A Brush with Death by Laura Hampton

A year and a month after Dad died, mom was finally ready to fulfill his last wishes and distribute his ashes in the mountains. We had grown up going to the mountains: my dad a true mountain man trapped in the wrong century. He had always threatened that, when his time came, he would wrap himself up in a blanket and disappear into the woods, like the last of the Mohicans. He did manage to die with as little fuss and inconvenience as possible, and left behind simple stipulations for his funeral. He wanted to be cremated, a great party thrown, and then, his ashes spread somewhere in his beloved Sierra mountains.

My siblings and I studied the maps, and after long deliberation, decided on a summit above Lake Tahoe. The map was inaccurate, and the road impassable. Thwarted, we drove back down the mountain, and halfway to the bottom found a green valley looking between two peaks at the sky-blue lake, the sides gently embracing us, framed by dark pines. Spontaneously and unanimously, (unusual for our family) we agreed this was the place. After a picnic lunch I was elected (less squeamish than the others) to divide up the ashes into little baggies for each of us to distribute. I had been prewarned by friends about the ashes: be sure to shake them up a bit as they settle, and, they look nothing like fireplace ashes. Grittier, heavier, substantive.

We took our baggies and wandered off, each finding our own private spot. I felt an awkward panic, not knowing what to do, or expect. Modern day doesn’t prepare us for these rituals. We had been so busy planning the trip, picking the location, packing the lunch, we hadn’t thought through the actual dispensation of ashes. However, as I looked out at the Teutonic landscape, I calmed. I thought of the centuries of people who have dispatched their dead, some with great ceremony—flaming biers, processions, ululations– some quickly, a hasty burial and nothing more to mark the event. We were part of these, connected to the grand succession of life and death. I hadn’t felt this connection at the funeral service, with its soft chairs and microphones and slide show. Being here in the old mountains– near a lake formed from prehistoric heaving earth, feeling the afternoon sun on my face, smelling the spicy clumps of mule ear leaves, letting the scratchy low pine branches rasp my legs– the deep magic of mortality and the ancient custom of mourning became palpable and authentic.

I held my baggie out, hoping the breeze would take the ash. But the ash was too dense, rather, it slid out of the bag, as if sowing seed, piling up on the ground. Not ethereal flighty stuff, rather, the remains of my father’s body; bone and tooth. I braced myself for being grossed out, but instead: relief. Here he was, here he is.

Looking up, at the others a bit off, and at the sky, water and dark trees, I felt Dad among us. Not as a claustrophobic haunting, but as a spacious warmth, a presence, a shining blessing. But very specifically, him. I experienced the comfort I’d had as a child, camping out under the dark, star-studded sky, where potential bears or wolves might materialize, and yet, Dad was nearby, rolled up in his red sleeping bag, and all was well with the world. I didn’t see a ghostly apparition, or at the very least, hear his voice, but all the same, he was there.

I knew people had these visitations. Appreciating his anticipation of being in heaven, and his predilection for not making a fuss, I hadn’t thought we’d get a visit from him. I marveled at how the barrier between the living and the death could thin so conveniently in this place, now. A mystery.

I wondered if he had followed us bouncing up the dusty, rutted mountain road, and then halfway back down, had watched us scurry the picnic out of the car, then fold it all up again, waiting for us to be still. Always he was like that, a quiet manner, restful. He had been in some pain and discomfort when he died, and his presence felt free, unburdened, whole and well. Neither he nor I were much for small talk, and often we’d just sit side by side, quiet but communing. One more time, we sat together.

After a while, quietly, baggies emptied, the family came back together. Walking to the car, we

picked up pieces of gray granite. Like eons of mourners who have gone before us, at the road we built a cairn to mark this spot. Perhaps we would return, and perhaps, Dad too, would return to bless us again with his presence. Out of the way as this spot was, probably not. It is a gift, this one last exchange, between the living and the departed.

 

 

Laura Hampton lives in Houston, Texas. A former book editor, her current incarnation is as a Pilates teacher and Master Instructor, living in Houston, Texas. She has had numerous pieces of short fiction, essays, and poetry published in on-line and print publications.