While celebrating the life of someone who is gone may never ends, as we carry pieces of them with us throughout our lives, processes mark periods of mourning and celebration allowing us to reconnect with the memory of a person and bring peace into our lives.
“I miss you, buddy,” whispered a family friend yesterday, as a he tossed a handful of my dad’s ashes into the air. At over 14,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies, the wind gently grabbed the ashes carrying them away from where we stood at the top of Mount Quandry. I smiled, thinking of my friend’s three week old son, who is named after my father. Some day in the future, we will bring him here.
A week before, I stood at yet another point, in the mountains – this time at dawn. In the peaceful presence of my mom, sister, and family friend, we spread more of his ashes at a point often visited by my family. “Columbine Point” is an outdoor chapel that sits on a ridge with a view of the backside of the front range of the Rockies. Again, the wind gently took the ashes from my hands, spreading them across a field of newly budding wild flowers, as the sun rose, illuminating the back side of the Rockies.
I have been searching for the right word to describe the feeling of releasing ashes, since the experience is new to me and has been anticipated for many years. I still lack the right word; however, I believe it is somewhere between peace, a quiet sense of joy, and a sense of closure – yet, it tugs on the heartstrings of memories. Repeating past moments, only this time to spread ashes, evokes memories of times spent with the missing person in the very same place. Yet, in this version, of the memory, the person, who usually feels absent, is present in physical form – ashes – for the last time. At dawn, with my mom and sister, my brain plays between memories of skiing and hiking in the same place and of all the family photos, taken each year at this same point. My memories become merged with those of the photos, as I am no longer able to separate what I remember from my childhood and what I have reconstructed from hours of looking at family photos. If I had to choose a word or emotion, it would be “right.” I try to center my life on the moments and actions that feel “right,” knowing that my gut, my being, senses something beyond what my brain can – and pulls me in a certain direction. I feel blessed to have found that moment, in the physical presence of my father.
Yet, what overrides the effect of the experience of the living is the emotion and sense of bringing someone home. Home becomes a place where someone truly found belonging and peace while alive. My dad belongs where we have left his physical presence. He found his peace, life, and being in the Rocky Mountains – the same mountains that eventually took his life. I feel a closer sense of what my dad found in Colorado, listening to John Denver’s Rocky Mountain High, a song that feels written for him, paralleling his life. The song walks through the life of a young man moving to Colorado, “coming home to a place he’d never been before,” falling him love with the land, “He climbed cathedral mountains,” and finally died in the mountains, “now he walks in quiet solitude in the forest and the streams.” Standing on top of Mount Quandry evoked such a clear sense of belonging, home, and peace – in a place, I have never physically been, but it is so clear to me that a piece of me has been there and that I feel pulled to places, such as this one. An email from a close friend of my father, confirms his presence in these very footsteps at 14,200 feet many years ago.
I hadn’t given a lot of thought to the physical presence, in ashes, of someone you care so deeply about. As I opened the black box at dawn with my mom and sister looking on, my heart stopped as I reached my hand in. My brain tried to communicate with heart, which felted paused in my chest, as I touched my father. I am not sure what I expected to feel, but the presence of someone, who has been gone for so long, was shocking. While it has been eight years, since an embrace has been possible, the physical presence overwhelmed me. Taking the step of releasing that presence involves a few deep breaths and the feeling of “right.” Ultimately, it brought a sense of closure, one I have been ready for for years. I don’t mean “closure” in the sense that I am done mourning, done celebrating, or done remembering my father – for those things will never happen. I don’t foresee wanting the memories of the joy, love, and adventure he brought to my life to end, for they are not sad, in the sense that most people imagine “grieving,” they are simply a part of who I am, perhaps, the best part of who I am. Yet, spreading the ashes, brought closure in bringing his physical presence home.
As always, Rocky Mountain High echoes my sentiments and where I imagine my father to be:
“Now he walks in quiet solitude the forest and the streams
Seeking grace in every step he takes
His sight has turned inside himself to try and understand
The serenity of a clear blue mountain lake.”