Sunday night we finally took my mother’s ashes out of my dining room cabinet, amidst the fine china and stemware she loved so much, and spread them in the waters around the San Juan Islands. This was her wish. My sister and I have discussed it for months, but it became a real effort to find a time when we could all make it: 4 of Mom’s 7 grandchildren (the other 3 live in Florida), her two daughters (son is in FL too) and our spouses. Two of those grandchildren (my two oldest) are “adults” now, and finding time when they would not be out of town, working or busy, that also worked with all of our busy schedules, was like herding butterflies. But we did it, and it ended up being the perfect evening for to celebrate my mother.
While I’ve had my ambivalent moments, I’m really glad that Mom didn’t want to be buried. On the one hand, there would be a tangible place to go and grieve, on the other hand there would be a tangible place to go and grieve… and a place to feel pressured to go to. I’ve thought many times in the eight months since her death that I’m grateful that I don’t have to bring flowers to a stone, or fulfill some duty to a final resting place. I’ve passed by my dining room even more often and thought of her there, in a box, that did not really honor her memory either. I didn’t want to go out and buy an urn and then spend years moving it around, leaving it to who one day? Each of us must make these decisions in our own way and time. We lose people we love and want to do the right thing by them, by their memory, but it can all get so convoluted in the process I feel. I’ve gone round and round in my mind about this, so it was such a relief to know that we finally had a plan.
Some time ago it occurred to me that a sailing trip was just the right thing for Mom. She loved sailing. Loved it. When I was young she would tell me that she wanted to meet someone (she was widowed with three kids, at at 29) with a sailboat and sail away. She told me that she always felt so free and at peace out in a sailboat. Ironically, I never went on a sailboat with my mother. It wasn’t something our family did, or something that I knew much about. Consequently, the things she told me about sailing never totally jelled with my images of my mother and our life together. As a young person, I didn’t understand my mother’s yearning for something outside of what we had, something she found special that didn’t encompass us (three kids). So typical of kids, to not really understand their parents as people. Still, it was there in the back of my head and when, in her last few days, she told my sister and I that she wanted her ashes spread in water, I began to think back on the woman who told me these dreams.
One of my favorite pictures of my mother and sister is of them in a sailboat in Seattle, about 10 years ago, smiling and holding up drinks, just before a sunset sail. That picture was in Mom’s room at Hospice up until her death. When she died, and I began to put her things away and clear the things she’d kept near her, there was the picture, there were my memories of past conversations, and there was my mother’s dying wish. The choice became obvious to me. Finding a sailboat wasn’t as easy as I’d hoped however and as this summer passed, with trips abroad and a multitude of schedules to juggle, I began to fear we would not be able to do it this summer. I wondered if she would remain in my dining room, a comfort and a painful reminder of both her passing and my inability to give her what she wanted, in the end.
Along came Todd Shuster, the owner and Captain of Gato Verde, the beautiful catamaran we chartered. When I called him about potential dates, he was booked pretty solid; it didn’t look very good. However, as we discussed what the trip was about, he told me that he’d see if he could make a few changes and fit me in. He called back a few days later and was able to take us all this past Sunday, August 12th. Ironically, it turned out to be the last weekend possible as Middle Man will now leave for school this Friday. I wanted to make it special and immediately started thinking of things we might do. Should I do a reading? Would my sister like to do something? Should I throw flowers into the water as well, or each of us throw one, as Mom loved flowers so much? What would make it truly special for her? The answer was absolutely obvious, something I would never do on an ordinary day: cigarettes and Coke, two of Mom’s greatest vices and greatest pleasures.
Being a creature of conviction, I just couldn’t bring myself to go buy cigarettes. The idea of paying a dime to the companies that have killed so many other mothers and fathers just irked me no end. I had refused for years to buy them for Mom. My sister had the perfect idea that we could “bum” some off some guys at the pier, and that’s what I did. I ran up and told them that I’d never begged a cigarette off anyone in my life, but that my mom had been a lifelong smoker and we were going to spread her ashes at sea. We wanted to smoke one in her honor. These big, beefy guys, covered in tattoos, turned to mush and gave me two, and offered me their lighter as well. Mom would have laughed to see me bumming cigarettes in a parking lot, for her.
