When I visited this mountain with my sister, the leafy colour crescendo sparked thoughts of our own mortality and so we spoke about death.
Concerns about our mother were top of mind; she is in the last stages of Alzheimer’s disease (did you know you could be deemed ‘chronic palliative’, and how this is different from ‘acute palliative’? … it all has to do with the passage of time, of which no one really knows anything) and we were both perplexed that she wanted her ashes to be interred in the same columbarium niche where our Dad’s are — neatly shelved in a beautiful oak box, inscribed with his name, the dates he lived, and the simple phrase, ‘Deeply Loved’. I continue to struggle with what Mom’s will say — something like, “Get me out of this box” or “What was I thinking?” perhaps?…
The columbarium is in the basement of Christ Church Cathedral, our Anglican cathedral in Ottawa. Dad was not deeply religious but had a philosophical belief in the existence of God. I’ll never be sure what he was thinking in those hours he knew his death was imminent; was he wondering if he was right? So his connection to this church came from the fact that nearby was where he spent much of his post-retirement years - first as archivist to the Anglican Church’s Diocesan Archives, and then firmly ensconced as Archivist Emeritus, visiting almost daily to do his own research. Both in the basement, which he seemed to enjoy. I am reminded that he also spent many hours in the basement study of our family home, researching his book and doing our extended family’s genealogy. I do think he found comfort in these stuffy, book-lined rooms, working by the golden light of a study lamp….he was a professor of ancient history or philosophy in his head.
In contrast, Mom loved the outdoors and she’d walk the leafy neighbourhoods or better still, the edges of the canal or the Ottawa River, everyday. She was enthralled by the autumn oranges of sugar maples, the scarlet of red maples and the yellows of aspen and birch. We often had outings to Gatineau Park across the river where the colours seemed to be more vivid and magical than on the Ontario side. I recall childhood excursions that included a male family friend, an Anglican priest no less, who had befriended my mother and was, unbeknownst to all, eyeing me for molestation in the months ahead. Yes, an Anglican priest - quelle ironie. And I was likely only about 7 or 8 years old. My parents were none the wiser until I finally told them. By then I was in my 30s. He’s long since dead now.
So, the death we spoke of was both our own and our Mom’s. It doesn’t take much to realize that when your time comes, especially if you have no daughters of your own, you’ll be at the mercy of whoever is left. Is there a funeral? Are your buried or are you cremated? We both agreed that cremation was preferred and easiest, but also agreed that our ashes should be sprinkled in the outdoors — as Mom’s should, if we were being honest — but we’d abide by her wishes and put them in a box next to Dad’s in the Cathedral’s basement. Perhaps she was thinking more of being side by side in perpetuity, like they were in life, more often in their old age than while they were our younger parents.
I told my sister that I’d like to be sprinkled here, on this magical mountain that reminded me of Narnia. But that she’d have to do it surreptitiously, as throwing down someone’s ashen remains any old place is not considered, ahem, legal.
Clearly, I am not the only one who has thought of this. When I visited this sacred space again this fall, I saw a memorial to someone who died recently and whose friend or family member planted a shrub in her honour. She must have loved it here too, I thought.
The quote from Ghandi reads, “Fear has its use but cowardice has none.” My interest was piqued and so I looked up her death notice and found she died at the age of 62 from brain cancer. My age. Clearly her loved ones were choosing to remember her as profoundly courageous.
This woman was no doubt a lover of nature, of this spot, and of this view I thought. It is interesting to me that when people die, the only window strangers, passersby, have into their life are the words chosen by those who remain (or, on occasion, their own words if they’re the type to leave nothing to chance.) Her family, I presume, wrote this: “She lived for her children, music, photography and video games.” Huh? No mention of nature, no philosophizing about our place on the earth, our responsibility to keep natural spaces pristine, her love of wild plants? (**makes mental note to write her own death notice and make explicit instructions about any clandestine plantings…)
But being the gardener I am, I can’t help but talk about the memorial shrub. Sorry, it’s nagging at me. This is a hydrangea, Hydrangea paniculata to be precise, a shrub that is native to eastern and southern China, Japan and a few other Far Eastern locales. Although it is a wildly popular ornamental shrub for us here, it is out of its element on this rocky outcropping overlooking an eastern Canadian arboreal forest. This one is likely a dwarf cultivated variety, and will stay unnoticed — and probably further stunted as there is little protection from the strong winds up here — discretely planted amongst the native flora, like beech, maple, hazel, pine and others. It seems an act of recklessness to plant something, especially something incongruous, in memory of someone you loved; what kind of sadness will be felt all over again when the plant dies or is eaten, branches broken or trodden on?
I will tell my sisters that they don’t need to plant anything in my memory. It’s taken me 62 years to figure out that anything I or anyone else can plant pales in comparison to what is planted by Mother Nature. Just dump my ashes somewhere like this, as fertilizer for what is already happily growing.
And in that vein, would it be wrong to take some of Mom’s ashes when her time comes and spread them here too? Basement or mountain top - seems a no-brainer to me. Sorry Dad.