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laura callanan




by Laura Callanan

                                          In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou
                                          return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken:
                                          for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

                                                                               Genesis 3:19

                                                            Death is not the end
                                                            Death can never be the end.

                                                            Death is the road.
                                                            Life is the traveller.
                                                            The Soul is the Guide

                                                                              — Sri Chinmoy

The car ride took on the quality of a funeral procession. Joel drove fast, and we struggled to stay close behind as we drove along a single road further and further into the woods. We passed small stores for outdoorsmen to have a last chance at supplies and coffee. Further and further we moved into the wild space towards the place where my brother died. My mother had said at the wake that her son’s spirit never came back from Maine even though they sent his body back down to us. We were going to find that spirit, to see what he saw and to have a picture in our minds of his last moments—where he stood, what he heard, how things smelled. One of the most frustrating parts of his sudden death was how much we felt outside of it. We were left behind and we resented it. Bringing his body down to Massachusetts reunited body with bodies. Now we were joining spirit with spirits.

Sprinkling Charlie’s ashes was a profound experience spiritually at least in part because of the effort it had taken to get up to Millinocket. The journey gave it the element of a quest—exploring the edges of reality—Dante going down into the circles of Hell or Odysseus desperately trying to get home. We were searching for my brother’s spirit to put our grief to rest and calm our disbelief at his sudden absence. Every step of that trip felt laden with meaning, making it hard to progress and process at a normal pace. That morning, as we travelled to the spot where my brother died of a heart attack one year earlier, was charged—as though the air itself conveyed the widening breach between life and afterlife. I tried to follow where we were going on the map, but kept losing my sense of direction on the curvy road. Just into the woods, further and further into unnamed squares on the map. The task ahead felt daunting—exactly one year later to walk through the final hours of a brother, father, and husband, linking up spirit with family once more and bringing it all together in the sprinkling of his ashes in the river.

Or at least part of him. I was annoyed at Mary for bringing just half of the ashes. It felt like hoarding him—keeping him locked up and not letting him loose as he had always wanted. I had tried to put aside my irritation as we had walked into the hotel lobby that morning to meet the two people in the car ahead of us. Joel, the forest ranger who found my brother’s body the year before, was a man in his mid-30s in a crisp green park ranger uniform, and Kate, the forestry department chaplain, was a slim woman in her 40s in casual outdoor clothing. I had warmed to the ranger immediately—he was the realization of a G.I. Joe doll—handsome face, close-cropped hair, flawless uniform, stocky well-proportioned body. He introduced himself and radiated honesty, sweetness, and strength. We would learn later that he had been transferred from the area during the past year and had driven three hours that morning to meet us. He had promised Mary that he would take her to the site where Charlie had died and he was here to honor that commitment.

Initially I bristled when introduced to the chaplain. I was steeling myself against my fear she’d be a very conservative and distant person who would reach out to Mary and disregard my presence; that’s what had happened with Mary’s priest at the memorial service. Kate was quite different—she shook my hand, smiled, and quietly introduced herself. She engaged me directly and immediately I felt at ease. She told us that she has four children and that her husband had been killed in a car crash not long before, so she had an intuitive understanding of what it means to lose someone in a moment.

“I have to go to the bathroom,” Cara cried out from the back seat.

We called Joel on the cell phone and he told us that where we were going was a campground so there would be facilities. I wanted to ease Cara’s anxieties and sadness. I could see her beginning to act like a frantic trapped animal, not wanting to walk into the experience to which we were bringing her. I didn’t blame her—I felt some of the same panic. I also suspected that for at least a good long while she was going to resent us for bringing her here. But I was also trying to learn about the shapes and sounds of my own grief as I went up to find my brother’s spirit. This trip was my own act of intentional healing and I myself needed all my resources—I had none to spare.

Finally we turned down a gravel road and found ourselves weaving through a campground. These were serious outdoorsmen. No fancy RVs here—small campers, cars, tents, pans, coffee cups, and the first glimpse of the river through the trees. It was larger than I expected—probably a third of a mile across. It was raining and gray, so no sun dappled picturesque beauty. But the downpour had abated just a bit. We passed a small booth of toilets to our left. Mary pointed them out to Cara as we drove by. Finally we got to the other side of the campground and pulled into a small clearing. We all climbed out of the car, dreading the difficult work ahead. It was a strange sensation, not knowing what it was that we feared but also anticipating catharsis. Cara ran off towards the bathrooms, and Mary and I slowly made our way to the back of the car, opening the hatch and getting out the ashes, the wading pants, and our coats.