We set sail under dusky skys and warm temperatures. The bay was totally still, not ideal for sailing, but in perhaps the only biofuel/diesel/hybrid sailboat on the west coast, we were able to coast out to windier parts of the bay, with only the slightest engine sound. We cruised past my house and along the shore, and the sun slowly went down in the sky. We all sat on the “trampoline”net at the front of the catamaran, all of us enjoying the time together and thinking of Mom/Grammy. When we finally reached a good spot, Todd put the boat in a gentle reverse and suggested we pour the ashes off the very back of the
netting. We had brought along the ashes of both of my mother’s beloved pugs, which she had kept for many years (Dobey died 12 years ago, Mea 3 years ago). We also brought some of our dog Callie’s ashes. My mother adored Callie, and she adored Mom. Little Man thought it was the right thing to do, so we did. We have planned to spread the rest of Callie’s ashes up on Chain of Lakes trail at Mt. Baker, her favorite place of all, but the trails haven’t opened for the past two years due to record snows. We brought some to go with mom, and will finally spread the last of them later this fall when the snow melts a little more.
As the boat slowed and we lit the two cigarettes and passed them around. No minors were involved in this, but the rest of us took a drag and we all sipped cold Coke. Mom would have laughed out loud to see me cough away at my mid-life effort. When the boat was steady, and positioned properly to avoid a Big Lebowski moment(see minute 1:30), my sister and I opened the sealed bag that had held Mom’s ashes, and we slowly poured them in the wake behind the boat. As the ashes fell into the water my emotions rushed to the surface and I was completely overcome. I wept as if it was the morning of December 31, 2011 when she died. It felt so final and powerful to watch those ashes melt into the depths of the bay I look at each day from every window of my home. My sister
and I held each others’ hands, and someone held my shoulder as I crumbled in heaps of tears. When we’d both pulled ourselves together, we all sat for a few moments and just watched the sun sink below the horizon. Then Captain Todd turned the boat engine back on and we began our gentle return to the harbor. I lay on the netting and watched the mast as my kids nestled up in my arms, bringing silent comfort to me.
When I envisioned a farewell for my mother, I wanted to celebrate her and not feel tied to the those final years, when her body was broken and her dreams as well. She fought it to the end, asking us to see her as she had lived most of her life: independent and spirited, but it was hard to do sometimes. Out on that boat, with the people I love most in the world, I felt my mother as she wanted us to see her. She would have loved every single minute of the evening. She would have loved that we were all there; with no arguing and lots of laughs. She would have loved that we remembered her pups. She would have loved the cigarettes and our efforts to honor her that way. Coke was the only thing she clung to up to the end, the onlything
she consumed in her final weeks. It killed me to see, but she loved it. We loved her and she would have felt that, if she’d been there, or if she could see us all. I will miss her, and grieve for her for a long time, but for all that she lost in her final years with Huntington’s, if felt so good to bring dignity to her memory again. It was the perfect night for my mother, and I felt at peace when we moored and it was over.
Have you lost your parents, or other family member? How did you honor their memory? What rituals brought you comfort and how did you move on. Share your comments below. If you enjoyed this post, show some love and hit Like. Pass this post on with Share.
Note: A special thank you to Todd Shuster, of Gato Verde, for his truly kind and thoughtful efforts to make this meaningful for us all. He made the time and then he became part of our group, never making us feel anything but supported. In addition to a good sense of humor (we’re a dark and sarcastic crowd), he made every effort to help make our intentions come true. He has a gorgeous boat and it was an honor to spend such a special night on it. Todd and Gato Verde do multi-day cruises in the San Juan Islands, as well as single day cruises. I can think of no better way to spend a day, in this spectacular place we live. Thank you Todd.
Also thank you to my brother in law, Rich, who took some of these photos. I could not have done it, but am grateful he did… though the moments are burned in my memory forever.