They are in the rustling trees, they are in the groaning woods
They are in the crying grass, they are in the moaning rocks
—Sweet Honey in the Rock
Where shall we bury your mother? You asked her once and she said, smiling, why not keep me in the basement? Our basement is a joke, crammed illogically with old toys, kid’s drawings, moldy books, our parents’ teacups and old furniture, our own rough drafts and old taxes. What we just can’t get rid of.
“Ashes to ashes,” she said. “When you die, plant me next to you both. I want to be with you.”
And there she is—in the basement. You keep losing her in the clutter—that ordinary cardboard box, but heavier than it should be, her ash packed hard in a plain wooden cylinder—and I keep finding it. And thinking I’ve discovered that package of chotchkes we meant to send off to a cousin, I tear off the tape and pull back the lid, before I realize who it is. We feel guilty and not. We keep her afloat somehow in a comfortable, if damp, underworld limbo, brainstorming periodically about what might make her happy. We think about places and meanings—a stone in the secret garden to put her under, or simply a sprinkling by the daylilies where a tree might take root?
But she said, take me with you. She was always a traveler. I have no certainty about my own permanence here either—a garden is never your own, nor a house. I’ve come to terms with leaving my garden to the next owner of this lot—but your mother? So we think about where she’d come from and where she’d been—her last trip to Kathmandu, oblivious to the civil war next door, her wine tour in Provence, her cruise up the Rhine, the ice shelf in Alaska, where she posed in a parka with Helen. Is she a restless ghost? Would she be grounded?
We talk about our own deaths more frequently now, and when we do, it’s usually a question of where. You asked me about Ferncliff, the cemetery almost next door. We drive past those graves every day; and in spring we notice the crabapple trees in bloom, like clouds above the headstones. I said never, never, never in Ohio. But you interviewed the gravesman—eighty thousand souls are planted there, more than the population of Springfield, but there is, he said, room for twenty thousand more. It would be good enough, you say, always resisting change. You lived in one house your whole childhood, though you broke into the empty homes of your Miami Beach neighbors and pretended travel. I, on the other hand, was forever transient—a gypsy childhood, a string of apartments, not one of them a serious home. Our family, we only had each other. Only an old car with a rumble seat that took us from Los Angeles to Kansas City, to New Jersey to Boston to Canada to New York to Buffalo to Baltimore to Washington to Chicago. And then I went to New York again (always New York), and Iowa and back to California. I’ve lived in Ohio longer than anywhere, and yet it doesn’t seem right to be buried here. Not even in my garden, an ephemeral amongst the perennials. My backyard is a place I have made; it is not Ohio.
We talk about death—and we talk about all the places in the world to rest, and the heart’s places, and, in talking death, we map our desires. For what is this sense of an ending but a need to shape our longeurs, to endure duration, to find ourselves in our own absence.
Neither of us would be casketed or embalmed; neither of us have hopes of afterlife. So why should it matter, once we are refined by fire, where our siftings fall to earth? But it seems to.
Strange, when we carry our lives over into death, that it is a place, a location on the GPS, we seem to hunger for. We want to be planted—or perhaps, for those freer spirits, set afloat in the eternal sea. You, my dear, entertain a fantasy of staking out a fortress on the river bank, or rather on a lonely promontory in Ferncliff Cemetery that has a clear view of the river below, the creek you seem happy to kayak down over and over again now that you’re nearing eighty. It seems to me a place of eternal longing.
My own fantasy began long ago after a long day of jeeping from Aspen Colorado, past Marble, and over the wild and lonely Pearl Pass in the early 1960’s, before Aspen became a magnet for the rich, before it even had a paved road or a traffic signal. My friend Tim was driving his old jeep—I was eighteen and yet to get a driver’s license. We made it through the pass, forded the river, and stopped for a while outside Gothic, where I set up my paints in a ghost barn and sketched Cathedral Mountain. Then we rode on until it was almost evening, the sun low above the mountains, the road’s bright nimbus of dust lending it all a hazy magic. And there it was: a hill of tall daisies and summer wildflowers, which we waded up to find ancient gravestones buried in the untamed growth. We read the names amid a sea of oxeyes and yarrow and bluebells: Italian and Slavic, babies and young men and wives from the days of silver mines. And then at the top of the hill, stretching my arms in the wind that made the place dizzy, I declared my conclusion—here is where I’ll be buried in a loosely nailed pine box, where I can disappear quickly into the stems and leaves, and hear the wind and feel the great Crested Butte mountain rise above me. I never changed my mind, never questioned that impulse, until . . . well, you had to remind me, didn’t you?
“How will I get you there?” you asked at some moment in our sixties. On a train, in a pine box, two thousand miles? “How will the kids get there? How will I get there? It’s so far away.”
“Kind of a test,” I said, watching you.
A test of what? I wonder now. It’s cheap talk, isn’t it, to laugh together about what to do with those remains. Some tidying, some finishing off, packing up, cleaning of basements, a tribute to the god of flesh and blood. It seems brave, but is it? I’m curiously detached from the facts I’m rehearsing. The closer I get to death, the easier it is to stand back and appreciate the comedy. I think of my parents when we visited them a few years before their deaths. As we fell asleep one night, we heard wild laughter in their bedroom down the hall, so I asked the next morning what it was about. “Being old,” my dad said. “It’s really funny being old.” Not so funny to my oldest son when we tried to talk to him about our plans for burial. “Don’t talk about that!” he barked at us, and bolted from the room, obviously upset. Apparently death looks more dangerous when you are young.
Or perhaps as I’ve aged, thinking too much, I’ve simply become immunized to the thought. Even after my bouts with cancer, do I really believe I’m going to die? How do you think your own extinction? Until that unknowable end, this life will never be more than an essay-in-progress. Here I am, neuropathy from chemo numbing my feet; I’m dying from the toes up, but I’m tall, and it may take forever for death to reach my imagination. The habits of hope are too strong. There’s always a chance of immortality.
So I must perforce leave this grave moment to my children. I’ve already compromised, made it convenient, found other mountains to rest in; they are older and greener, gentler, and more companionable—an old cemetery in Vermont where my parents have just been buried, their ashes mingled as they wished. It’s behind my sister’s house, so it will be visited daily as she takes her walks.
But I still imagine that hillside in Colorado, that place alive with the dead. Can’t I have it all?
Listen—could you save a bit of ash from the grave, measure out a spoonful for each of our kids and tie me up in little bags I’ll make? Or in one of those tiny boxes I’ve saved, never knowing what I’d do with them.
I’ll write some instructions: Take this and hold it, I’ll say to them—try not to lose it in the basement. And then some day, when you are ready, do this for me. Arrange a journey. It should be, of course, to Crested Butte, but since I won’t be here to hear your confession, and since Crested Butte is no longer my Crested Butte—for even now I can imagine gas stations and ugly billboards, neon lights in front of skier motels, not the lone Saloon and General Store and dirt main street that greeted me so long ago—it will be OK to find your own wild and beautiful, lonely place. Make sure the journey is long and a bit difficult; you might have to hike some steep and muddy trail, or ford a stream, balance a jeep along a rocky cliff-edge. But when you finally get there you’ll recognize the spot—the way the light spills through the aspens, the ferns ruffle the floor, the wild daisies like small moons brighten the dusk. Let the sound of the wind become your prayer. Open the pouch and shake my dust free to lift on that song. That’s when you’ll see her—a glimpse as suddenly here and gone as any life—the eighteen-year-old girl who climbed a mountain, thrilled at the beauty, and thought for a stubborn moment about her own unimaginably distant death.