2019-12-02

Grief and Gardening: Ashes (Remembrance Day for Lost Species)

Detail, label, "Our Lady of Abundance," inside lid

My alarm wakes me Saturday morning. I go downstairs to the kitchen, nuke myself a cup of coffee, and get a fresh batch going. I didn’t sleep well. Today is the Remembrance Day for Lost Species.



I start prepping my mother’s breakfast. I put some orange juice in her small cup, and add some thickener, probiotic, and her liquid medications. I start working on crushing her morning pills. Each of the half dozen takes a different approach. Some crush easily. Others need to be split first.

Their remains collect in the well of the crusher. The easier ones are reduced to dust. The harder ones leave grit, and small, sharp shards.



A black cat with one spot on her chest, like a priest’s collar, finds me in my garden. She adopts me immediately. I name her “Spot”. She dies in my arms as we try to find the veterinarian emergency room in a snowstorm.

We bring her home in a small tin. Inside the tin is a bag. We transfer it to a reliquary box, an artwork of hammered copper, beads, and glass.

She carries me through 15 years of recovery, reconnecting, and relationship. She comforts the man whom I would later marry through his mother’s dying, and death.

The bag doesn’t quite fit the box. I want to rearrange it. It’s my first time handling cremated remains. I open the bag. Its contents are not what I expect. They are not ash. They are crumbs, and grit, and shards of bone, chalky and white. It’s all that’s left of her.



Tomorrow is World AIDS Day. My partners, my lovers, my friends, my neighbors. I think of the photo one friend took of another, spreading his dead lover’s ashes from a plastic baggie - before he died - on their property in the Catskills. The images of ashes thrown over the White House fence. A sea of quilts, holding the names of my partners, my lovers, my friends, my neighbors, so scattered across the acres of battlefield, it takes hours to visit them all.



We are traveling upstate, our first real vacation together. Everywhere we go the mood is quiet, subdued. Whereever we go, people ask where we’re visiting from. When we tell them, their eyes well up.

I walk to and from work. The streets and gutters are filled with ash. It takes months for the rains to wash it all away.

We step out of the shop. I ask him to wait. I walk back inside. I return to where I saw the box. Its title is “Our Lady of Abundance”. I buy it for the meaning the word has for him. It goes to his apartment, then our apartment, then our home. Waiting.



I am standing in a mountain river, cold over my feet and legs. I am here for my father. I am here with my father. I take the small, ornate bronze container out of my pocket. I open it, and begin releasing its contents to the wind and water. It’s not what you expect: They are not ash. They are crumbs, grit, shards of bone. Tomorrow is the anniversary of his death. It’s all that’s left of him. I am here for my father.



It is Lost Species Day. We are burning the remains of countless organisms. Even long dead, we could not let them be. We are burning the world.



In the Catskills we watched the towers fall, again, and again, a hundred miles away. Where I bought a box of hammered copper, beads, and glass to give to a man to mark a relationship that arose out of deeply shared loss, like a phoenix, from ashes.



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