Rome, Italy. Amanda surveys the crowd milling around her. Everyone is gawking at the magnificent cultural icons.
No one is paying attention to her. She takes a deep breath. She nervously sticks her hand in her pocket and feels for the tiny velvet bag. She pulls it out, drops her hand to her side and quickly dumps the contents. It is hardly a tablespoon. Soon it would be ground into the bricks beneath her feet. She exhales. She has done it. Her dad is now in The Vatican! Well, not exactly. But some of his ashes are.
Lists, lists and more lists
Jerry McCoy liked lists — The 10 Best Hiking Trails in the United States; Top Five Restaurants in Atlanta; Eight Best Stocks to Buy Right Now. He was fascinated by the book “1,000 Places to See Before you Die,” because it combined his love of lists with his love of travel. As he grew older, he talked about writing a book of his own based on his extensive travels. He would call it “100 Places to Scatter My Ashes.”
Every year, daughter Amanda McCoy Wade of Cumming would send him a birthday card with the inscription: “Happy Birthday. Write the damn book!”
“Sure, sure,” he’d say as he made plans for yet another trip somewhere in the great wide world he loved so much.
Amanda adored her dad. She and her sister lived with him after their parents’ divorce. They were just 10 and 12 at the time. During this scary and uncertain time, Jerry gave them what they needed: love, laughter, and a belief that life could be normal — and wonderful — again.
Amanda inherited much of Jerry’s style and personality. Garrulous and funny, she radiates energy and drive, greeting people with a firm handshake and a ready smile. With her loose, dark blond hair and clear, open countenance, she looks part suburban mom and part the top-tier technology salesperson she is.
She talked about her dad and the way his life and death have shaped her own.
Jerry grew up poor in a small Indiana town in the 1950s, yet through good grades, competitive swimming and sheer perseverance, he managed to earn himself an appointment to West Point, obtain a college degree, and become a successful Realtor. He married his college sweetheart and had two daughters.
As a child, Amanda remembered the many books piled onto her dad’s bookshelves. At some point, she noticed the same word on many of the book titles.
“What’s that word?” she asked.
“Money,” he replied.
So the idea that money was important was imprinted on Amanda very early. When she went off to Indiana University, she majored in business, intending to become an accountant. But she noticed the competitive and cut-throat nature of many of her classmates. Did she really want to spend her life in that atmosphere?
After obtaining the undergraduate business degree, she decided to take another route for her masters — outdoor recreation. But the master’s degree only fetched a $19,000 entry level job. Her business degree could command a much higher salary.
So she shrugged off the second degree and took a job with Contel Cellular where her boss told her he had “never seen anyone so competitive.” Maybe that competitive feeling in business school was subconsciously hers all along. Or perhaps the word “money” on her dad’s books had taken root.
At 30, Amanda married Ed Wade, a contractor. Agreeable and funny, Ed is more laid back than Amanda, a quality that serves him well as primary parent to their twin girls, Becca and Betsy.
“He watched every penny”
Meanwhile, Jerry, had picked up another book of lists instructing him on how to retire at 35. He was 45 at the time. But Jerry was serious, and his new wife, Pat, supported the idea. They lived minimally, downsized to one car, sold what they didn’t really need. He retired four years later — before turning 50.
“It took a lot of discipline,” says Amanda. “He watched every penny.”
If Jerry sounds like Ebenezer Scrooge, well, he wasn’t at all like the miserly Dickens’ figure. Jerry was a vibrant family man who loved traveling the world. And he loved a good laugh. He taught Amanda’s twin girls to make pea shooters and use them on each other. He would cannonball into the pool and then emerge as if he were a dolphin. He tried to convince other swimmers he could speak Dolphin.
San Francisco. Amanda is having dramatic notions of flinging a handful of ashes off the Golden Gate Bridge. But her husband, Ed, has a better idea.
So they cross the Bay to Alcatraz, the now-closed famous prison featured in a cult favorite movie that both Ed and Jerry loved, “Escape from Alcatraz.” Ed throws a handful of ashes across the rocky landscape, gruffly mimicking the movie’s prison warden, “You’ll never get off this rock.” Amanda and Ed erupt in raucous laughter. They know Jerry is loving it.
