Thursday, October 1, 2009

Father and Son's Ashes Scattered Together

I give Troy the burgundy velvet bag that contains Erik’s ashes. “Do you mind holding them? I may need to run down to the beach by myself.”

“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.

And we will find that wherever we step, the path appears beneath our feet

Now, more than ever, these words speak to me. Wherever we step, the path appears beneath our feet.

From the opening of the bunker, I look down to see Jeannette, Troy, and Jen beginning their trek up the mountainside.

I am grateful for the few minutes I still have by myself.

The rocks slip underneath me as I climb up the rest of the way, where we have all agreed to meet. I get to the top of the mountain and sit crossed legged next to the edge of the cliff.

I toss a piece of wood, watching it fall eight-stories down to a deserted beach.

This is it.

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.

I hear a rustling sound in the bushes and turn around, suddenly worried about the rumored mountain lion.

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.

My waist pack feels tight and heavy around my belly, so I unhook it and take out the rocks I have collected along the way.

Be with me, Erik.

Now a foot away from the edge of the cliff, I lay the yellow and purple wildflowers down with a handful of rocks on their stems.

I imagine myself on our wedding day, holding two dozen tightly wrapped white roses as I walk towards Erik, down the grand marble staircase. He stares at me with certainty.

Erik's fingertips connect with mine, beneath my bouquet. He is a handsome vision in his black tuxedo. This is the beginning of submitting to happiness, of letting myself be loved in a way most people will never experience.

I hear Eriks' voice. Deep, soothing, authentic. His wedding vows surround me:

I believe that I know love because I have known you. There is nothing more complete than the thought of you as my wife, as the mother to my children, as my best friend.

I set the rest of the rocks down, one by one, in deliberate formation. The experience of forming these words is surreal. Slow. It’s as if I am removed from my own body, hovering above it all. Instead of being in it, I am watching myself.

Floating above, I take in this scene of a young woman who is leaving flowers and a message to her dead husband. It isn't me. It can't be me.

The widow forms her words in black and orange rocks.


This is my way of coping, so that I can do what I am here to do.

I am here to scatter Erik’s ashes.

Another pushing through.

I hunch over, crying for this widow and her two babies. I mourn for the 29 year-old man who was yanked away from everything he had ever wanted.

But, again, I am numb.

My tears are on automatic.

I am detached. Staring at nothing and everything, all at the same time.

The words are blurry, the wind and the waves are white noise.

“How ya doing?” Jen says.

I am startled back into my body when I realize that Troy, Jen and Jeanette stand only steps away. “Oh, um, you made it.”

Jen squats down next to me. “You need a sweatshirt?”

I use my index finger to wipe beneath my eyes. “No, I’m alright.” I don’t really want to look at her.

“We don’t have to do this today, if you’re not ready, you know.” She strokes my hair.

“Jeanette will still be here for another week. We can come back another day.”

“No, today is the day. It’s just . . .”

“Fucked up?”

“Yeah, any way you look at it.”

“You just tell me what you need, and I’ll make sure you get it.”

“You’ve already done too much, Jen.”

“That’s what I’m here for.”

“I do wish it wasn’t so, um, foggy out. I was hoping for a sunny day.”

“Now, that I can’t help you with

I stand up and wave to Troy and Jeanette to come over to us. “I was thinking we could do it here. What do you think? Look like a good . . . scattering spot?”

“It’s beautiful,” Jeanette says. “They’d like it here.”

“I thought we could toss them off the side so they can be in the ocean.”

“Hayden loved the ocean.” She starts to cry, too.

I hold Jeanette in my arms, Hayden’s scatter-box pressed between both of our chests. I want to take care of her the way she has taken care of me and the girls the past few months.

Jeanette pulls away, determined. “Well, I think 17 years is long enough to hang on to your ashes, Hayden.” She sits down and undoes the twist-tie around the protective plastic bag.

“Troy, can I have Erik’s?”

He hands me the burgundy bag. “Already got them out for you.”

I sit next to Jeanette and take Erik’s dark brown scatter-box from its velvet cover.

Flipping up the wooden lid, I peek inside. I haven’t looked at his ashes before. They are in a clear, plastic bag, inside the wooden box. They look like fine white sand.

For a moment, I wonder how I would really know if these were Erik’s ashes. I didn’t see him get cremated. Last I saw of him, he was in his casket, and then the funeral home gave me this box full of sand.

No, it must be Erik. Why would the funeral home do that to me?

I pull the plastic bag out of the box and set everything else aside.

Jeanette now has her hand inside of her bag. “Mine don’t look like yours.”

“No, they must have cremated differently back then.”

“It’s almost like I can feel some bones in there.”

“Yeah, it looks like they only put the fine particles in Erik’s.”

Jeanette and I stare at each other for a while, both of us knowing the unspoken impact of this situation.

“Well, are you ready?” she asks.

