A while back I posted about a little roadside memorial shrine the hubster and I stumbled over in the Sawtooth Mountains, one which I found unusually moving. Well, we found another one last month that grabbed my heart, only this time it was up on a mountain peak overlooking a section of Hells Canyon and the Snake River.
I think part of the reason this one hit me the way it did was because it was still fresh…the flowers, the grief, the love, the remembering. But it also felt personal because there was something we shared with these people; an obvious love for the place we were in.
It got me thinking about how often we do this, those of us who have lost a loved one, instinctively turn to a physical place like a mountain peak, a gravesite, a body of water, a steam engine (more on that little gem below.) As though, with their bodies gone from us, we need to find something else…something still here…to center around instead. I know for me, when my mother died, finding a place satisfied an illogical but still aching and very real physical need, especially in the early days after her loss. It was where where I could locate her, where I could head when I wanted to be near her, or talk to her, or just remember her afterwards.
(Of course these places can also be the spot people avoid when they want to forget somebody, or desecrate when they need to punish…think urinating on a grave or dumping somebody’s ashes down a latrine. It’s always important to remember and respect that not every relationship lost is a good one. However, for the sake of clarity, it’s the loving relationships I’m writing about today.)
After my mother died in Nevada my brother took most of her ashes home with him to scatter over Waimea Bay per her request but I needed something more than that. For all the tangled, aching, complex reasons that shape every journey through grief I wound up also placing her in the Ely cemetery with my grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, second cousins, and a twice great uncle whose grave I have yet to find but am still hellbent on trying. It’s actually the place where I eventually want my ashes to go, too. (Or most of them anyway. I’m totally okay with my kids using whatever they need for their own grief journeys just like I did with my mom’s.)
Interestingly, I also find her in the full moon (which, frankly, even I don’t understand but am happy to go with whenever I’m out and about that time of the month.)
It’s curious, now that I think about it, that I actually find her in multiple places; Waimea Bay, the Ely Cemetery, and the full moon. Here’s an article written by another woman who’s linking her husband to multiple places by scattering his ashes all over the world; The 9 Things No One Tells You About Scattering Ashes. It’s a great read…not too long, moving, funny, with some truly useful information to boot. If you’ve been afraid of talking (or thinking) about the topic of grief rituals Tré Miller Rodríguez’s column is a worthy place to start.
There’s one particular ash-scattering story that’s a favorite of mine. Ely, Nevada, besides holding the remains of much of my family, is also home to one of the few still-up-and-running steam-engine powered trains. It’s called the Ely Ghost Train and is something of a mecca for steam train enthusiasts who come from all over the world for a chance just to drive the thing.
A staff member once told me the story of a mother and son who showed up at the train asking to ride up in the engine compartment in memory of the steam-engine loving husband and father they’d recently lost. This being Ely they were of course welcomed aboard after which, about halfway through the ride, they revealed to the engineer the real reason they were there. They pulled out a bag of ashes and proceeded to beg permission…according to the wishes of the deceased…to empty them into the firebox where the coal was currently burning. I’m happy to say that the engineer perfectly understood and instantly agreed.
I love this story for two reasons. On the one hand it’s just a great story (and classically Ely BTW. They don’t do anything by the book there.) However, it’s also tender and poignant for me because it reveals that primal instinct again…the way that mother and son traveled to a place where they could anchor into the enduring spirit of the man they loved while, at the same time, surrender their final claim to the warm, beautiful body that had held them, spoke to them, kissed them, gazed at them, and touched them in the thousand ways that only a body can. That’s a lot to finally and irrevocably let go of.
I don’t know. Good-byes just don’t get any bigger than that for me, they don’t, which is probably why these little, wild shrines speak to me the way they do. They remind me of all the final good-byes I watched unfold during my hospice years and how sacred each one was, the times when I stood completely forgotten by a bedside witnessing the final exchange of intimacies so private and pure and searing that they seemed to fill up the room with a pulsing grace that erased everything…everything…but the love of that moment.
They completely changed me over time, those moments. How could they not? So that now, when I come across memorials like this so full of that caliber of love, I can feel the grace swirling around me again. And while my heart definitely breaks a little each time, these places also remind me of the Big Thing the dying helped me see…that I have to keep loving as much as I can, as long as I can, with whoever or whatever will let me because over time, really, that’s the only thing that’s ever made me truly, completely happy.
I’ll leave you with the final view this departed Veteran was left with. Who wouldn’t love to hang around this place forever?