“This is where we found his car,” Joel said.

So it really did happen—there really was a car and they really did find it. I felt stunned and scared. Joel explained that we were going to the point where Charlie first went into the river, and then later where he was found. I hadn’t realized that these were different places until that moment. It seems Charlie had begun fishing here, died, and then floated down the river. There was no way to determine how far he had walked or how far he had floated, but Mary had informed me on the way up that the autopsy had found breakfast in his stomach, resolving my confusion over whether he had died the night before or that morning. He had been found, I finally understood, quite soon after he died.

Cara came back, smoking a cigarette, shoulders up, eyes cut. We began to walk into the woods. Kate was serious but not overly mournful. I watched as she walked with Cara, quietly speaking to her, but not pushing herself into her space with hugs or questions. Joel commented on the limitations of our footwear as we began to trek through the muddy woodlands. We followed a small trail, with the river in the distance. We snaked through the mildly worn track, jumping over roots and negotiating rocks and brush. We turned to walk parallel to the river and we realized that we were fairly high up—about ten feet—from the water. Cara lagged behind, smoking her cigarette. I kept waiting for Joel to make her put it out. But the area was so wet there was no danger of forest fire, so I suspect he just decided to let it go and respect the fact that she was having a difficult time.

Joel stopped, pointed down to the river, “that’s where we found some of his belongings, so we assume where he began the morning.”

A silent moment, and then we all began slowly making our way down the slope, gently negotiating the slick foliage and muddy terrain. We worked our way down and found that there wasn’t enough space for us all to stand at the river’s edge. It wasn’t going to be a good place for a ceremony. The group of us stood still and quiet for a minute, staring at the ground as if conjuring Charlie’s image as he began fishing that morning. Then we slowly began to make our way back up the slope. I saw Cara at the top, still smoking; she nervously crossed her arms and moved from foot to foot. Kate pulled herself up from one small tree trunk to another, and I followed. When she got to the top I threw some of the boots and equipment up to her. “Here it comes,” I warned. My aim was a little too good and they went straight at her. “Sorry,” I said, although laughing—enjoying the lighthearted moment.

I pulled myself up over the lip of the slope and took the opportunity to speak with Kate about Cara. “This is really hard for her. She’s been having a difficult time since before Charlie died and his death has only made things worse,” I said quietly out of Cara’s hearing, and then we all made our way back to the cars.

I felt a little frustrated at this false start, but also felt confident that it wasn’t the right spot. Mary still looked motivated, though a little worn out. Cara stood apart from us, her arms crossed, the smoke from her cigarette wafting up alongside of her. I worried that she was heading towards an angry meltdown, but so far she was keeping it together. It was hard for me, but I kept checking in with her, wanting her to believe that we would help her bear this as best we could. She shook us off, aggravated. We walked back into the clearing and across to the cars, put all the equipment and the ashes back in the hatch, and again piled into the vehicles. Joel pulled around us and we followed, snaking back through the campground and moving back onto the main road. We drove for about five minutes and then he pulled over on the left shoulder at the mouth of an opening that led into the woods. The river came much closer to the road here. We repeated our preparations, got out of the car, and started down the path.

“I’m not going down there,” Cara balked. “That river killed my father.”

“Fine, wait here” Mary said, and continued purposefully down the path. We walked through the woods, around the trees, and down to the water’s edge.

“This is where we found him,” Joel pointed.

It was a little chunk of land jutting out into the river. The current must have pulled him up into that corner and kept him in place. Something felt different about this section of river’s edge—it would be easy to say that he was here—that we had linked up to where his spirit was, his essence. And I believe that was the case. But it was also an extraordinarily beautiful spot. The river ran quickly and the trees were visible on the other side. The sun was peeking out, so the light played on the movement of the water. It was cold, but not unbearable—just cold enough to allow us the comfort of jackets and sweaters. We had found him.

