By Trevy Thomas
Humidity soaked the air, but I sat on my little porch anyway just staring at the yard. There wasn’t much to see except weedy grass, big old trees, an untended garden. No people or houses or passing cars. I aged on the porch that hot summer, sweating, just to be near the empty chair where he used to sit.
A car traveled up the gravel drive. It was shaped like a small hearse, an image that seemed appropriately unfitting to my surroundings. The driver watched me as he neared, stopped the car, and got out. His face was frighteningly white, and he wore a dark oversized suit and tie despite the heat. With a shopping bag in hand, he walked to the porch and asked for me by name.
“Yes, that’s me.”
He smiled as he passed the bag. “I’m with the Cremation Society of Virginia. Here are your husband’s remains.”
I took the bag from this man who appeared to be death himself. It was heavy. Inside was a box and an envelope. I looked back to him—from ashes to death—and waited for a ceremony or ritual or citation or something significant. He kept smiling like he’d seen thousands of me before and hurried off to his air-conditioned hearse, leaving me with the bag and the empty chair.
A few weeks later, my husband’s best friend Cindy visited. She was a Native American woman who was with Bill on the night we met. I was in a bar on a date with another man when a mutual friend introduced us. Electrodes zipped between our eyes as we made contact and there was no more date by my side. In the years that followed I saw Cindy many times, but we’d never had much in common until Bill died. Then she seemed more solid than most people, as though I could keep my arms around her and she wouldn’t disappear like vapor the way he had. I wanted to be as close as possible to anyone who brought him back to me, even a little.
We sat on the side porch this time where there was more room and I wouldn’t have to envision the hearse. I brought the bag of ashes out. Cindy looked at me worriedly. She wore jeans, a pressed white shirt and a red bandana. She had flip flops on her feet and her toenails were painted red. She looked nice, like she was going somewhere for fun. My house scared people now so I knew the outfit was for later, after she left my home of mourning. She took the bag from me.
“You haven’t opened it yet?”
“No. I’ve been afraid to.”
“Well, let’s see what we’ve got.”
She opened the envelope and passed me a cremation certificate. Then she pulled out the heavy box and took another box from it. I hadn’t expected that. I was afraid I’d open the first box and Bill’s remains would spill out everywhere.
“There’s a lot of ash here. Do you have something to put it in?”
I didn’t. Nor had I arranged a funeral, or memorial service, or done any of the mysterious things that seem to just happen after a person dies. I felt alone and disabled by grief. My days were filled with tears, and wine, and whatever work came in so the dogs and I could hang on to the remains of our lives. I told her that just before Bill died, he had a piece of wood turned into a small lidded bowl. The bowl was for a client who’d lost her father, and she wanted something handmade for his ashes. It sat unfinished on his worktable and I wanted it then for myself, but the client emailed asking about it. Payment had already been made and I didn’t feel I could keep it, so I sat outside with a rag and Wipe On Poly and finished it myself. It made me cry, but it felt good to complete something he’d started.
“Well, you don’t really want wood for this anyway. You’ll find the right thing.”
We sat there for a while and she told me stories about Bill I hadn’t heard. They weren’t stories I liked, and that was the thing that had kept us from being close over the years—we came from different times in Bill’s life and I preferred mine. But she laughed as she talked, and I stared at her toenails and noticed how the sound of another person’s voice so close to me melted my hard coldness a little. She smoked cigarettes too, American Spirits, and I liked that because it reminded me of him smoking on the porch.
She was ready to leave but said there was something she wanted to do first. Cindy knew, from tearful phone calls, that I was struggling with an inability to fully acknowledge Bill’s death in an official ceremony. He had little in the way of immediate family, and my sisters were simply trying to support me in whatever I decided. There was no one guiding me toward a service or even a potluck. It seemed wrong to do nothing, and yet I felt too paralyzed to take charge.
She reached in her bag and pulled out a big shell. Then she lit a bundle of sage and placed it in the shell, and I followed her around the outside of the house. I’ve since learned that burning sage, or smudging, is a symbolic Native American way to promote healing, clear a space, or accompany ceremonies. I wasn’t Native American and neither was Bill, but he had great respect for their traditions and I had none of my own. I followed Cindy’s trail of sage smoke across the tall grass to the barn.
“You need protection here too.”
Indeed, I did. Soon after Bill died, men who’d heard about his death would stop by asking about the wood or his tools and equipment. In the early confusion of grief, these interactions left me feeling vulnerable. Protection sounded good.
We climbed a tall step and stood in the center of the old red barn, surrounded by Bill’s things. Huge slabs of wood were stacked around the walls of the barn and there were dusty piles of his life everywhere. Fishing rods, tools, unfinished carving projects, plans for a table, old pictures from the life he’d shared with a wife before me who’d also died. Now I was the keeper of their coupled life as well as ours.
Cindy set the burning sage on top of a box, and I watched as smoke reached up to the barn’s rafters, exhaling through cracks in the slats above us. Sunlight pierced the gaps, marking a path for the sage, and we stood in eerie streams of smoky light. It was churchlike. Cindy removed a piece of folded paper from her bag. I’d never wanted religion in my life but some sort of holiness surrounding this death seemed right, and Cindy’s native instincts were leading us to it.
“Bill went to a funeral with me once and this poem was recited. He told me he wanted it read when he died,” she said.
I wondered if this were true. Given the complete absence of any direction on how to handle his sudden death, it seemed surreal to have such an instruction presented to me just as I needed it. Now Bill had died, and she did as he’d requested.
Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep
By Mary Elizabeth Frye
Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning's hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there; I did not die.
