So many challenges and questions to be answered when a loved one dies. None have been so heart wrenching for us as deciding what to do with Kat’s ashes and then following through with it. Kat’s wishes were to have her remains cremated, but she did not have any preference for what should be done with her ashes. It is a decision no parent should ever have to make for their child. But like all of these challenges, it had to be done. I could never have imagined the heartache and the unbelievable beauty we were in for that day.
Just north of Morganton, there is a mountain peak named Table Rock (NC). I have fond memories of climbing Table Rock (SC) many times, but this is not that Table Rock. Since Kat’s sister moved to Morganton, we see the outline of this spectacular formation fairly often. Recently on one of those trips to Morganton, a forgotten memory returned to me of a trip that Kat and I took soon after we moved to NC in 1998. She would have been 13 years old and entering the tunnel of teenagedom. She and I drove up into the mountains for a day and hiked Linville Falls and Table Rock. I don’t remember many details of that trip, but what I do remember was a good bonding experience at a time when bonding experiences were hard to come by.
I suggested that we spread her ashes on Table Rock because of my memories of that trip, it will be a landmark that we will have occasion to see often and the mountain actually looks like a monument. Everyone agreed that this was a good choice.
Timing was an issue because we are spread all over the country and are rarely all together at the same time. As it turned out, there was a single day that we would all be in town when nothing else was planned, so it seemed that the date was set for us; December 24th, Christmas Eve.
Family dynamics are never simple not because there is something wrong, but because everything is right. People are different. We all have our own desires and these good desires frequently clash which causes friction. Family histories can complicate matters by making it feel like the same thing all over again, which does not help resolve things. On this day in particular, all of our emotions were on overdrive. It would have been challenging enough to plan and execute a fun trip to the mountains. This trip was the anything but a fun trip. Our purpose was to spread the remains of our daughter, our sister. To paraphrase one of her sisters, none of us wanted to go, but none of us wanted to be anywhere else. So in spite of the friction, we pressed on.
The next big challenge was the miserable weather. It was a chilly, gray, rainy day. It rained the whole hour and a half drive to Morganton, where we stopped for lunch. After lunch we started up the mountain, which is another hour drive on a good day. The rain soon turned to rainy fog as we entered the clouds. To all appearances, this was a really miserable setup for a miserable job. Finally we reached the turn off which is about five miles of narrow, gravel road followed by a steep series of switch backs that were paved (thankfully). When we arrived, the parking lot was completely empty. Who would want to come out to hike on such a miserable, Christmas Eve? No one! This was a genuine blessing-in-disguise because it gave us the whole mountain to ourselves!
We arrived at the parking lot exhausted mentally and emotionally. Everyone one looked to me to be the leader, but I had no real plan. I only knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to hike the one mile path to the top. I was also agreeable to something less than that. After a moment, Kat’s sisters and Justin all began hiking up the trail to the top. Jeanie followed and I brought up the rear.The fog got thicker as the winding mountain road got steeper and curvier and we got slower.
Since our purpose was solely to spread Kat’s ashes, it goes without saying that the ashes needed to be carried to the top. Jeanie was not keen on climbing to the top, but she was determined to be the one who carried the ashes. She said that she carried Kat for the first nine months of her life and she was going to carry her to the top of this mountain to finish the journey. I wanted to help her, but I could sense her resolve. She saw this as her task alone. Along the way, I thought of how Frodo was the one appointed to carry the ring of power in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. It was easy to compare Jeanie to Frodo. In my mind, I purposed to be the best Samwise I could be for “my Frodo”. When she stopped, I stopped. When she talked, I listened. When she climbed, I climbed. Several times, through tears she said, “I can’t do this.” This reminded me of Kat’s words when things were at their worst.
As we neared the top, the view became clearer as we came out of the lower layer of clouds. There was still a layer above us with us between the two. The mountaintops became islands in a sea of rainclouds with a gray, overcast sky above. (By the way, other than the first photo of Table Rock, all the photos in this post are actual photos from that trip). After the rain and fog we had been experiencing all day, it was a welcome relief and absolutely beautiful. When I finally arrived at the top, everyone else was patiently waiting for me. I walked around and marveled at the stunning gray beauty in every direction. A sea of fluffy white clouds below with mountain-top islands poking through.
None of us knew quite what to do next, but we chose a spot where we would do this grim task and walked over to the far side of the mountaintop. Danae looked to the north and pointed out a sundog. It was pretty and lifted our spirits a bit. I could not put my finger on it, but something did not seem quite right about this sundog. However, we were there for a purpose and this sundog felt like a distraction.
Kat’s ashes were in a small plastic box wrapped in brown paper. Earlier that morning the thought flitted through my mind; wondering how we would open the box. I dismissed the thought, figuring that they would surely have make it easy to open. There on the summit of the mountain, the box was unwrapped and we found that it was a bit of a struggle to open it. It was not super difficult, but not a piece of cake either. It took three of us to do it. One held the box, one squeezed it to force a gap and a third wedged a car key in the hole to pry it open. Finally it was opened.
Inside this box, Kat’s ashes were sealed in a plastic bag. We pierced the bag with the key to tear it open. By this time, we were all crying. I had not cried so hard since she died. Knowing that this stuff was once her body was too much.
Everyone agreed that I should go first so I took the bag in my hand and reached in for a handful of Kat. Through my tears, I said, “This just feels so wrong.” My meaning was that it was so unnatural to be doing this for our child. In the “normal” order of things, we go first, then our children. I tossed the handful of dust into the air and handed the bag to Jeanie. One by one, each of us took turns tossing her ashes into the breeze. The way the ashes fell had a beauty of its own. The heavier pieces fell like sand and the lighter dusty fragments blew away on the light wind. One of her sisters described it in such a beautiful way…
Her ashes looked like a peach-hue on crushed bone so that when you free them into the mountain air, the wind makes a spirit cloaked in flesh and beaming with life. She dances again.
When I looked up again, the upper clouds had parted and the sun was shining through brilliantly. It was marvelous to see! It was then that I realized what was wrong with the sundog (nerdy guy that I am). It was in the wrong part of the sky. A sundog is always exactly 22% from the sun and exactly at the same height or directly above the sun. This was on the other side of the sky and nowhere near the sun. This was no sundog, it was a real rainbow! A short stubby rainbow to be sure, but a real rainbow! As soon as I said this out loud another rainbow appeared on the southern side. If we could have seen the complete bow, these would have been the bases of both sides.
Earlier that morning, as we were packing, we decided to leave the cameras. The very thought of bringing cameras on this trip just felt sacrilegious or disrespectful, after all, this was not to be a pleasure trip in any way. At that moment, I was sure wishing I had a nice camera in my hand. Fortunately, there are phone designers who thought it would be a good idea to include a camera in our phones. The photos you see here are from my phone on that day. You can also click this link to more photos of our path up the mountain and the view we had at the top. (I suggest the slideshow button to see them full screen). It includes a short video sweeping around the incredible vista.
By this point in our story, the sun was preparing to punctuate the day with an exclamation point as it buried itself in the clouds again on its way to the horizon. So we hurried down, quickly loaded up and began the grueling drive through the fog in the dark! We were pretty hungry after all that activity, but found most restaurants were closed for the holiday. We found a Japanese steak house open in Hickory where we had a relaxing and enjoyable meal together before finishing our drive to Charlotte.
The story of Kat’s ashes is not over. We saved back some because Kat had a dream of flying. She also had a dream of skydiving. I have a friend who has his pilot’s license. We were actually trying to arrange a flight for Kat, but she left us too quickly. Wanna guess what is on my to do list now?