. In front of me were three big blue bomb casings on each side of the inner fuselage. The fourth, or bottom blues, were removed so they wouldn’t be in my way during the drop. Once aloft, Vern indicated that we could unbuckle our seat-belts. He signaled me to hold tight to the inner structural members of the fuselage and as well as bomb racks. Thus groping, I made my way to the front and stuck my head between pilot and copilot to see their view.
The San Louis Valley spread out below us like a lush carpet and the Sangre de Cristo range grew bigger and bigger as we got closer and closer to our drop point. Blanca peak and Lindsey to the rear. Brilliant blue sky and white patches of well formed clouds stayed with us. Rain haze and fog hung in the distant beyond. We flew low—below the peaks around us. As we closed in on our goal, Vern and I retreated back to our positions and dropped down on our knees, just behind the bomb hatches. Keep a hand on Dad, said Vern, so he doesn’t flutter off by himself when Lars opens the hatches. I slapped a hand solidly on Dad and a small dust cloud rose from the parcel. Dust of Dad. I couldn’t help but smile. Suddenly both hatches ripped open simultaneously and Vern was right close beside me to assist in case I froze or otherwise messed up. Nasty cold air blasted into the cabin. I clutched Dad in a decisive vice grip and maneuvered him over and down through the gaping hole in the floor in front of me and ... released. Quick and clean.
Lars closed the hatches. Vern and I stood up and poked our heads into the Plexiglas bubble turret in the fuselage above to see if we might catch a glimpse of Dad unfurling. But I saw nothing other than the mountain’s southern slope, the golden aspen, the pine trees, the brown bald patch where Dad would be with Mom, the snow capped peaks and the blue sky. Lots of big sky. I made my way forward again. We were steering course toward the house. Tears streamed down my face. I saw three cars at the old homestead. Other people live there now and call the place home. People who know nothing of the house’s history or the man and woman who built it. Oblivious that we were overhead and saluting the place one last time in honor of Mom and Dad. It was good to see it inhabited. Time marches on. Lars peeked out from his position in the nose and snapped a photo of his Mom and Dad on this mission. His beautiful smile was a balm to my heavy heart. The deed was done. We steered course back west across the valley toward Monte Vista. Vern and I shook hands. The weather was closing in again
Björn Fritjof Flodén
b: November 16, 1916
d: April 7, 2002
This was my Dad—
1. At the Sand Dunes in Colorado
2. Early days of model flying and competition
3. With his bride, Gun-Britt, and their first born—me.
My sister, Ragna, came a couple of years later.
I still have the yellow teddy bear in the picture.