When it became apparent that Mark didn’t have much time left, I took his hand and carefully pitched my voice into neutral.
“Do you want a memorial service?"
He shrugged. “Well, I don’t. You can have one if you want one, for you. Don’t do it for me."
“Where do you want me to scatter your ashes?"
“I don’t care."
But I persisted…In the ocean? In Alaska? In the desert? How about in the ponderosa pine forest at the top of the Palm Springs aerial tram?
He first hesitated, and I thought he was going to tell me again that it made no difference to him. But he answered: “Yes, the pine forest. I love it up there."
In the end I didn’t schedule a memorial service. I don’t know if that was the right decision, but when I envisioned a formal ceremony, I didn’t think I could make it through it. Mark had been blessed with opportunities to see beloved friends and associates in the weeks before his death, and he’d said a lot of goodbyes. Dear friends visited and sat with him, recounting old stories, sharing memories, and telling him how important he had been in their lives. Although his physical state was weakening daily, he managed a final trip to see his golf buddies in southern California, and he even played a couple of holes of golf. He was exhausted and could barely sit upright without help, but he relished his time with his friends and family. In my mind, the important stuff had already happened.
It’s the positive side of dying from a lingering illness rather than from a sudden death: There is great suffering to endure, but there is also the opportunity to say what should be said, to close doors gently, to cherish the love and friendship in your heart, bittersweet with the knowledge of the change on the horizon.
Last week, just about six months after Mark’s death, our son Chris and I packed up his ashes and headed to Palm Springs.
I originally thought that there would only be three of us walking Mark’s ashes into the forest: Chris, Mark’s sister JoAnn and me. But in the end we were twelve, a lovely accretion of friends.
There were some minor obstacles to overcome. I wasn’t quite sure (ahem) though I hadn’t researched it (ahem) that scattering funerary ashes in a California state park was—shall we say—a condoned activity? I knew that scattering a small box of ashes in a remote area wouldn’t be harmful in any way, but there are those pesky rules… And in order to access the tram, all backpacks and packages are inspected at a security checkpoint.
Mark would have enjoyed the humor of my stashing his ashes at the very bottom of my backpack, under our packed lunch for the twelve of us who ascended the mountain. He would also have appreciated that I traveled through the security line right between his sister and her friend, both Catholic nuns in habits, to enhance my image as a law-abiding, rule-following passenger—not that carrying the ashes should have created any security concerns. I just didn’t want to answer any questions about them. The security guard patted down the backpack and felt the hard box at the bottom, but when I opened my pack for inspection he declined to dig below the slippery mass of sandwiches in ziplock bags.
From Mountain Station, we walked down the long ramp into the forest. The top of the tram is over 8000 feet above sea level, and the scenery is stunning. A series of trails wind over ridges and through meadows, huge honey-colored rock formations and stands of ponderosa pines. It was one of the tram's busiest weekends, but as we descended, we left the crowds behind. (Mark and I found this to be true every time we took the tram to the forest to hike. I estimate that only about one percent or less of those going up the tram make the effort to walk to enjoy the forest.) We found a meadow area a short distance off from the trail, and the twelve of us were on our own, in silence.
The day was cool and the ground was covered with a thin layer of snow, but the sun had some warmth and the air was still. We opened the box of ashes and I asked each person to help with the scattering, saying any words that they wanted to say. We passed the box from person to person. Sister JohnEllen and Sister JoAnn offered a prayer. Mark’s ashes tumbled into the snow, ivory against white.
It was very simple.
I don’t believe that Mark is in those ashes. They are the mere remnant of his physical being. Nevertheless, standing in that forest with those lovely people who cared about him, watching the fine ash drop to the ground, is something I will never forget. It didn’t given me closure (I have a way to go for that) but it has given me great comfort.
Down to the valley floor in Palm Springs, at night, Mountain Station beams a single white light. The brown mountains disappear into the darkness, and the light becomes a low-hanging star. I look at the star and bid Mark good night.