Dearly Beloved

It took 22 years to come to this.

I never knew what to do about letting Jacob’s ashes go.

But I am taking a creative writing fellowship on the East Coast this fall. My ex-husband is also moving, and our other son is in college on the West Coast. It didn’t seem right to put Jake in storage, or to drag him around the country.

It’s pretty hard for parents to design a memorial for their own child, especially when they have no religious community. When it’s a baby it can be even more difficult, because no one else knew the person or has any memories to share.

In the last few months I’ve been getting a strong sense that it’s time. And finally some ideas for how to go about it.

Return to the source, the place where he was made. Where both our boys were made.

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Climb to an overlook on Spencer Mountain, where I used to hike, ski, or snowshoe nearly every day. Sometimes I was alone, sometimes with a friend, sometimes pregnant with one boy or the other, and sometimes with the second son on my back or at my side. (And always with a dog or several.)

Hold up the urn, a hollowed-out piece of an aspen branch, and show Jake the view he never got to see with his eyes.

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Point out the house he would have lived in.

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Kiss some of the ashes, taste them on my tongue, and offer them to the wind that slips out of the jet stream to help make Eldora such a place of power.

Then lead my ex-husband and my living son back down the mountain to “the rock,” a boulder jutting into the rapids in North Boulder Creek.

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When I was depressed and drained I would lie there and draw on the heat of the rock, the roar of the water, and all that melting light from the glaciers above. I did this when pregnant with one son and then the other and after Julian was born I brought him here for picnics in the summer. I took him snowshoeing here in the winter, when the hurl of the wind supplanted the thunder of the melt. “Icy ri-ber” was one of Julian’s first concepts.

As the three of us approach the rock, there are many shared ah-ha’s and remember thises and remember thats. But also some shocks as a treasured memory turns out not to be shared by the other.

For years I’ve had a hard time revisiting this valley because its beauty pains me. I hate that I don’t still live here, that I couldn’t hold on to the magic for the sake of my living son.

And that’s part of why this ritual needs to happen, and why Jacob needs to go now. He doesn’t need to be tangled up in this confusion and regret any longer. This is a farewell to a marriage, a segment of motherhood, and a childhood, as well as to a little son and a brother.

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All this source water. Jake may never have seen this place, but he certainly heard and felt it.

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One of the most challenging moments comes when the box is empty. We’ve talked about burying it nearby, but I’ve forgotten to bring a trowel. Julian dangles the box over the river, stroking it. Should we just drop it? his dad and I wonder. It feels right. But when we do, we all are shaken by the violence with which the water grabs it away. 

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“I guess you’re never ready,” Julian says later.

No. You never are. Not for the final good-bye.

So I think of Charon and his boat on the River Styx, Moses and his basket of reeds. This valley was once a container for all of us, and now we’re all taking different paths. It wouldn’t be right to leave Jake behind, rooted.

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Well, little boy. We’ve kept you close for so long. Travel far. Stay safe. Please, please check in. Our hearts are always open to you.

In Honor

Dear little Jake,

You had your great-grandfather’s nose, or so we imagined, based on photographs of him. You were alive for only three days, and writing that phrase makes me have to stop typing and cry. You were only alive for three days, and so we can only do an age-progression in our minds.

When I was pregnant with you I had many dreams of you at various ages, and around six months after you died I dreamt of you as a young man, walking toward me across the alpine tundra, I guess during a hike we were taking together.

That is all I have, really. It’s not much.

We have the your little baby coos, echoing down these 21 years, the memory of your furrowed brow, the clench of your hand on our fingers. I have your lips nuzzling my nipples. And then your hands and feet turning so blue and cold, your terrible cries of alarm, near the end. And those last, quiet gasps.

And whatever it was that came into the room between your penultimate breath and the final one. I thought it was the nurse, but when I turned, no visible person was there.jake2

Twenty-one years, Jake. I’ve marked these years in various ways. Sometimes I’ve baked a cake. Other times I’ve returned to the place we lived when you were conceived and walked along some of the trails where I used to hike, ski, and snowshoe, pregnant with you, just the two of us, when I was still unadulteratedly happy, hopeful. This year I’ve just returned from a trip with your “younger” brother. He’s choosing a college, Jake! My nest will really be empty now. I can’t even begin to express how complicated my feelings are today, the day after returning from this tour with your beautiful brother, of whom I feel so proud, writing these words on your twenty-first birthday.

Each year the gulf between us has yawned more widely. The wonderful baby smell on your clothes began to fade. One year the lock of your hair was no longer among your “effects.” A terrible blow even today, when I long to touch you. The dreams have diminished in frequency. Even a nightmare is a treasure now.

Your brother has taught me much about the mysteries of parenting. Nothing is as I fantasized when I was carrying you. Grief experts say that when a child dies a dream is lost. But that happens in any case when a parent raises a child; it’s just that in the ordinary experience the process is more gradual. The child of one year vanishes into the child he or she becomes the next year. Your father and I divorced; we didn’t become the parents we thought we’d be. So it’s not just our dream we lost, but who you’d actually have become… somewhere along the way, we lost all sight, all way of knowing, of even being able to imagine who you might have become. And who we might have become.

Little son. We didn’t get to exchange all of the gifts we had for each other. You didn’t get to share everything you had with the world.

How I wish I were like other parents, taking things for granted. Simply sending a card, and a care package, to you……off in some college or study-abroad program… or wherever you might be…

I simply have no idea.

Happy Birthday.

Love,

Your Mother, still here, loving you

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