Retirement Talk

WHAT to do with the rest of your life?


Episode 753 Ashes to …

This is Retirement Talk. I'm Del Lowery.

"It is just so cold up there", Vern said. "I decided to go up and get her and send her back to New York. I just couldn't stand to think of her up there by herself in the cold and dark". Up there meant the front range of the Chugach Mountains above Anchorage, Alaska. He had placed a jar with his mother's ashes inside towards the top of one of the mountains just that past summer. She had come over from Germany as a young girl seventy years earlier. She had lived in New York City ever since. But she had visited Alaska a couple of times in the summer and thought the mountains were so beautiful that she asked that her ashes be placed there when she died. She never experienced the mountains in the winter.

"Where do you want me to put your ashes?" my wife asked me this past week. So, I just turned seventy and now things are getting a bit more serious. I laughed off the inquiry with "I don't care. It won't mean anything to me. I'll be gone." We walked down the trail to our afternoon coffee.

The following day I was having lunch with a friend whose wife died about a year ago. He was planning on a dusting of her ashes in one of our National Parks that she particularly  liked. I suppose that is against the law but really. I mean who is going to stop him. And for that matter I can't imagine why they should. What does it matter? I suppose there are reasons but I don't know what they are.

He told me that he had changed his mind. He didn't know what he would do with them. He didn't want them sitting around in a box but he didn't really know  where to put them. He had asked his children but they deferred to his judgement. So....he is left holding the box so to speak.

I had another friend a few years ago dying of asbestosis - cancer of the lungs. He asked that his ashes be scattered over Bellingham Bay. He liked to walk along the water and gaze out towards the horizon. When he had trouble walking he would find a bench and spend an hour or so each day just sitting there letting the sounds of the waves sooth his aching body and settle his mind. We participated in the scattering of his ashes from a dock that extends out into the bay from one of our parks.

There were perhaps a dozen of us that gathered on a cloudy summer morning. His sister and husband had come from the east coast. The unitarian minister said a few words and then his sister talked for a few moments about their childhood as brother and sister. Then we took turns releasing his ashes a handful at a time and they slowly swirled into the water. Brenda had brought some flowers and gently placed them on the water. They set still for a moment and slowly started moving away from the dock and out into the bay. We walked to the nearest coffee shop and shared stories of Dale and how he had touched our lives.

It has been several years since we launched our friend on the bay. Our windows look out over the water and my eyes go there first thing every morning. I think of my friend sometime during each day. He is out there in the storm. He is out there in the calm. He is in the reflected sun or the crashing waves. He seems to have chosen a great place from my point of view.

When our favorite dog of 13 years died we buried him in the backyard. We placed him in a corner of the yard that is little used but is a beautiful little nook heavy in foliage. We placed a flat slate stone over his grave and then planted a miniature lilac bush next to it. Every morning since I find myself walking over to that corner and just for a moment saying, "Hi Zack. How are you doing". He responds just as he always did with silence but yet there is a sense of friendship.

What we do with ourselves or with our family or friends when death comes is important to some. I don't think it is important to the ones who die but it is to those that are left behind. We need to be comfortable with the decision. I'm not sure we want others to be reminded of us when they find a cardboard box in the attic. I would rather they thought of me when they looked to the mountains, the open water or a bucolic spot in the forest. 

If I would have been Vern I would have left my mothers ashes up in the Chugach Range. Winter cold and dark wouldn't bother her ashes. And I would be reminded of her every time I looked at the mountains. And I would probably say to myself "How you doin' Mom".

This is Retirement Talk.

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