“Do you mind if I take some of Hayden’s, too? I want to scatter some of them together first.”

“That’s a beautiful idea.” She holds Hayden’s bag out to me. “I’m not ready yet. You go first.”


“Now, sweetheart.”

I reach deep into her bag with my right hand and pull out a fistful of Hayden’s ashes.

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.

I keep my right fist tight around them while I let my left fingers wrap around Erik’s soft ashes. Some of Erik’s ashes slip through the cracks, into the wind.

“Here we go.” I step to the edge of the cliff, peering over my running shoes, at the Pacific Ocean.

My hands are filled with father and son, two generations that are now together in some other world.

I tuck my fists into my chest, my elbows pushing at my belly.

“We love you, Erik,” Jen says.

“You’ll always be with us,” Troy says.

I raise both of my hands to the sky, making a ‘V’ with my arms. “I’m sorry I never got to meet you, Hayden. I know I would have . . loved you. And, Erik, I don’t even know what to say. You have given me so much . . . and I can’t believe you’re gone. But it makes me feel good to know you’re . . . you’re with your dad. And . . . I love you. I wish I could tell you how much I love you, but I hope you know. And the girls love you. We will always . . . love you.”

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.

They do not soar down to the sea lions. Instead, they whip right back into my face.

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.

“Whoa, that was intense.” I breathe in the cool air.

“They’re all over you.” Jen dusts off my face.

“Take some.” I shake my whole body out. “Everybody take some.”

I feel exhilarated.

“Maybe you want to try scattering towards the valley,” Troy says.

“I don’t mind them on me.” I laugh more deeply. “You know it’s Erik playing tricks on me. Jeanette, you first. It feels really good to let go.”

“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.


  1. Woa! You've done it again, Hyla. Sitting here with a wet face sniffling.

    That was beautifully written and wow...the things you've experienced and ways you've gone into the pain and worked through it just amaze me.

    Your candidness is captivating. There is an uncanny depth to your soul that I love. Beautiful, Hyla. Thank you! Thank you! XOXO ~Michelle

  2. Hyla,
    You continue to amaze me & make me proud to call you my friend. This post didn't make me sad, instead I found myself happy.
    Because while reading how you weren't sure how you would deal with your grief & sadness it hit me; you ARE dealing with your grief & sadness. And best of all you are SHARING it with all of us. Believe me when I tell you that is a gift to you & all who read this wonderful blog. Thank you. xoxo

  3. I don't know why I keep reading these.

    I have to close the door to my office to hide from my husband because if he found me in here sniffling and wiping tears at the computer, he might try to have me committed. Then I have a crying headach for 30 minutes until the 2nd glass of wine kicks in...

    Your entries are alive... with beating pulses that I HAVE to read...keep 'em coming.

  4. Okay... so I have to stop reading this at work. My coworkers are starting to look at me sideways. Crying is good for the soul though, and laughter through tears is even better. I look forward to each new post. Thank you so much for sharing such intimate pieces of you. xoxo

  5. This was the hardest to read yet - but also your best writing yet! the snake are gifted Hyla!!

  6. Hyla, that was so hard to read. You've shared this story with me, but never on this level of intimacy. My father died just recently and he held onto my mother's ashes for 10 years hoping one day to go back to Monterey Bay to spread them. I wanted to let that last wish happen and a flew from Maine to Monterey Bay with both my parents ashes. Sat alone on that beach for an hour with them. Reading that story brought that pain, that peace, that moment flooding back in. You are an incredibly resilient and strong woman and Erik would have been so proud of you.
    Best wishes....Suzzanne

  7. Hyla, you are truely an amazing person! You are such an awesome writer, it was as though I was right there with you knowing everything that was happening. My heart aches as I read your blog, such compelling words. Thanks for sharing your story with us, I know it's hard. You are definitely a brave individual. I look forward to reading more.

  8. The writing is beautiful, painful, raw. You are so amazing. It is hard for people to "go there" and you do so ... so graciously.

  9. Your words are beautiful, powerful, and heartbreaking. I am so very sorry for your loss and I'm so happy that you've found love again in your life. I wanted to let you know that I have read your words and that you have such a beautiful talent for telling your story and bringing the reader in and making them feel like they're beside you through your journey. I've always thought you were amazing... I think that still.

  10. I really did spend my Sunday morning reading, with tears streaming down my face, your recent posting about Erik. I think you are such a talented writer ... I knew you were a fabulous photographer, but your writing is amazing! – Wendy C.

  11. I can't wait to see this published. Keep writing, girl. You are fantastic. You are doing something wonderful that you can't even possibly know.

  12. All of your posts have been wonderful, but this was, by far, my favorite.
    I really liked this, "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." Whether purposeful or coincidental, the symbolism was perfect!

  13. Beautifully written Hyla. To convey the gravity of unimaginable have done a wonderful job. Keep writing, growing, discovering.

    Your friend, Maija


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