We scattered your ashes out in your favorite place; the ridge overlooking the lake that goes on forever. The place where you would ride your dirt bike for days on end and pose for photographs high atop the cliffs. It seems fitting that your final resting place would be so far from civilization; far from the madness of the concrete confines of the city cage where you lived and worked and dreamed about a future life in the wilderness.
The trees, rocks and water that brought you back time and time again with the promise that you would one day retire in this place you called “Paradise,” surrounded us as we said our final goodbyes. It was your plan to live out your years among the wolves, bears, foxes, eagles and other creatures and critters that populate this place. This was God’s Country for you, and you longed to come home – spirit and flesh joined together for eternity.
Unlike you, dear one, we didn’t ride the winding trails and navigate treacherous terrain to deliver you to your resting place. We came by car, as far as the road would bring us. We hiked the rest of the way, your mother and I. It was your day of birth – Nov. 29th – and despite the forecasted rain and cold, the skies opened up early in the morning and the sun blessed us with its warmth. It was as if you and your sister had pulled a few strings with the creator.
As we slowly made our way to the place in the photo – the one where you are sitting on your dirt bike, perched perilously close to the edge of the cliff – we talked about you as if you were there with us. And you were there with us, whispering on the wind as we negotiated the final steps to where the photo had been taken so long ago.
It was a production getting your ashes out of the box (“don’t waste any money on a fancy urn,” you always said). I forgot to bring a knife, so I used my house key to cut open the plastic bag that held your powdered remains. I took a deep breath and secured myself safely inside the pine tree that lives at the edge of the cliff.
As we took turns scattering your ashes, a strong gust of wind came and carried you out into the canyon, down among the trees and into the lake below. It was beautiful. Some of your ashes clung to the base of the tree, and your mother said, “the tree will grow bigger, now.”
After we finished scattering your ashes, we found a giant rock and sat for awhile. The pain and stress of the last two months came crushing down on my heart like a load of gravel. I was overwhelmed with emotion. Thoughts of you (and of my mother, who died shortly after you passed away) knocked the wind from my chest. For a second I thought my heart might crack wide open. “We love you, Bill,” I said. “We love you.”
As we made our way back to the car, the stress and anxiety of what has been a hard year melted away. You were at peace. It felt like a heavy weight had been lifted from my heart. Your mother would later say the same thing. She felt your presence out on the cliff, and she was happy you were finally home.
“I love you, Mom.” Those were the last words I spoke to my mother while she was alive. There were words of comfort at the hospital less than a week later, as much for myself as they were for her. “Go be with Violet.” My mother’s mother, Violet, died when Mom was just seventeen. And now, as she lay unconscious, struggling to breathe; as the cancer that had wracked her body for years smothered the last bit of life from her chest, I encouraged her to go be with her Mom.
My mother and I had a very complicated relationship. It was rocky and full of unpleasant encounters and fights that now seem so petty and childish. Her life wasn’t easy. She was so wounded and broken. Negativity oozed from every single cell in her body. Yet I loved her, even though there were times when I thought I hated her. I came to understand in the last decade or so that it wasn’t hate that I felt, but dislike. Dislike of some of her actions. Her words. My absence was self-preservation more than anything.
In many ways we are a mirror of our parents. And maybe that’s one of the things that bothered me the most about my mother. I saw in her some of the things I didn’t like about myself. Like a wild beast locked in a cage, she would lash out at anyone who got too close, even the ones who tried to help her. I too had been like this once. Her mental health issues reared up like a three-headed snake at different times, and the depression and hurt would make her spew vile from her lips.
The fact that I had trouble being around my mother as she got older says as much about me as it does about her. I simply didn’t have the patience or the desire to rebuild what had been fractured. Some things can’t be fixed. We would go long periods, up to a year sometimes, without speaking. The manipulation, the lying, it became too much for me. Mostly, though, I didn’t like the person I became around her. Most of the time I wasn’t nice to my mother. We brought out the worst in each other.
She could be loving, mother, but her friendships always came with an expiration date. She sought in others what she herself lacked. No matter where she moved – and she was always running, searching, hiding – my mother would befriend an older woman who would become “Mom” to her. These relationships always ended the same, with “Mom” becoming the enemy. My mother expected so much, from everyone, from the world, from life.
In the end, my mother admitted she wasn’t afraid to die, she had been afraid to live. It was extremely hard to hear those words. Her mental health struggles, her brokenness, had so overwhelmed her throughout her life, my mother lived in a frozen state of fear, desiring so much, but unable to break the chains and live the kind of life she longed for. We forget that our parents are people, flesh and blood beings with hopes, fears, desires, dreams and hurts.
I didn’t cry when my mother slipped from this world to the next. I still haven’t shed a single tear. My heart ached, and still does. I feel different, empty in so many ways. I think about her. It’s still so raw, her death. I try to process our relationship, to understand how it deteriorated so badly over the decades. How this woman who used to sit and watch hockey games with me; who put up with my music obsession and listened to some god-awful bands in my teens, became someone I hardly knew.
One memory sticks in my mind; it’s tattooed permanently on my heart. It was my eighth or ninth birthday. My father was missing in action, off drunk somewhere (before he sobered up and completely changed his life). Mother scratched up a bit of change and sent my brother to the corner store. Later that afternoon, mom presented me with a cake – the kind that came out of a box that included the container to cook it in and all the mix – and a tiny, toy car (actually, a small front-loading tractor). It wasn’t much, but it was all she had. It stands as one of my best birthdays ever.
She was complicated, and scarred; beaten down by personal demons, but my mother loved me and my brothers in her own way. And now she is gone, along with a piece of me.
“I love you, Mom.”