Saturday, July 26, 2008

A Journey to Remember--long

Here is my 2007 Christmas letter for Bill's and my family...

What a year! I’ve made it through one year. We all have, and I feel that Bill’s spirit has been with me every step of the way. He told me that first night after he died that I would be okay, and I believe him. You have also been with me through your phone calls, help around the house, cards, and prayers. Thank you so much for your support. It is impossible for me to express how much it has meant to me.

This past year has been about survival, grief, and remembrance. I had the privilege of remembering and honoring Bill in a special way. I traced paths he took when he felt most alive—paths he rode, walked, hiked, and drove. It was in visiting these places that my grief found places to cry, to be angry, to remember, to question, to seek answers, to surrender, to rest, and…to heal.

Before Bill died, he gave me a beautiful gift. Not knowing his fate the next day, he told me where he wanted his ashes to be scattered. In the past we had discussed places such as Mendocino, CA and Ouray, CO. That night he said, “I know exactly where I want my ashes. I want them wedged between two rocks above Torrey, Utah.” And so one of my goals this last year was to make that happen.

Before I made it to Torrey, though, I needed to take a journey of my own. This first year without Bill has been a journey to remember…a journey to remember a person, a husband, a friend, a cyclist, a son, a brother, an uncle, a nephew whose life had more impact than he could ever have imagined. It has been a search for healing. With each place I visited, I realized as I left, “He’s not here, either,” as if I really expected to find him. Early on I learned that logically knowing he is gone is not the same as accepting the finality of him being gone. I will never understand it completely. I don’t catch myself thinking that he’s just on a ride and he’ll be home soon anymore, but every day I wish it were true.

My first challenges after the memorial included facing the “firsts” nearby such as Trader Joes, REI, the dog park, bike rides and my own backyard, which many of you have helped me to deal with in some way or another. Laying Kenu to rest next to Yana felt like more than I could bear. I felt very angry and alone when I realized that the family I nurtured and cared for the last 15 years were all gone. All of them.

Next came finances and other administrative tasks, which still bog me down. In March, I went to Vancouver, and then to San Diego and Thousand Oaks—all places laden with memories of Bill and me as a couple. Among the most difficult were visiting our first home and walking the trail by the beach in Del Mar. While on the trail, I suddenly realized that in that very spot was where we met our first Ridgeback. I cried an ocean. I remembered how we called a few breeders that night and finally found one that had puppies available. And then the landslide of memories began….bringing home the puppies, vomit in the Jeep, accidents in the house, and thousands of dollars worth of destruction and vet bills. It was all so worth it.

Chico has been a revolving challenge. I look forward to family, but the memories are raw and jolting since I am not living with them every day. Watching the children remember Bill as they deal with their own grief has given me a lot of strength. Each time I visit I find another memory to confront. Eventually, it will become a softer place for me.

In June, I decided that I needed to drive the Terrible Two course the day of the ride. To my surprise, the ride organizer talked about Bill for a while before the ride began at 5:30am. Three riders rode in Bill’s honor: Rob from Berkeley; Bryce from Chico, and Brett from Scottsdale. They all carried one of Bill’s old numbers from previous rides and a small vial of ashes. Rob scattered Bill’s ashes at the top of Ft. Ross, the most difficult climb of the day. He sent me a moving email of what it meant to remember Bill in that way. I was told by an organizer that many riders were inspired by seeing my car on the route with Bill’s number on the back. If Bill had ridden that day, he would’ve held the record of 15 consecutive rides. Several riders came up to me throughout the day to extend their condolences, which felt really good because most people I came into contact with avoided the topic at this point.

On the route of the Terrible Two, I scattered some of Bill’s ashes for the first time. I chose an area overlooking the ocean near the base of the Ft. Ross climb. I wanted to yell at everybody to stop whatever they were doing, including the drivers whizzing by, so that they could take part in the moment. But I have learned that grief is not a group activity. Tears stung my eyes for the remaining 50 miles. The ride organizer gave me a coveted t-shirt—something I will always treasure. At the end of the day I was emotionally spent, but I earned a strength that has carried me through many challenges since then.