An unexpected journey
One of Jerry’s first endeavors after retirement was a bus trip out West aimed at retirees. He and Pat stepped onto a bus full of elderly women. There was not much camaraderie, at least not in the beginning.
When a long stretch of dusty road became too tiresome, Jerry marched up front and coaxed the bus driver into handing over his microphone. He began riffing about the passing scenery. He gently poked fun at the passengers. He told jokes. He led group singing. Everyone raved about the trip in reviews.
Not surprisingly, the tour company offered him a job.
“He didn’t have to think about it long,” Amanda said. “This way, he and Pat could basically travel for free. Plus, he had the personality for it!”
Eventually, between work and personal travels, Jerry traveled all 50 states. He boasted of having driven every mile of U.S. Interstate highways. He visited innumerable countries on all seven continents. Yes, even Antarctica. He wanted to go “to the ends of the earth.”
In 2006, Jerry and Pat were hiking up a mountain in Maine when Jerry, then a robust 63, became extremely confused. His confusion made him so agitated that he fell down. Pat had suspected for a while that something was wrong. Amanda, however, wanted to believe it was simply eye trouble or maybe depression.
A doctor’s visit confirmed their worst fears: Jerry was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. Jerry faced the disease the way he faced life. He learned to joke about it. When he repeated himself or forgot a familiar name, he might tell an unsuspecting person, “Excuse me. I have Alzheimer’s.” He also decided to give up bridge because he wasn’t winning anymore.
Suddenly, travel was pretty much out of the question. Jerry never complained; instead he remained grateful that he had been able to see so much of the world while he could.
Amanda organized one last trip: a family cruise to the Caribbean in 2007. Family included children, spouses, grandkids, and even his ex-wife, Sandy. The natural boundaries of the ship kept Jerry from wandering too far, and there were plenty of people to keep an eye on him.
Jerry died in 2016, 10 years after his diagnosis. His memorial service was as he wished — a raucous celebration of a life well-lived and well-traveled.
Shortly after Jerry’s death, Amanda took on the task of sorting through her dad’s papers. She hoped to find some draft of “the book.” But, alas, as she suspected, Jerry liked to speculate about the book, but he never wrote even one page. “I think I always knew,” she said, “that there was no book, that maybe I’d be the one to make it happen.”
Amanda remembered all the wonderful family trips she shared with her dad as a child. He’d often encourage her to bring along a friend to share the joy and the experience. She remembered all the summers they hiked the Appalachian Trail.
Yes, she decided, she would be the one. She had the resources and the energy. Her family wholeheartedly supported the idea. She would scatter her dad’s ashes in 100 different places all over the world, places he’d been and places he never got to visit. She would celebrate her father in a way he would enthusiastically endorse.
Amanda purchased small velvet bags that she fills with ashes from the main cardboard box of Jerry’s ashes kept in her home. Cape Town, South Africa, was the family’s first trip after Jerry’s death, the place of the first ash scatter. “Why? It seemed far away,” said Amanda. “Like the ends of the earth.”
At last count, Amanda estimates, her dad’s ashes are in 40 different locales, some sentimental and some exotic. Some, like The Vatican, were challenging.
“I feel like Dad is always with us when we carry his ashes. His spirit accompanies us on all our journeys,” Amanda said.
Scattering Jerry’s ashes also adds another dimension to family trips. “It gives us a reason, a purpose. We like the thrill of researching the right place, perfecting the flawless toss.”
“We’ve become pros now,” said her husband, Ed. “We’ve come to appreciate a good throw. There have been some bad ones.”
Montenegro, Southeastern Europe. Cruising off the coast of this ancient land, the ship approaches the Strait of Chains where pirates of old often lurked. Jerry would have loved the melodramatic lore.
The Wade family climbs to the ship’s upper deck for the ash toss. But they fail to calculate the wind variable. As the four happily fling ash in unison, the wind picks up and blows a wide smoky swath into the faces of guests lounging on the deck one level below. Coughing and sputtering cries of “What the…?” can be heard as the family quickly makes their exit.
There have also been some tense moments going through airport security with bags full of white powder.
“It was foolish of me not to realize it could be mistaken for drugs,” Amanda said.
