Since before my father died, I have been fascinated by the field of transitional justice. This field focuses on what happens in a post conflict society, i.e. what happens to the people who lost people in the conflict? The field attempts to tackle difficult questions such as “justice” and healing in societies that have been wounded as a whole by conflict. I will never forget reading a story about a community in Guatemala where a mass grave was unearthed more than twenty years after the conflict. Community members wanted to identify the bodies so that the families could hold funerals and burry the remains. The cost of DNA analyzes prevented the community members from being able to identify the bodies. So, each family carried one skeleton to the burial site, as though it was their own, and as a community the remains were buried. I am so moved by this story for a number of reasons, but mainly because of the sheer fear and pain in unearthing a mass grave and seeing where a loved one died and the community effort in remembering and creating a memorial. While this experience is widly different than my own, I couldn’t help but remember this community during my own visit to the place of my father’s death.
Five and a half years. What a long amount of time. Yet it feels like just a few months ago sometimes – like I am in high school recounting classes or lacrosse practice to him. And other times, I have trouble recalling my father’s face or the way he answered the phone. Memories are fading, a painful process in itself. In December, along with my sister and thirty or so wonderful friends, I went up to A-Basin (in Colorado) to ski the run that my father was killed on that is now named after him. A-Basin is a moving place, with huge cragged mountains reaching over 12,000 ft., and the actual ski run “David’s run” threatens to be one of the steepest in Colorado. Gulp. I’d only skied once since he was killed and my pride wanted to be able to do this well. As though, I need to prove that I really was my father’s daughter based on my skiing ability.
The last time I had been to A-Basin was the week after my father died. You could still see the remains of the avalanche on the front of the mountain. I remember it being sunny and some guy, who maybe was a first responder, shared with me what it would be like to be in an avalanche. He then handed me what was left: a bent ski pole, broken glasses, and my father’s red sox baseball cap. They shared the details of how they found him, how it was too late, how they think he didn’t suffer, how his body looked…
After lunch, the group that had joined us for the memorial headed up to the top of the run, led by Alan, the resort’s COO. Alan had been working the day my father was killed and has since stayed close to my family, inviting us to the resort whenever we liked. One this specific day he had gotten free lift tickets for all thirty of us. Since the run is difficult, and not everyone in the group was ready for the double black diamond approach to a memorial, we took it slow – traversing back and forth across the run. Part way down, Alan shared that that was where they believe the avalanche started, although they can’t be sure how it started. As we got nearer to the bottom, he stopped and told me that this where they had found his body. Friends and family waited on the run – and with a few close friends – I entered the grove of trees.
As Alan composed himself and quieted his own crying, he shared how he has often thought of my sister, my mom, and I. After a few minutes he left us alone. It was quiet. It was still. It was beautiful. And, I kept thinking: this is where your father died, this is the last place he thought of you. This is it. Here in these trees. Although I knew that this was the place, it seemed so unreal, so impossible, so final. With tears of my face, I hugged my friends. I half expected something dramatic to happen, but no, it is just another beautiful place on another beautiful mountain.
I am fascinated from a personal and academic perspective with memorials and the active act of remembering someone and the ways that it can be both healing and devastating. Literature sites a healing property (i.e. finding closure and moving forward) in visiting the site where the person was killed. I can’t say I feel any more or less “healed” after seeing the actual place where he died. However, it was an incredible day and it was wonderful to spend it with friends and family. I am glad that I saw the ski run named after him and had the opportunity to ski it. In some ways I felt closer to him and I definitely felt closer all of the people who joined us to celebrate. All of the people who loved him and want to share in remembering him with my sister, mom, and I.
Most of the memorials we have held to honor my father have taken place on the east coast with family and friends in Massachusetts. Not that I have an objective view of the situation, but it seems that people who have had the opportunity to remember him and celebrate collectively each year talk about my father more and have rituals where they remember him. In Colorado, we have not had a collective memorial since the funeral five and a half years ago. And while I am sure people do things in private and remember him at gatherings that aren’t specifically for the purpose of “remembering,” people talk about him less and in hushed tones. The ski day and party were healing and celebratory for the whole community of people that miss him and want to remember him.
As I have been since the beginning of this journey of grief, I remain amazed by the power and importance of community – and the role that your community plays in continuing to remember someone.