By September, I had given up the idea of going to Torrey because no one in the family was able to go with me, but then I realized it was essential to my grieving process. It ended up being a blessing that I went with just one person. My friend, Carla, a nurse in San Diego, was able to go with me at the last minute. She drove for me a couple of times over the few days we were there when the emotional load became too heavy. She was there from a distance and for hugs. She listened and cried with me. Bill was her friend, too. We also enjoyed the scenery, laughed a lot and enjoyed delicious dinners at Café Diablo. Even though I rarely eat beef, I ordered Bill’s favorite dish, the flank steak with pomme frites, all presented artistically as if we were at a fine restaurant in San Francisco. Below is an excerpt from my journal about preparing for the trip.

Suddenly, I realize that I have to pack ashes. In what? How much? I reach for the burgundy plastic container containing an entire person. Forgetting how heavy it was, I almost drop it. I look for something to carry the ashes in and finally settle on the wooden box that Bill made for me with the “life is a journey” character engraved on it. As I scoop his ashes into a Ziploc baggie with a measuring cup, I cannot help but think that he would approve of my using a baking utensil to scoop his ashes. But then I realize that I am scooping ashes, a person, a life. No, not a life. Just bones, remains. His life lives on in his legacy, in our memories. But still, I am sad that I am scooping my husband into a baggie. I put just enough in the baggie so that it still fits in the box, and then I place a guitar pick into the box, which I will leave at the site. I know exactly where I am going—the place where he talked about being “wedged between two rocks.”

Actually, I chose to scatter ashes in two places near Torrey. Even though the vista I chose along Chimney Rock Trail is not overlooking Torrey, it is the first place that came to mind when Bill told me where he wanted his ashes to be scattered. As if a foreshadowing, the previous summer, I took a few pictures of Bill taking in the awesome view, and another of him sitting on two rocks with the view in the background. I had no idea how significant that place would become. This time the view was the same, but my experience was very different. As I cried, took pictures, scattered ashes, and cried some more I tried to reconcile the conflict inside between logic and longing, fear and hope, anger and acceptance, pain and healing. I still have not found the words to aptly describe that moment. Surreal is overused and understates my experience, so I hope the pictures convey some of the meaning to you. Below is an excerpt from my journal about that moment….

I hike toward the vista with purpose, yet pause to take pictures as I go—a documentation of the journey, proof that I did it, a story all its own. Taking the pictures is somewhat meditative for me and distracts me from some of the crushing emotions that surface every few minutes. I need to feel, but I also need to function. The camera is a barrier between me and the landscape, the memories, and the last time I visited here with Bill without completely disconnecting me from my emotions. As I approach the place I had in my mind as the perfect place to scatter his ashes everything begins to feel like it is in slow motion. All is quiet—not because of my mind shutting out reality, but because it is really just so very quiet and still. We haven’t seen anyone else on the trail so far. It is just like I remembered—an expansive view—a view that overwhelmed Bill as he stood on the edge, hands clasped behind his head. That day I could almost feel his thoughts about how beautiful it was, how awesome, how it moved him to want a different life away from the city. It was sadness and awe and understanding all at once. It was joy and gratitude that we could experience this sacred place together. Soon the exact spot where I want to scatter his ashes comes into view. I see the weather-beaten tree jutting out between two rectangular-shaped rocks as red as their surroundings. As I approach, I feel like everything I have been protecting myself from emotionally up to this point on the trail is now a boulder between me and the two rocks. I climb the boulder in my mind, and as I reach out to touch the rocks where he once sat, my body collapses into a heap of tears. I kneel at this altar created just for this moment—my only offering my grief. I cling to the rocks as if I expect them to come alive or to quench my thirst for missing him, but this is the desert, and no one chooses where to get their water. No one chooses grief, either. Water, rain, it all comes from where it will, when it will. Right now, my only water is this view and this tree between these two rocks. I guard them as if they are precious stones. I continue to kneel in silence, in anger, in sadness, in hope that someday I will be stronger than the sum of my loss. Patiently, I wait and listen for my heart to tell me what to do next.

