Ashes to Ashes

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On Christmas Eve in 2007 my mother killed herself.

On Christmas Eve 2007, I was reborn.

It may seem terribly callous to credit that first event as the cause of the second, but I now believe it to be the truth. And I’m long done with gilding my dysfunctional past in order to mask what truly happened in my life. I’m not ashamed anymore. I am not responsible for much of it, so I should not feel humiliated remembering it or sharing it.

My mother took her life over three years ago. This past weekend I returned to my home town with Kelsey and finally decided to find the spot where she breathed her last, poisoned breath. I can’t really explain why I wanted to go there, except that I guess I was grasping for that elusive cliche of death called “closure”. As I made the drive out to Sooke I wasn’t sure if I’d find it, but perhaps in the very least I would come to understand why she chose that spot. I decided this was a good time, as Jorden was always uncomfortable with the idea of going there, or with doing anything with Nana’s ashes. John also. So it seemed a great time to do this, while it was just Kelsey and I in town.

I also had decided that I would dispose of her ashes there, as she chose that spot to die because it was a spot that she loved and that made her happy. Her ashes had been stored in a manila envelope in my closet since her cremation. A few times I had attempted to take them to the beach to release her, but something always stopped me. The contents of that yellow envelope represented the last of my lineage, other than my half-sister. It was the dust of all I ever knew for a parent, yet at the same time was the last ashy remnants that represented a childhood and youth filled with sadness, hardship and despair. But I felt it was time to release that, to release my mother and to release whatever it all meant to me. So I brought those ashes to Victoria with me.

As Kelsey and I embarked on the one-and-a-half hour drive out of the city and into the oceanside oasis of Sooke, I began to feel deep headache coming on. As we approached the halfway mark to our destination, I took a couple of wrong turns and got overly frustrated with myself. I realized that I was getting tense and a bit panicky. Anxiety had definitely come for a visit. At this point I realized with sadness that I had forgotten the envelope of ashes at the hotel. I was a bit crushed, but decided to just continue on anyway as it was too late to turn back now. If after visiting the spot I felt strongly about returning with the ashes to distribute them here, I could do that tomorrow or another time.

I tried to concentrate on the beautiful country drive along the two lane highway that wound its way past farmlands, fields of wildflowers and horse corals, with occasional glimpses of the open sea at our side through the trees. As we neared Sooke I tried to imagine what was going through my mother’s head on this long drive. She would have had plenty of time to think about what she had left her home planning to do. She had, after all, headed out here with a purpose; she had brought with her sleeping pills and her vacuum hose. Was she feeling sad and alone, did she cry, did she think of me and my sister, of her grandchildren? Or was she content in her decision, at peace with what she was planning to do? It was a long drive with plenty of time for reflection. Did she have any second thoughts? Or was she resigned to abandon this life, to leave her children and grandchildren behind in a sea of culpable remorse?

As we arrived in Sooke we stopped to pick up my good friend who just happened to be in Sooke this weekend for a family get-together. That was some strange chi there! As soon as my friend got into the car, I felt some peace return. I was able to step back from the precipice of a panic attack where I had been poised only moments before. I breathed a sigh of relief as my friend got in and we set off for the Jordan River, another 40 minutes or so down the road.

We all chatted lightheartedly as we drove until we reached the beautiful Jordan River. Then I felt a little bit of panic threatening to seep in. I was looking for Forebay Road, as was listed in the coroner’s report. A hydro road off of Forebay road, to be exact. We ended up passing it, realizing this only after stopping to ask for directions and getting strange looks as to why we would want to know where that road is, a gravel logging road as it turned out.

Just before ForeBay Road is the gorgeous Jordan River. It is breathtakingly beautiful, and I immediately understood why my mom liked it here. I got out of the car to take a photo and as I crossed the mound of rocky beach to take a look my eyes settled on an interesting site: hundreds of seagulls littered the beach. There they all loitered in silence, quiet and not squawking. Just sitting, standing and pacing on the beach. I chuckled to myself at the correlation presented by these gulls.

My mom always loved seagulls. She had a funny little connection to them of sorts. She used to tell me that her father – who died when she was a girl – was reincarnated as a seagull, because he loved the ocean and the beach so much. She bought me the book Jonathan Livingston Seagull and read it to me many times. She had little seagull models in her home. She drew seagulls all the time. So when I first stepped up over that hill and saw those seagulls I just stared for a moment….then I smiled. Perhaps this is where I should put her ashes. It seemed almost story-book perfect, except the part where I forgot them back at the hotel. I sighed and decided I could bring them back tomorrow with Kelsey if I really wanted to leave them at this spot.