Customs officials at London’s Heathrow airport were very suspicious. Perhaps they ought to pack the ashes in checked luggage. But even that was problematic in Cambodia when their luggage was lost. While trying to delineate the contents of their suitcases for Cambodian officials, Amanda realized that “my dad’s ashes” did not translate well. Describing it as grayish-white powder” made matters worse.
Life lessons from a father
Amanda, now 45, makes a good living in technology sales. She knows that her family’s travels may seem extravagant to some people.
“I work hard, but money is not my goal. It’s easily lost, stolen, or squandered,” she said, “It’s memories I am after. That can never be taken away.
So travel is what the Wades have chosen to spend their money on. Like her dad, Amanda has learned how to be disciplined with money.
The family does not own expensive electronics or spend extravagantly on clothing. No regular hair and nail appointments for Amanda. The girls use their imaginations instead of relying on toys. The family makes grocery lists and uses coupons. They play the “points” game with airlines and hotels. They’ve never owned a new car.
Amanda believes so much in the power of travel to transform lives and open minds that she does what she can to give other kids the gift of travel. Like her dad, she invites her girls’ classmates to tag along with them on trips. These are often kids who might not otherwise get the opportunity to travel outside Georgia.
Last year, she took a group of excited young girls to Chicago on spring break. Through her church, she supports teenagers who need financial help in order to go on mission trips.
“I want them to know that there is so much more to the world than their own little corner of it,” she said.
Amanda remembered that when each grandchild turned 10 years old, Jerry would take them on special trips to places like the Grand Canyon or on a Disney cruise. Unfortunately, Jerry never got to take Amanda’s twins, Becca and Betsy, now 11, on one of those trips. But Amanda’s family could now take Jerry on their travels.
“I hope that I am as generous as my dad was. I hope I am as fun-loving and as awestruck by the world as he was, too. Everyone should be that blessed.”
This past year, a tragic event caused Amanda to be even firmer in her resolve to make memories. Ed’s niece Haley Wood, who lived just down the road from the Wade family, was killed in a car accident in Forsyth County in March. Haley was like a big sister to Becca and Betsy.
“She was just 18,” Amanda explained as her eyes filled with tears.
Haley, too, was very fond of Jerry, and accompanied the Wades on many of their ash-scattering trips. “We are so, so glad we took her with us so many times,” said Amanda.
Now, Haley’s ashes will be tossed along with Jerry’s as the family continues their journeys.
Soon, the Wades plan to take travel to a new level. They plan to home school Becca and Betsy and spend a year traveling. Their learning will be conducted in places where history, geography, literature and art can be experienced firsthand.
“As far as what I want for my girls, ‘well-traveled’ ranks right up there with ‘well-educated,’” said Amanda.
Ed has a captain’s license, so they will journey by boat for several months, looping up the East Coast of the United States and then south down the Mississippi River. Other plans include stints working as volunteers on projects in developing countries in South America and Africa. Some of the yearlong trip will just be wherever the wind blows.
Arizona, near Tuscon. Amanda and the twins, her sister Nora, and their mother, Sandy, are enjoying a girls’ trip, riding horses and camping in the wide-open spaces. A velvet bag of ashes is with them. Nora wants to do the toss.
When Amanda takes the picture, she is concentrating on Nora and takes no notice of their surroundings. When they examine the photo, they see a horse in the near background. The angle of the shot makes it appear as if Nora is throwing the ashes right at the rear of the horse! Ironically, “horse’s ash” was one of Jerry’s favorite expressions.
Somewhere, they know Jerry is having one good, uproarious laugh.
HOW WE GOT THE STORY
This story was suggested to writer Laurie Eynon by her son Jon, who went to high school with Amanda McCoy Wade. The two still maintain a friendship, mostly via Facebook. “She’s flying all over the world with her dad’s ashes,” he told his mother. In the process of scattering her father’s ashes around the globe, Amanda and her family are sharing adventures, creating memories and deepening their bond. It’s a fitting tribute to a life well lived.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laurie Eynon is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Personal Journeys. She is gradually retiring from her position as a chaplain at Northside Hospital, but loves it too much to just quit. She and her husband Rob enjoy books, movies, and Atlanta’s great restaurants. She is a frequent visitor to Indianapolis where her children and grandchildren live.