I had a similar, but less intense, experience the next day when I scattered Bill’s ashes “between two rocks above Torrey.” Sketchy directions from townspeople to the Velvet Ridge put us on a very rutted dirt road/wash, which had been miserable on a mountain bike due to the sand last summer. It was doable in the SUV I was renting (no offroading allowed) until a creek crossing dashed my confidence. Bill’s safety sirens went off in my head and I pulled to the side of the wash. We got out of the car and surveyed the bluff directly above us. I was pretty sure that we would be able to get a view of Torrey from the other side, but there was no visible trail. It was late in the afternoon and our options were narrowing, so we decided to traverse the side of the bluff. There were enough boulders and footholds among the shale-like rock so that it appeared to be fairly safe. When we reached the plateau, we paid little attention to the breathtaking scenery. We hiked in the direction of Torrey for about 15 minutes, and finally reached a vista overlooking the valley and Torrey. Below is my journal entry of this experience.

Relief gently washes through me as we emerge onto a clearing with a vista overlooking Torrey. Afraid the moment will pass by too quickly, I stop to take it all in for a few minutes. From here, Torrey looks so small, so insignificant, yet made significant to me by one man’s experience and his last wish. The deepening shadows on the adjacent cliffs remind me that my time is limited. I walk to the edge of the bluff, look down at my feet, and I see “two rocks.” Tears blur my vision as I snap dozens of pictures, once again using my camera lens to distance me from the surfacing emotions. My tears fall more quietly this time as I let the ashes be carried by the wind, and then reluctantly I place a handful of his life “between two rocks above Torrey,” just as he had asked. Here on the Velvet Ridge, I feel a stronger sense of peace than I did the day before. With nightfall approaching, we descend from the plateau as quickly as we can. My eyes are dry, but my thirst for meaning is quenched, if only for a moment. My body shivers from the chilly, autumn air as my reason for coming to Torrey fades among the red rocks glowing in the distance. My journey to remember Bill in this place has come to an end for now. He will always be here.

I have carried the peace I received in Torrey with me every day through the anniversary of his death, through Thanksgiving, through our wedding anniversary, and finally, through Christmas. I have learned, though, that peace does not numb the pain.

Just before the anniversary of Bill’s death, Anne, Sheilia and the twins visited me for a few days. I asked them if they wanted to scatter some ashes at the Marin Headlands where Bill proposed to me. I was very pleased when they agreed to it. It was a different experience in that I felt like I had done my most important task already. I felt like I was there to help his family experience their love and their grief in a different way. We sat on the bench where Bill asked me to spend the rest of my life with him, and then walked the scenic trail for a view of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco. Journal…

Next, we drive the windy, steep road to the top of the hill and walk on a trail for a while to find a spot without any tourists. Erin and Sean pick yellow flowers along the way and scatter the petals on a tree stump overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Anne, Sheilia and I sprinkle ashes on top of the flower petals. We all just take in the view for a while. I think about the dozens of times Bill and I brought friends here, the bike rides up the steep hill, picnic lunches overlooking the bridge for no special reason, and the question, “Why?” interrupts my thoughts for the millionth time. My emotions travel from sadness to anger to acceptance in a few heartbeats, and then back to sadness. I feel the heavy burden of a mother who has lost her son, of a sister who has lost her brother, and of two children who have lost a vibrant, caring uncle. I wonder what they are feeling. I wonder what the children will remember about today. And I wonder for how long my acceptance will be measured in heartbeats.

