Ashes

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We're winding our way up the Poudre Canyon in my old four-wheel drive - a strange group, to be sure. There's me at the wheel, hoping this morning will go right. There's my 14-year-old son, silent in the backseat, watching the canyon flash by. There's dark-eyed Eva. And there's the dead woman, Mary. Mary wanted her ashes scattered in the river up this canyon, and we are on our way to honor her wish. 

I glance at my son in the rearview mirror. His hair is still damp from his early morning run. He'd tugged self-consciously at his T-shirt when I picked him up from running practice. "Shouldn't I change?‚" he'd asked. "I mean, since. ..." His green eyes shone too brightly. Mary wouldn't mind what he wore, I'd told him. She'd just be glad he came. 

Mary died months ago, a suicide. I had reeled at the news of this abrupt and final decision by a woman who'd stuck out life for more than six decades. Many things had gone wrong for Mary, I knew. But she had remained active and - I thought - engaged in living. Just days before her death, she'd been telling me how much she loved to watch the deer and eagles in the foothills near her home. 

I hadn't seen this death coming, and I didn't understand it. 

It was even worse for my son, with whom she had shared the sort of kindred-spirit friendship that transcends age. When I told him she was gone, he paled. He nodded his head in one short jerk as if to say, So that's how it is. Then he clammed up. 

Knowing my son was one of the things that had gone right for Mary. The friendship that started when he was a grade-schooler in bifocals and she was a silver-haired artist had been good for both of them. They often walked along the neighborhood irrigation canal, a diversion from the Poudre River. One summer day earlier in their friendship, I had joined them. They crunched along through dried grass, heads up, talking and searching for ripe mulberries. She promised to bring him her next copy of Architectural Digest. She asked how his artwork was progressing, considered his ideas about religion, and agreed that, yes, sometimes kids are mean. That was Mary: involved, alive. 

Now that he's older, my son has lost the bifocals, added muscle and height to his thin frame, and learned what it feels like to belong. But there had been a time when Mary's friendship was his life raft. In return, he had offered her, perhaps, something of the happiness of a relationship with a son or grandson, without all the complications. Because I am deeply grateful for their friendship and because I am haunted by the image of Mary dying alone, I hope for a lot today. I hope that what we do here will somehow take care of Mary in a way that no one could seem to manage while she lived - and in turn take care of us as well. 

I first met Mary's best friend, Eva, at the memorial service, which Eva arranged. Eva said she planned to scatter Mary's ashes when the time was right - and yes, we could come along. 

But now that we've come, I'm feeling awkward. We have no minister, no script, no experience in scattering ashes. We've grown quiet in the truck, wondering how this will work out. But we've made our way to the spot Eva chose, and there's nothing for it but to pull in and park. 

We unload Mary's box in its bag of crushed velvet and look around. This is a happy, open place where families come. The river runs high, talking to itself as it rushes by. The cottonwood leaves glow yellow against a muted autumn sky. How right that it has toned down its usual, northern Colorado bright-eyed blue. How right everything around us feels, in fact. My awkwardness slips away. 

Eva holds out the velvet bag. "Do you want to choose the spot?‚" she asks my son. Her offer takes my breath - can he handle such a gift? He looks across the river, then back at us. "Yes, I do," he says. He accepts Mary's bag in both arms. 

And so my son leads us among the water-worn rocks on the edge of the Poudre. He stops by a set of flat stones that extend into the water. Eva pulls Mary's crematory box from the bag, pries it open, and hands my son a bag of finely powdered ashes. 

We say our goodbyes on the rocks in the Poudre. Eva and I speak many words. My son simply tells Mary that he will miss her. And this is enough. The three of us exchange clear-eyed glances. "Are you ready?‚" Eva asks my son. He steps to a rock in the middle of the current, opens the bag, and begins to gently shake its contents over the clear water. 

A light wind picks up; a veil of powder laces the air downwind of us. My son's runner's legs are steady on his rock, his movements calm and sure as if he'd done this before. We're silent, listening to the Poudre move down the mountains and past this place. Ashes stream above us into the wind, below us into the water. They diffuse into the golden-brown river bottom and become indistinguishable from the moving current. 

Kathleen Dean lives and writes in Fort Collins, Colorado. This essay first appeared in the 2006 anthology Pulse of the River, edited by Gary Wockner and Laura Pritchett.

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