Thursday, October 11, 2012

ashes to everything

It was a beautiful day, that Sunday last month; a perfect fishing day, when you could stand in the creek, shallows sun-warmed, and not be too shocked by the water's chill; when there is still enough warmth in the air to bring out the smell of the pine, to lull the fishes hiding in the deep still pools. The swallows under the Athabasca bridge had disappeared already, and geese had threaded themselves across the horizon, southbound. It reminded me so much of a weekend just seven years earlier, when my dad suggested we go up for a drive here, on the Windfall roads. He was tired already, he said, and didn't have the energy to hike and fish; but perhaps we could go look at the turning of the leaves? 

And so we drove up, taking our time. We stopped in Whitecourt, meandered past the school where he'd taught all those years ago, saw the apartment where he'd lived with his weird roommate, Mercer, the community theatre where he'd acted in 'The Monkey's Paw'. Drove further up the highway to the turn-off, I remember so many migrating butterflies smashing into the windshield, torn wings stuck to the road when I'd get out to take a photograph. Arctic fritillaries, earthy and bright orange. "That was the colour of my orange Corvette," my Dad told me, and I remembered the pictures in his album. "But when I lived up here, I had my Challenger, that's what I'd go driving in when I went to explore these roads, looking for good places to fish. I'd turn up the radio, I remember this big hit that year, 'Spirit in the Sky'..."

We'd come up here, to Windfall, many other autumns, when we'd go hiking through the bush, fishing in the creek, eating our lunch on the stones, being quiet. But that year, my dad had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, and was due to start the chemo the next day. He didn't know what his energy would be like for the next months, and he wanted to get up there, one more time that year before the winter came. And I went with him, as he visited all these places he loved, to which he attached such positive, sustaining memories, places that he knew he could draw strength from, places that could nourish him. While I know that travelling through was a way to calm and fortify himself, I also felt a sense of transmittance; he was passing these memories on to me, to hold them, he was reminding me of the times we'd had there too, and I understood more than ever the importance of these places. 

In the next six years, he did have times when he was feeling well enough to come back here, to the woods he'd discovered in his youth, to fish and camp and wander. And so last month, when my mother decided she was ready to scatter his ashes, a year after he'd passed, we knew that this was one of the places he would want to be placed. Into the creekbed, with a shot of rum on a bright afternoon. The stream had flooded that spring, and change course quite dramatically; we were able to find a secluded grove to hang the prayer flags that people had written on at his memorial, festoon them with fish-hooks that latched onto the beard lichens. 

"Old man's beard," my dad would say. "You can eat it, make this awful soup when it's green, really high in Vitamin C, so you won't get scurvy if you're lost in the bush! And when it's gone black, it makes the best fire-starter, better than dryer lint!" Being there in my home landscape, especially after being away from home for another extended stretch, reminded me how grateful I was to him for teaching me how to live. I thought of the forest there, the plants growing, the labrador tea and the cat-tails and the marsh marigolds, lemon lichen and the soft spruce buds eaten by the young deer (and a small Jenanne, learning how to survive in the bush). I thought of how he had shown me how to fish in the creek, in the lake, and through the ice hole, to remove the hooks from the fish's mouth so as to prevent bleeding, to place the fish you wouldn't take back in the water carefully so it wouldn't be too disoriented, and watch it to make sure it could swim away (if it couldn't, you'd give it a gentle poke); I thought about learning  to clean a fish, make it ready for eating, and felt very grateful he'd taught me all this, that I could do this if I needed to. 

He had taught me how to be in these places I love so much. And it felt so good to place his body back here, let the ashes trail into the tiny currents, watch them swirl and settle amongst the slippery rocks.  To taste a little of the stream water, tannic and sweet. To let the smallest fragments free, without all those false trappings like coffins and embalments which spoke to him of holding on to something when it's really time to let go. It was calming, and peaceful, because it seemed like the best possible thing to do. It was right; it's where he'd want his body to lay, to let it nourish the algae and waterbugs, become the silty substrate where the greyling bury their eggs, and grind down into very stuff of sustenance, the earth. 

People have asked me if there is a feeling of closure-- no. Closure -- what is it to be closed? This is not over; it will never be over.  I read  this recently, in something by Judith Butler: 

"When we lose certain people, or when we are dispossessed from a place, or a community, we may simply feel as though we are undergoing something temporary, that mourning will be over and some restoration of prior order will be achieved. But maybe when we undergo what we do, something about who we are is revealed, something that delineates the ties we have to others, that shows us that these ties constitute what we are, ties or bonds that compose us.
It is not as if an “I” exists independently over here and then simply loses a “you” over there, especially if the attachment to “you” is part of what composes who “I” am. If I lose you, under these conditions, then I not only lose the lose, I become inscrutable to myself. Who “am” I, without you?"
Loss does illuminate these ties between us, most sharply, in the case of death, and it forces us to think about our interconnections, because it is through that loss that we understand something of what makes our selves. 

Through experiencing the death of my baba/grandma, and my father, I've come to understand that though there is a loss that can never be assuaged, there is a process by which these ties we have with the dead are reconfigured. It's difficult. Partly, I think, because we are so used to thinking of ourselves as 'I', and ignoring all these little spider-silk connections between us, usually invisible except in the right light. But they're there, and they are strong, and death just forces us to rethink our relationships, these connections between us. 

I don't believe in God, or god(s), nothing anthropomorphic or omniscient or all-benevolent. No heavenly afterlife. I am not really sure what I believe in, if I 'believe' in anything; I have only what I have experienced. I do feel very strongly about being interconnected with absolutely everything else in existence; there's that. And that dying is not a destruction, but a de-creation in Simone Weil's sense of it -- "an undoing of the creature in us", a loss of the self. Visiting the bodies of my grandma and my dad just after they died, I felt something, the aftermath of their passing, and though I felt such acute loss, it was also transformative. I felt I knew something then that I cannot even begin to articulate. I felt that there was movement, that there was really no stillness in death. And so I don't believe in inertia, that anything can just stop; their selves are becoming something else just as their bodies are slowly transforming into earth.

We've lost them as we knew them, and we'll never know them again as we did. And that loss is the most painful thing I know, because it de-constructs some of my self, as well. But I like to think about transformation, or de-formation, and that perhaps the death and de-formation of the self allows a kind of connectivity with all the other things that we don't yet know, as divisible, created beings that we are. And it's not always a comfort, it doesn't always make up for the feelings of loss, but I know that I will come to understand my own self again, as I re-form my relationships with the dead, live in memory of them. 

Nothing is closed; our connections are always open, ever re-connecting. Everything moving. Before we leave I sit there on the rocks with him, think of the chalky ashes whirling, becoming the flash of an arctic greyling's dorsal fin, slipping downstream. This is my dad now, everything. And here he is now, as Windfall Creek.