A couple weeks have passed since my husband and I spent a Sunday afternoon spreading ashes on a sunny and windy fall Colorado day. Since then, snow flurries have come and gone and the Christmas decorations have been carefully hung and displayed. At odd moments I still find myself reflecting on the intimate and peaceful experience of spreading first the ashes of my mother, who passed on three years ago now as well as her first born child, my eldest brother James.
It had been a spontaneous decision. My husband and I were enthusiastically organizing and sorting through a mountain of Christmas décor – a dozen different red and green plastic tubs leaning against the basement wall; a result of combining two mature households, both with a penchant for all things Christmas! It wasn’t our first cut. A better part of the last year had been devoted to paring down our accumulated belongings. It was a process that was at moments overwhelming and at other moments a delightful treasure hunt. We were down to the final round. As I relocated items on the plastic shelving units I was forced to move “them” once again: numerous black boxes of ashes from our loved ones both human and canine. My heart paused – I stared at the words etched on square sheets of yellowed parchment paper – how did it come to pass that our basement had become a virtual burial site for three humans and two dogs?
It was time to deal with my share of these physical remains. The timing finally felt right, but how? My mother, Lorna Walsh, had remained a devoted admirer of her beloved country – The Land Down Under – ever since she had left it as a war bride over sixty years prior. My husband Cliff suggested we wait until we could plan a trip to Australia and distribute her ashes there. What about my brother’s ashes? My father had handed me Jim’s ashes in 2006 in a somber tone asking “Could you take care of these?” I had answered equally briefly and simply responded “Yes.” It was an issue of duty and respect now. Allowing the ashes to remain in our basement any longer seemed simply negligent. Yet, I was still challenged by the notion of the most symbolic and thoughtful way to distribute these remains. I barely knew my brother. He was 13 years older than I and spent the majority of his life in institutions due to a number of physical and mental disabilities. My mother Lorna was not a particularly sentimental person and had left no instructions as to what should be done with her ashes. She had never seen Colorado, but had recalled many times the incredible blueness of the sky in Australia. Since Colorado is known for its blue skies, this site seemed appropriate. My sister knew that my brother had a love of horses and suggested such a spot. So that was it. We would find a spot with horses and blue skies. Simple enough ~ so it seemed!
We live about 12 miles from Boulder, Colorado. There are plenty of stables and corrals along the way. However, I guess we had not thought through the logistics of spreading ashes on what was most likely going to be private property. Then an epiphany! Boulder has a horse hospital and rehab operation – working with individuals with special needs – that sounded just perfect! Maybe no one would be around and we could peacefully distribute the ashes. No such luck. When we arrived at the center there were several activities going on. No suspect looks were received, but there just wasn’t the solitude we needed for a reverent moment. We drove back to Westminster.
As we drove in what amounted to circles, Cliff recalled an open space near some public property with a clear view of Boulder’s Flatirons; beautiful iconic sandstone rock formations that have come to symbolize Boulder. “Let’s go for it” I said. There was a generously sized turnout off the road with ample parking space. We envisioned wild horses that roamed freely here in some earlier time. It appeared we might have intruded on someone else’s private moments as we pulled into the parking area since the previous occupants in a single car vacated rather quickly. So, I quickly reached for the first bag; suddenly the weight of this container was very apparent. I got busy cutting open the bag hoping no other vehicles would pull up during this process. The wind was blowing. I was now very aware of the fine powder granules on my fingers. I bent lower to the ground and dragged the bag along the grasses paying particular attention to the direction of unexpected wind gusts. First spreading my mom’s ashes, and then my brother’s over top hers. My husband held my hands and prayed. His words were loving and warm. Cliff had come to know these individuals only through the stories I had shared with him – he knew they were already in God’s care. It was done. Dust to dust.
Cliff took a couple pictures and we decided to share them with my grown sons via text. The responses were “Wow!” and “How did Mom take it?” It is hard for me to articulate the essence of this experience or why that particular fall day it seemed like the right moment to celebrate the lives of two loved ones and to release their ashes back to the earth. I can only say that personally being able to complete this circle of life was an honor and a privilege. I can now drive to this spot and cherish the clear blue sky with visions of wild horses freely roaming its plains and know that life is to be celebrated.