A few weeks later, my parents came to visit and I took them to the Headlands to scatter some ashes as well. Again, I felt somewhat removed this time. It was their turn to do what they needed to do to honor Bill and to remember what he meant to them. I have learned that observing others heal is healing in itself.

Thanksgiving and our anniversary were particularly difficult for me, but once again, the children were so instrumental in helping me to cope with my reality. I went to Mendocino with Anne and Sheilia the day after Thanksgiving. I wasn’t prepared for the flood of emotions that hit me about 15 miles south of town. Anne drove the rest of the way as Bill’s and my life together replayed itself with every turn along the familiar, rugged coastline. Memories flashed before me everywhere I looked. Everywhere. I just wanted them to stop, but I knew that I had to face Mendocino. I had to face the life I had, the memories, before I could face whatever hurdle came next. I knew it would make me stronger.

After we got into town, I took some time alone with Willow to visit the church where Bill and I were married. The church attendant let both of us inside with a polite, “I’m sorry for your loss. Take your time.” I sat motionless on the hard, wooden pew in the front row as memories overwhelmed my senses. Last time I was there I had tears of joy. I couldn’t stay for long. I felt angry, grateful, sad, and tired—tired of grief. Below is an excerpt from my journal about our time on the beach.

We leave the church and wander aimlessly for a while before walking along the bluffs toward the beach. I walk. Willow spins, skips, sniffs, gallops, and looks back at me with her goofy face, the one that makes me smile even in the most serious of moments. God knew I would need a silly dog when she came to us! Carefully, the two of us make our way down the muddy trail to the beach where locals and tourists are enjoying a perfect autumn day with their families. I head for the far end of the beach where there are fewer people. At the end, I watch the tide rise and fall, waves splashing onto the rock that guards the far end of the cove. As I take in the scene, I think to myself, “It’s just another day for everybody else.” For me, it’s another day to remember. While children play and laugh a dozen yards away, I sink my fingers into something that feels like sand but isn’t. I hold his ashes in my hand for a moment, then quietly release into the incoming wave a little bit more of Bill, literally and figuratively—and a little bit of me. A part of me died that tragic day, too. I watch as the tide pulls away from me and I feel my life, the one I thought I would have, going out with it. I let the cold salt water rinse my hands. I am numb as Willow and I make our way across what seems like a beach twice as long as before. We hike back to the top of the bluff where I am overcome with disbelief at what I am doing here. I scatter a few more ashes facing west, knowing that I won’t be letting go of anymore ashes for a while. Or, maybe, I’ve let as much of him go as I can for now.

I have two more places to scatter ashes. One is Mt. Diablo, a 10-mile climb and a 90-mile round trip ride from home. Bill trained on that climb dozens of times every year. Some of his cycling friends may choose to join me. The other place is Ouray, Colorado, which is in the San Juan Mountains. We spent a few days in Ouray after we were in Torrey. I’ve included some pictures of both locations. Yes, I still have ashes left. I am reserving some for family who decide to go to Torrey, and I will reserve some to keep with me at home.

Few people understand why Bill chose Torrey. You have to visit it to understand. It doesn’t have the jaw-dropping sites of Zion and Bryce, but the sites are awesome in their vastness, varied hues, and rugged terrain. Some know that Bill preferred quiet places away from the pressures and expectations of city life. He fell prey to the seduction of solitude most strongly during his first visit to Torrey. It was in this solitude that he began a search to understand himself, who he was meant to be, and to find meaning in everyday life. This year, it was my mission to let him rest in that place of contemplation where he felt so at peace while he was still alive. In the solitude of my grief, while overlooking this sacred place called Torrey, I found a little understanding and a lot of healing. The pictures I took remind me that I have moved forward through some very difficult emotions, that I have been on a journey to heal, a journey to feel, a journey to remember—and I want others to remember, too.

1 comment:

jay are said...

Thanks for allowing us, the readers, to join you on a very private, painful, uplifting, tragic journey. There are no words to express consolation, sadness, regret...but I wish there were. Thanks for sharing.