Mary asked if I wanted to go into the water with her, and I said no. As I watched her preparations, I began to understand why it was important for this woman to be the one to take the ashes of her husband out into the river—that, although I am his sister, this was the woman who had endured his rages and insanity and had stayed with him. My resentment at her bringing only half the ashes eased. It made sense to have part of him in the wilderness and part in the home because the locations reflected the two most important impulses in him—nature and family—although the first he didn’t get nearly enough of, and the second he wasn’t very good at. But he was always clear about what and whom he loved, which was a lesson to be learned—at least by me. Cara already had her father’s fierce loyalty coupled with a significant dose of verbal abusiveness. It was a lethal combination that I hoped she would resolve more compassionately than had her father.

I watched as Mary pulled on Charlie’s waders, much larger, of course, than she needed. Kate noted the size, and Mary joked about Charlie being a big man. As she pulled on the waders I had the sensation of her actually climbing into his skin, into his body and spirit, the ultimate moment of reconnecting of our spirits and our experiences. I had gone as far as I was supposed to go.

She walked down to the edge of the water and stood with Kate, who had put on minimal vestments and pulled out a sheet with the brief service she had worked out. She started out with a short prayer, referenced one of the psalms, and then referred to the passage “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” which she followed up with “this is not a threat, it is a promise.” Joel stood at a respectful distance, and Cara stood just barely within sight, lighting a fresh cigarette, pacing, and looking over at us occasionally. Mary then took Kate’s hand and walked into the water. She took out the small container, opened it, and spread the ashes out over the water. When the first ashes hit the bottom of the riverbed, they turned a glittering gold color. Magical. Mary quickly rinsed the container out in the river, and then stood in the water for a minute longer. She then came out of the water, grabbed her belongings, and led everyone back towards the car, giving me a minute to sit by myself.

My chest relaxed as I watched them leave. I sat down on a large boulder and looked out over the river. It was a beautiful sight. The river twisted and turned as it progressed along its way and both riverbanks were bordered with dense green forest. The sun had finally come out and flickered on the moving water. The surface reflected sky and clouds, and as I looked down I noticed some of the ashes floating on the top of the water. With the water reflecting the clouds, it looked like they were caught between sky and water, living in a liminal space between life and death. I continued to watch as they sank underneath the water and down onto the gold blanket of ashes at the bottom of the river a foot or so below. Liminal space had been where all of us had been living for the past year. This trip was to traverse that space and move into the next segment of grieving—letting go. Charlie’s physical being was, at least in part, reunited with his spirit and joined to the natural world. Death and life seemed connected in that simple joining of ashes and river. For the first time, death didn’t feel like something to fear; rather it seemed a movement back into connection with everything that is and that surrounds us. Charlie wasn’t gone, I thought—he was, and still is, simply back in all that exists.

I knew I needed to go back to the car so everyone could leave, but gave myself a few more minutes. I looked at the water and thought about how Charlie and the river were so much alike—both beautiful, dangerous, powerful, and profound. My brother was a very difficult man, and also one of the most relentlessly loving people I have ever known. He had a demon in him he would unleash on those closest to him, but he also had a fierce protectiveness for those same people. He always made me feel unconditionally adored. That was a rare experience in my life, and perhaps the only really clear feeling of family that I’ve ever known. But I was continually aggravated with him. The contradictions were simply part of his identity, as they are a part of natural world for those who move beyond a sentimental understanding of it. It’s a dangerous place that one needs to understand in order to negotiate, and even then there’s no guarantee of safety.

Finally I got up and walked back through the woods to the car. I felt a pull to stay that continues to this day. I’ve halfheartedly told Mary that I want to be sprinkled out there with him. I don’t really understand the feeling because I’ve had no attachment to Maine and my relationship with my brother was, to say the least, fraught. But that spot has become a safe place in my mind where I go when I want to feel peaceful.

I continued through the forest, to the path that went up to the road. Mary was talking to Kate and Joel. They had a long drive ahead of them. I went up to the pavement and shook both their hands, thanking them for their help and their attention. They had performed a purely loving gesture. We stood together for a moment, a group that had just been through a profound experience and hesitates to break the spell. Finally they walked to their car and we turned to ours as Cara finished her cigarette and ground it into the road. We climbed in, started the car, and began the long drive home.

Laura Callanan is Assistant Professor of English at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA, where she teaches Memoir Writing and Victorian Literature. This is part of a book-length memoir on the topic.

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