This post is an add on to Katherine's piece, On Ashes, published on her blog Helping Friends Grieve.
After sharing the story of spreading my father’s ashes, other people’s stories have trickled into my life. Many more people than I had expected responded with their stories of the ashes they have spread and those that have yet to be spread. I should preface this piece by noting that there appear to be a variety of experiences that surround the process of spreading ashes and a multitude of ways that individuals interact with the process.
From what I have seen, we seem to strive for this seemingly magical moment where everyone finds peace with the death, the birds may sing, the sun rises above the mountains, and we know it is time. Of course, my description of the sun and birds, is a hyperbole, but it is meant to show that reality gets in the middle of our plans. The mishaps, planned and un-planned plans, and stories of carrying ashes around (for months or years) captivate me.
As always, many people have a story, and I am going to take the liberty in this piece to weave the narratives of others in with my own story of how I ended up on top of various mountains and rocks to spread my father’s ashes. Ultimately, I had my magic moments, the sun did rise above the mountains, the birds did sing, and I was overcome with a sense of peace---but not without the reality and hilarity of mishaps along the way.
Last summer, I had my first brush with what I call the re-personification of someone in the presence of their ashes. As we were walking into the small church in the center of town, a family friend asked me to grab her mom out of the back of the car and bring her in. Of course, I knew that her “mom” was the black box of ashes safely tucked in the back of her. This box, “her mom,” had accompanied her on her recent road trip, yet the banality of the request made me give her a double take. We joked that her last trip with her mom had been this road trip she had recently taken on the east coast. My family friend had visited her friends, accompanied by her mom, in the black box, in the back seat. In this moment, an uncle snapped a shot of me, in a cute blue dress, ready for the funeral, arms full of giant yellow sunflowers, with a small backpack, containing the black box, on my back. It is so mundane, yet, her mom, has such a huge presence.
I realize these stories may sound a bit crude, if you’ve never had ashes in your possession or reached in a box and physically touched someone you have missed for years. However, the thing about ashes is that they have to be transported (or at least stored somewhere) to wherever you plan to leave them, thus, you must interact with them. This moment of interacting, somehow forces the presence of the person who has died. Momentarily, the person takes a physical form or a presence in your journey, a journey they are no longer part of. Rarely, as living beings do we come so close to touching death. Rarely does it feel like something you can touch---something that can simply slip between your fingers if you open them just a crack. Yet, the presence of the ashes momentarily relieves the gaping hole experienced by someone’s absence. On the drive home from spreading part of the ashes, I was alone. I simply buckled my father, in his black box, into the passenger seat in the front seat. In a moment of unrelated frustration, I expressed to him a sentiment about wanting to be outside, running and climbing in the mountains---something only he a few others in my life understand. Perhaps I was able to have that thought pattern because my mind was attuned to his presence.
In my journey home to Colorado to spread my father’s ashes, I felt this sense of presence. I carried his ashes to Columbine Mountain outside of Winter Park, I carried them to the top of a peak at over 14,000, I climbed with them up a rock wall at my family’s cabin, and finally, I took them on a multi-pitch climb---testing my own climbing abilities. I felt invincible, as if the ashes could protect me, after all my dad had touched the ground in each of these locations, in his living life, so I imagined him guiding me there in his afterlife. I imagined, the natural world, making way for me to complete climbs, knowing that my father had to be returned to this very location. It all seemed clear as thunderstorms split, showing lightening on each side of our rock face, but leaving us safe and dry. The irony that I felt he needed to be returned to the natural world, the same world that had captivated his imagination and led to his early death, was not lost on me. But in that presence, it really felt right, and by right, I mean, that there was no other option---when someone is home it simply feels right.
As I wrote in reflection to spreading my father’s ashes, after eight years without touches or embraces, to suddenly touch his body, although reduced to ash, was astounding. Yet, I am embarrassed to say, a small part of me was disturbed at literally touching a dead body---after all, in spreading the ashes, you physically touch them. I had never really considered the consistency of ashes, but I imagined the fine ash left by a camp fire. I was surprised at the small remnants of bone that weighed down the ash when I spread it on my palm. Reaching my hand into the black box, only brought about more questions of how his body had become reduced in that manner. I teetered between loving the closeness I felt to my father and being concerned when suddenly the wind picked up and the ashes flew back at me---covering my jacket and black pants with white and grey dots. What do you do next---wash your hands? Wash your clothes? After all, those grey dots are still part of him. Or---as Coree---so appropriately notes after finding herself spooning her “dad” into an urn, what do you do with the spoon? You can’t just wash it off---after all, it has ashes on it.
Yet, you laugh with the process. After hours of climbing to recreate a picture of my dad on this specific rock in 1979 and to spread his ashes there, I reached the point---100 feet down on a free rappel. I managed to open the medicine container I had stored the ashes in with one hand (the other hand firmly on my rope---as I was still hundreds of feet in the air). As I prepared myself to spread them, the wind grabbed the ashes, whipping them up into my face. I was startled, but more than that, overcome with giggles at what a joyful hilarious moment this was. That picturesque moment became a hilarious struggle of me trying to rappel, laugh, and somehow get the ashes out of my eyes and mouth.
Like everything else, it wasn’t as planned. Yet it was a moment in which I felt closer to my dad and closer to his sense of home---which after all, really was the point.