We got back in the car and returned up the road until we spotted the street sign that bared the name on my mother’s coroner’s report: Forebay Road. I turned onto the gravel road and knew instantly that I did not want to go there. I could taste the anxiety in my throat. I felt heavy in my heart and decided that I did not want or need to see her final resting place. It was a logging road in the forest; that’s all I needed to know. All I really needed from this trip was to see one of her favourite places on this earth, a stretch of ocean beach where I’m sure she spent her last moments in our world sitting and watching the seagulls while reflecting on her decision and what she was about to do.

We drove my friend back to her hotel and then headed back into the city, both of us a little somber. As we had dinner that night, I told Kelsey more about a spot I used to visit with my mom, a spot I had mentioned earlier may be a good place to release her ashes. It was a beach not far from an apartment we once lived in, right along Dallas Road. We called it Sunset Beach. I was in grade two and three then, and often we would walk down to that beach with our cat on a leash (he was an indoor cat) and a blanket and sit there together, my mom and I, and watch the sunset. She would read magazines or draw pictures while I combed the beach for shells and smooth stones or driftwood. Often when I think of mom now it’s these short but warm memories that come to mind. Although fewer of these memories exist in my mind, the good memories are now the ones that come to me first and seem to circumvent the bad ones.

Kelsey agreed that this seemed like a great spot for her ashes, so the next morning we drove over to Dallas Road. I wasn’t exactly sure where Sunset Beach was as it is a long stretch of beach after beach along that coastline, but as luck would have it, Sunset Beach was the first one we came across and tried. As we got out of the car, we saw this sign:

Kind of a coincidental message. We walked over to the first path, and followed it down to the beach. As soon as we emerged from the trees into the crescent-shaped bay, I could not believe it. This was it, Sunset Beach. Amazing.

Path to the beach.
Sunset Beach

We made our way gingerly to the end of the rocky abutment and sat on a barnacle-covered rock and just looked at each other and looked around and admired the beauty of this beach. It felt right.

I opened the manila envelope and asked Kelsey if she’d like to see the ashes. She did, so as I pulled open the top of the envelope I noticed a silver disc inside the ashes. I pulled it out to see that it must be some kind of identification tag for the ashes. I decided to keep it, not sure yet what I’ll do with it. Maybe a necklace! 😀

When you are looking at the ashes of someone you knew, it is a very strange feeling to think that this is all that is left of them. This is my mom. This is Nana. And with that, I overturned the envelope and poured her into the water. We watched silently as her ashes mixed in with the water and the ocean plants. We cried. We hugged. And I felt some release. That was it, she was gone. Gone back to where she always loved to be: the ocean. Kelsey pointed out that the water would take her all over the earth, she’d get to visit so many different oceans, seas and countries.

After a few minutes we got up and returned to the beach. We crossed back across the rocks and when at the beach, I turned to look back. There perched on the rock where we just were, was a lone seagull.

We spent some time playing in the ice cold water, screaming and running from the cold waves at first, until our feet numbed and became immune to the cold. I showed Kelsey how to pop kelp bubbles, we watched barnacles come out of their casings under the water, we found big jellyfish to admire and we poked sea anemones until they closed.

When we had enough fun to distract us from our sadness, we decided it was time to go. It was so poignant to spend time with my own daughter, sharing some of the very same moments my mom shared with me on this very same beach. It was therapeutic to resuscitate those happy memories, more happy memories that will one day conquer all the bad ones. Because to dwell on what went wrong in one’s life is a destiny of sorrow and anger that I don’t want to live. Instead, take with you from the past only those fond memories, bringing them with you to make you whole and functional and valuable to the world around you.

I was looking for some closure. I’m not sure that those left behind to live when a loved one dies ever really find this thing they refer to as “closure”. If closure means peace and understanding and forgiveness, I think I’ve found it. I’m not sure this one final act of letting go is what brought that to me, but it may just be one of the bolts that shuts the door to that part of my life. I don’t feel any vast change or difference in my being, just a little more peace and a closer understanding of how I can deal with what has happened in my life. I don’t know that those chapters will ever be closed, but at least they are quieted.


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