Standing in his sunlit barn, surrounded by the work he loved, listening to his best friend read the poem he’d found meaningful, transformed this humble service so that the spirits of nature conspired to grace his death. The burning sage and oaky slabs of his sawn wood were incense to our makeshift memorial. It was perfect. I sobbed wildly through the ceremony, letting out the fear and loss and suffering I’d been trying to hold in. Bill’s barn was like a cathedral to my grief and a proper farewell from him. I—with no religion nor tradition nor custom—needed just such a ritual to escort me through this transition, the walk from love to the beginning of loss.
Cindy returned the poem to her bag. We walked out of the barn and back to the house where she gathered herself to leave. I was grateful to her for surprising me with this fitting service for the man we both loved. I had wanted to mark this significant loss in a way that didn’t feel false. It was selfish to do it as we had because there was no invitation to friends and acquaintances who had also loved him, but I wasn’t feeling generous toward others now. My loss extended to a feeling of being lost in the world, a misfit without him. Cindy helped me find my footing, returned me to a sense of confidence in my uniqueness, showed me that while I may not approach grief as others had, I would find my way. Given the stunted nature of our past friendship, this felt like a gift not only from her to me but from Bill to us. It was as though a butterfly had fluttered down upon us and gently directed us to the barn, to meaningful ceremony, to love for what we’d known, and to the healing that gratitude would begin to nurture.
“I think I’m going to take the ashes and shake them into the woods near the house or maybe the fishing pond he used across the farm. Bill loved it there.”
Cindy pulled her purse up onto her shoulder and seemed troubled by this decision. Just a few moments ago, I’d been afraid to even look at the ashes, and now I was ready to dump them in the pond where Bubba, the big fish he frequently caught and released, would have final say. Perhaps I was breaking some tribal law I didn’t know existed.
“Maybe don’t get rid of them all. You don’t know if you’ll stay here forever. You may want to keep some of his ashes near you.”
She smiled and gave me a long hug. One thing I’d learned since Bill died was how little human touch there is for a woman who’s lost her husband. I had new appreciation for hugs. Prior to her arrival, I’d struggled with the meaning of ritual in the aftermath of death. Cindy had magically appeared and resolved one part of my uncertainty, but the decision about the ashes remained. Two unnerving coincidences helped me address the remaining decisions.
Twice a day, Bill and I had walked the dogs down a long path through the woods. It gave us a chance to escape work and stress, and enjoy midday conversations we might otherwise have missed. Our little dog, Chip, was aging and, despite being a fiery Jack Russell, had slowed considerably on walks. One day Bill asked, “What are we going to do when he dies?” He had developed an especially close bond to Chip – his first small dog. “I don’t know. I don’t like to think about it. What are we going to do when any of us die?” Bill was silent. He’d already lost a spouse in an accident before we met. I knew he’d walked a sharp edge after that for a long time, but he rarely spoke of it.
“What would you want to happen when you die?” I asked. “Burial, cremation? Something else?” It was awkward and briefly uncomfortable. His smile covered what I knew to be unease at revisiting thoughts of death. “I guess cremation.” And there I had the answer to one big question I’d have to face in the coming year. But we’d left it at that and I hadn’t continued pressing for an answer on what to do with the ashes. Now I had to struggle with that equally-important decision alone. Cindy’s memorial encouraged me to move to the next step.
I returned to the heavy box. The suggestion to retain some of the ash was a good one, and now I needed an urn. This man who was a craftsman could not just be poured into any old receptacle, so I began a search through the house and into the barn, digging through his boxes. For once, I was grateful for his hoarding tendencies. After hours of picking through sooty photo albums of Bill and his deceased wife, artifacts, and household items, I found it: a small hand-painted ceramic bowl with a lid. It appeared to be Native American. Maybe it was a dish his late wife had kept jewelry in, or a purchase he’d made at a Powwow. I’ll never know, but I had a sense that this was the vessel to preserve his remains.
I carried it back to the house, cleaned it, and set it on the table next to the heavy box of ash. Carefully, I scooped a small amount of ash into the dish and covered it with the lid. I placed it on a shelf in the office among his books. Cindy was right. I did find a container and I was certain she would approve.
Now came the part that had no instruction. I drank a half bottle of wine, gathered the dogs and the ash box, and set out for a walk on the path where he’d told me that cremation was the right thing to do. The path was really a logging road cut through a pine forest. It was long and curvy, and it ended at a large clearing. I knew it well. But that day, through tearful eyes, I noticed something different about the tall pines lining the border of my walk as I shook his ashes on their roots. How majestic they were, strong like pall bearers, respectful, silent witnesses to the transfer of his life to earth. Like the barn service, this too felt fitting for the man my husband had been. No large crowd, no prescribed tradition, no indoor confinement. He had trees to grace his return to earth, and this was the second time since his death they had lined a path for my grief.
When Bill died, I was with him in a hospital far from our home. I felt anxious to return to our house even though I hated leaving his body behind. Driving the unfamiliar route home, I saw that there had been a storm, and the double-lane highway was lined with trees that had come down and now lay along the road. It was as though the trees were bowing to the loss of this man who’d made his life’s work from their remains.
About a year and a half after his death, Bill’s phone rang. I answered, and a woman’s voice said, “It’s Cindian.” We seldom spoke on the phone, and melding her Native American heritage with her name let me know exactly which Cindy she was. “I just thought you might want his phone to ring on his birthday.” Yes, I did, but maybe she wanted to call him too, just as she always had on this day. No matter how quietly he left this earth, he lived and died well because he was loved. That’s all the fanfare I needed.