A Stack of Rocks

Ron Woolley - Cohasset, Massachusetts
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show, May 27, 2011
Ron Woolley

How do you memorialize someone whose ashes were spread in the ocean? Teacher Ron Woolley honors his father by stacking stones at the seashore every time he goes for a swim. His tribute may not be permanent, but Woolley believes his love for his dad is.

Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: family, legacy

I believe that making a stack of rocks by the sea keeps my father’s memory alive.

Twenty-odd years ago when I warned my Catholic parents that I was an atheist, my father was particularly concerned. He told me it was important to believe in something. Although I didn’t fully understand it at the time, he was a man who had faced down more than his share of demons, and he spoke with the wisdom of experience. As a typically defiant adolescent I refused to accept my father’s advice, which I perceived as more of a mandate, but I did think about it a lot over the years.

My mother, my brothers, and I were at my father’s hospital bedside when he died three years ago. To see a man who had once been a champion diver and a man of action suffer paralysis and death over three days was predictably horrible. But as the heart monitor went flat, my father’s face took on a majestic aspect like the death mask of Agamemnon.

What we did after my father died was illegal; nonetheless, it was the right thing to do. We released his ashes in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of southern Florida where he regularly swam. My mother scooped his ashes out of a small wooden box with a white seashell found on the beach. Spontaneously, my brothers and I jumped into the water. It might have seemed like some sort of New Age ritual, but we were in the midst of a straight-laced Florida retirement community.

Some time ago I heard a piece on the radio about the air that Julius Caesar breathed. Apparently there is a 98.2 percent chance that the air I just inhaled contained one of the molecules in Caesar’s last breath. Although I was neither sure of the math behind it, nor particularly excited about the prospect of sharing Caesar’s breath, I couldn’t shake the concept. Like my father’s advice from years before, I didn’t really understand it, but I reflected on it a lot.

Today, I live in New England across the street from the Atlantic Ocean, and I try to swim in the saltwater every chance I get. Swimming has always brought me a tremendous joy, but since my father’s death the experience has become transcendent. Now when my face first splashes under the water I am immediately reminded of two things: Caesar’s last breath and my father’s ashes. My math may be fudged, but if Caesar’s breath can get around, I figure my father’s ashes can make it from south Florida to the Massachusetts Bay. And as I move through the water I believe that my father is there in some way.

Each time I trudge out of the water onto the rocky shore, I kneel down and stack some rocks atop one another. Sometimes it’s just three teetering stones that probably get knocked over before I even get home. Other times it’s an elaborate piece of architecture that survives a few high tides. My father doesn’t have a gravestone, because he doesn’t have a grave. He has a pile of rocks on the shore because he taught me how to swim and how to believe in something.

Ron Woolley lives in Cohasset, Massachusetts, with his family. He bikes to nearby Hingham where he teaches world history and economics at the high school. He is currently helping his two sons learn to swim.