“I’ll put them in my back pack.” Troy rests the gray sack by his feet and slides the ashes in. He starts to zip up the backpack, but pauses. “Jeanette, I might be able to fit yours in, too.”
Jeanette hugs her pine box closer to her chest. “No, I want to hold him. Hayden’s fine right here.”
My mother-in-law, Jeanette, has held on to her husband’s ashes for 17 years now.
When we talked about scattering Erik’s ashes, she said, “We’ll scatter them together. It’s never felt right to do it before, but it feels right now. Erik can be with his daddy. They can finally be together.”
And now Jeanette’s eyes are glossy with the tears she has been unwilling to release for decades.
I think of my pain—this pain from losing Erik—and know it cannot compare to hers. Two husbands and her youngest son, all dead. If a heart is broken into pieces, how can she have anything left?
Jeanette has never been to therapy, never gone to spousal loss support, never been willing to talk about her losses. Maybe she thinks some things are inexpressible. I imagine all of that grief stuck in her body, crawling through her limbs like a poisonous snake, and I want to reach inside of her and pull it out.
I look at her and vow, to myself, that I will deal with my pain. I will take hold of my sadness, wrestle it if I have to, letting its wild head hiss at me, so that I can come out on the other side more capable of being an example for my baby girls.
I do not want to be broken into pieces. I want to be broken open. I want to find love again.
“It’s a two mile hike, you know,” I tell Jeanette.
“Don’t you worry about me, sweetheart. I’ll be fine.” She nods down at Hayden's box. “It’s not like he weighs very much.”
We all begin to walk.
Jen says, “I brought hot tea for afterward. Gonna be even colder by the water.”
“That was thoughtful of you,” I say, but I don't really care about hot tea. I don't care about anything other than making sense out of things. But, how do I make sense out of Erik's death? Out of the fact that I am here to scatter his ashes? How? Why?
The pressure in my chest is unbearable--a grief-filled hammer repeatedly pounding against my ribcage.
There is so much to figure out. Do I stay in California, amongst my memories of Erik, or do I move back to Florida to be closer to my family?
Everyone has an opinion, but I need to silence their words. Silence everything. I need quiet so that I can let the answers come to me, but I am afraid. Afraid of trusting myself. Afraid of messing up Tatiana and Keira. How can I be a good mother when I feel too damaged to take care of myself?
Erik would know what to do. Erik could fix anything. He had a way of holding me, of comforting me, of taking care of me, and now, now there is no Erik. Now I must do this without him.
I do not want to feel the clawing of my emotions, so I quicken my pace into a slow run.
I run ahead of Troy, Jen, and Jeanette at Tennessee Valley, my feet pounding out aggression on the orange dirt trail. I turn back to them, for a brief moment, and yell, “I’ll meet you there.”
Troy shouts, “We’ll see you soon.”
"Do your thing, girl,” Jen says.
Jeanette says nothing, but I know she understands the feeling of needing to be alone.
Running is my way of coping, a form of meditation without sitting still. Sitting still means feeling the entirety of my emotions and that I am not ready to do. So I run and move my body to shed the angst. Without exercise, I want to rip off my skin.
Not even three weeks after my c-section with Keira, I started doing this hilly two-mile run again. My five-inch incision was red, but without stitches—the healing showing signs, but not nearly there. Throbbing pain and all, I had to push my way, ever so slowly, through the valley and down to the beach.
And, now, Keira is two months-old and my pace has quickened. My body is getting stronger from running, from lifting weights with a trainer, from lifting babies. I am determined to get healthier everyday and, already, want to rid my body of its excess baby weight so that I may attract men.
But, who will want me? Who, at the age of 29, wants a woman with two babies? I feel insecure. Fat. Ugly. Unworthy. Erik is not here to tell me I am beautiful. Erik is not here to say that I am an amazing photographer or the best mother in the world.
This was not the plan. This was not the way things were supposed to be.
Or maybe it is the way things are supposed to be.
Maybe I have somehow manifested it all.
I look back at the trail. I am alone, running, and no one is in sight.
I need you, Erik. Help me find my way.
The wind tosses my hair in all directions, slapping the brown strands against the front of my neck. Every few strides, I stoop down to scoop up rocks, and slip them into my waist pack.
This is where it all started. Tennessee Valley.
The day after Erik and I moved from Florida to California, we visited Tennessee Valley, and I was immediately filled up with the power of a universal force that I had never experienced before.
I will never forget that first time I spread my arms out to the powerful Pacific Ocean. Such a sense of clarity and euphoria. My soul was consumed by a spirit much greater than mine, and I felt, without a doubt, that my life had deeper purpose.
Never could I have imagined then that Erik's death would be a part of this universal plan. That I would be here, just eight years later, asking the Ocean for answers to such unfathomable questions.
Today, Tennessee Valley is veiled by thick fog. There is no sun shining on my face.
On my way up the mountainside, I want know why. Why did this happen to me? To us? To Erik? He was so happy and had it all taken away. Why?
I bend down to pick yellow and purple wildflowers. Flowers for my Erik. This is one time, I am certain, I will be forgiven for taking from the earth.
Drops of sweat slide down my neck, into the crease between my breasts. The sounds of ten-foot waves slam against protruding boulders.
I hike up to the old army bunker in the side of the hill that I have visited many times before. It is dark in the cement bunker and there are no people around, but I assume it is safe, as I normally do, and decide to step in.
Pathetic streams of foggy daylight illuminate the graffiti-like words that have been written in chalk, crayon, and lipstick on the gray walls. I walk to the corner, where my favorite words are written in red, and squint to read them.
I toss a piece of wood, watching it fall eight-stories down to a deserted beach.
This is where we will scatter the ashes, where I envision Erik and Hayden will soar off the mountainside, into the Pacific Ocean. They will swim with the kelp, the sea lions, and the occasional whale.
Instead, two deer spring down the hillside ten feet away.
I plant my palms in the red dirt, the jagged rocks making indentations in my skin.
Probably too close to the edge
Not the most stable person these days, I scoot back six inches, ever aware of orphaning my girls.
I L O V E Y O U E R I K
This is my way of coping, so that I can do what I am here to do.
I am detached. Staring at nothing and everything, all at the same time.
“You’ve already done too much, Jen.”
Jeanette is correct. Hayden's ashes are much coarser than Erik's. It makes me a little sick to my stomach, holding what I know are nickel and dime sized pieces of my father-in-law.
My hands are filled with father and son, two generations that are now together in some other world.
I clasp both of my hands together, mixing their ashes, and fling them off of the cliff side.
The wind blows hard, a massive gust with purpose. The ashes are lifted away from the direction of the ocean.
What remains of Erik and Hayden is all over me--in my hair, on my clothes—and I cannot help but laugh. I laugh and cry, and then laugh some more.
I feel exhilarated.
“If you say so.” Jeanette digs both of her hands into Hayden’s scatter bag. “But I’m not getting them in my face.” She turns towards the Valley, careful not to fight the wind. “Be free, my love. Be with our son.”
Jeanette's ashes saunter down the hill, settling near the spot where I had just seen those deer, and a sliver of light pierces the fog.