By Gregg Gordon
In the early winter of 2020, my dad’s voice had become raspy and he had a persistent cough. Neither he nor our family were sure why his symptoms were what they were, and while he did seek follow-up care from medical specialists, getting an appointment took an inordinate amount of time. Concurrent to this was the ski vacation that he had planned to go on at Banff/Lake Louise in Alberta, Canada, with his two sons and a new friend, also an octogenarian. Come early March of that year, the four of us made it to Banff, excited about the conditions and the incredible natural beauty of the Canadian Rockies, though Dad’s condition was noticeably worse. His rasp had declined to a whisper and when he wanted to be heard, he had to strain with his veins nearly bursting to the surface through his neck. Worse yet, he was easily fatigued, and he managed just a short bit of time on the mountain on a few of the days we were there.
Advanced lung cancer
Upon our return to New Jersey, I used my industry connections to get him scheduled to see the chief of thoracic surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital, but this timing coincided with the rapid reaction to the early stages of the Covid epidemic. At that point in mid-March, nearly everything was shutting down and hospitals and physician offices were seeing only the most infirm. Nonetheless, we did our best to get Dad seen by the right physicians, and while the special efforts of these providers were particularly appreciated given their stresses in coping with Covid, the timing was not in our favor relative to the progression of Dad’s condition. We learned he had stage 4 lung cancer that had metastasized to his bones and lymph nodes.
Making plans to ski in Cervinia, Italy
Dad knew this was serious. He shared his concerns very sparingly to avoid troubling others, but he still had hope that chemotherapy and stereotactic radiosurgery might extend his life… and if it did, he would want to ski again next year in Cervinia, Italy. How/why he chose that place wasn’t exactly clear to me, but Dad was known to always be scouting interesting places to ski and vacation.
Dad died on May 2, 2020, with my mom and I by his side. It was immediately traumatic and remains hard to process to this day. It feels like his life was cut short because of many factors, Covid’s emergence. He had so much more life to live and was still vibrant and excitable. It all feels so unfair… still.
Two celebrations of life
I made the decision in 2021 that I would go to Cervinia and bring some of his ashes with me. With my mom’s consent, I began planning for this trip early on, but life got in the way and I was not able to make it until February of 2023. My good friend Craig met me there to mark his 50th birthday, and with that, I knew I’d have two celebrations of life on this trip. Scooping up a portion of Dad’s ashes itself was an eerie and emotionally challenging task. I wondered if I should use some sort of special container, perhaps a ceramic vessel or mini urn. I then looked into airline and country rules about importing/carrying human remains. In the end, I got through it all and planned on leaving his ashes on the last day we would have at the mountain.
Getting to Cervinia took me 52 hours, thanks to terrible travel complications, but to me, it was all worth it. On our final ski day there, I tried to pretend that it was just another day while we traveled on the bus ride from our village to the base of the ski resort, but having his ashes with me in my pocket felt like an emotional anvil. I shared with Craig that we would need to do this right away, not later into our ski day because I wouldn’t be able to carry this burden all day. I hadn’t scouted exactly where, nor did I prepare words, nor did I have any real plan. I felt like reading the terrain and finding the right spot and time would be left to nature and the spirit of the moment. Dad and I were longtime ski buddies; he put me on skis when I was 5 years old in Iran and we enjoyed so many days on various mountains in various locations thereafter and among the many things we enjoyed was the spontaneity of the experience. It felt right to be that way for this time, too.
‘This wild and magical act’
Craig and I found ourselves on the west side of the mountain and eventually made our way to the top portion there. I shared with him that I’d be heading over to an area where there weren’t any people, a ledge just beyond the exit of the ski lift. He asked me what he should do, and I shared that if he wanted to take pictures or a video, feel free but no obligations of either were there. And with that, I found a small rock wall. A particular flat rock jutted out, with a portion covered in snow and the other portion exposed. I pulled out a letter written by my fiancée, Patty, and began to read it, but my eyes quickly teared up and I could barely get through a few words at a time. She asked specifically to wait until that very moment to read this letter and I understood why right away. Her words served as a sermon as it reminded me of who my dad was to the world, who he was to me, and why this moment was an opportunity for me to take control. She wrote, “You did not get to take your dad on his last adventure, but adventure on. Take a deep breath; give yourself permission to find meaning and comfort in this wild and magical act even though it feels strange and foreign and ritualistic.”
He was the intellectual and practical center
I finished the letter and found that I was breathing heavily, almost panting. At once, my mind was streaking with his final weeks and days. I saw my ailing father dying before my eyes and saw him take his very last breath. I saw my mom uncontrollably sob after losing her best friend of 55 years and then recede into a cocoon of a person when I helped the handlers wheel his lifeless body out of our home. I remembered his irritations and joys of an older man but then realized that I was too focused on his later years… and with that, I began to remember the pictures of him from his youth, from his time in Iran, and at work, and at play. I remembered his love of crossword puzzles, of driving trips, of telling jokes, of being the intellectual and practical center of the social circles he joined. I thought about how his masculine hands would hold my mom’s hands, of how he honored her, and how he taught me about fidelity and loyalty by his life’s example. Finally, I thought about his pride of having me as his son and how much I needed and took pride in his approval of me. My mind raced with so many visions and feelings and I felt woozy.
Finally, I felt it was time. My hands shook as I opened the plastic bag that contained his ashes. I bent down at the waist over the exposed rock surface and paused for the moment staring at that blank canvas, a place that would become special to me forever after. I wasn’t sure that I was ready, even though I knew there wasn’t an option to not do this… and with that, I slowly and carefully sprinkled the final remains of my father, Bob Gordon, in Cervinia, Italy. This location had no previous meaning in either of our lives except for that one wish he expressed to me in his final days. I put the empty bag back into my pocked, then took a few pictures. Most of the ashes were on the rock face, but a few made it into the snow… and I thought how about poignant it was that he both made it to the snow of Cervinia but was connected to terra firma at the same time.
Reminder of his resilience
After a few moments, I walked back to Craig, and he asked me how I was. I said I’d be okay eventually, and with that we got our equipment on and set ourselves down the mountain. It was quiet despite the noise around me. I didn’t feel my legs and my eyes were cloudy. We made it down the mountain and quietly boarded the lift for another run. Craig left me to my thoughts, and I was deep within them, not sure how to process what just happened. Still emotional after we got off the lift, I proceeded down a run after Craig and my eyes welled up again. I couldn’t see well and couldn’t wipe my eyes under my goggles, so it was only fitting that I crashed hard and winced in pain for a few minutes. In a way, it shocked me back to reality and reminded me of how resilient my dad was.
On our final run of the day, I looked far up the mountain to where his ashes had been laid and said, “I love you, Dad. I did this for you.” And with that, the ski day ended, the trip eventually ended, and some measure of closure was had.
Gregg Gordon is a member of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.