We seem to have the entire park to ourselves. I'm leading the way, navigating the muddy, leaf-strewn trails. Every fallen log and rock wall feels like home, though it's been years since I clambered over any of them.
"OK, careful now, Maggie," I call back. "Brambles on the left."
"That's poison oak there, Eddie; wide berth, OK?"
"No, no, Charlie, drop it; that's some kind of poo, honey."
Behind me, and in order of age, traipse my niece and two nephews. Maggie, almost 6, is quiet as she trudges along. When we'd climbed out of the van at the trailhead, she'd studied our faces, trying to figure out what this impromptu field trip was all about. Now, every 20 paces or so, she looks back to observe her brothers' acorn collecting and stone kicking, but chooses not to join in their sport. She senses something's up. Eddie follows his sister, dragging a long, rotting stick behind him, as 4-year-olds seem required to do. Occasionally he squats down to get a better view of whatever rock or creature has caught his eye.
"Aunt Lynne, look! Look! A centipillar!"
"Hey, pretty cool, Eddie!" I nod.
On Eddie's heels comes Charlie, waddling along on his 2-year-old legs, oblivious, thrilled just to be this close to roots and dirt and undefinable poo. He has a tendency to smile for absolutely no reason, and when he does, his father's dimples impress on his cheeks like magic. It startles me every time, and I grin back. Sharon is behind her kids, gamely picking her way through the muck on chunky-heeled sandals. Her bleached punky hair has been mussed by a few low-hanging pine branches, but the fire-red lipstick and Jackie-O sunglasses remain in place. She's careful to keep her arms folded in front of her -- an extra couple of inches of buffer between herself and nature's splendor.
Taking up the rear is my dad. He's carrying the box, and chewing Nicorette gum. At 63, he's still trim and active, thanks in part to a lifelong love of cycling, which he in turn passed down to me. I remember how bad it felt when I started reaching the tops of hills before he did. I'm having that same feeling now as I notice how his hairline has finally crept back this past year.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
We can smell our destination before we actually see it: Frog Pond, the acre-size pool of murky, brown, petri-esque water that served as my siblings' and my playground growing up. The trail approaches the pond's slippery bank, then bends to continue along its muddy edge. As we walk on, I point out a stream of childhood landmarks to the kids.
"Charlie, you see those big rocks? You know what your dad did there? He stood on those rocks and caught a hundred fish in one day! Can you believe it?"
"And Eddie, did you know that your daddy used to go cross-country skiing with Pop-Pop on this trail? Maybe you can try it next winter, too."
"Mags, do you see the bench on the other side? That's where I'd sit while your daddy laced up my skates so we could go ice skating; isn't that cool?"
I smile, remembering my own father's role in those outings. Every winter, after a few frigid days had passed, the neighborhood kids would wait for him to emerge from our house and walk to the pond wielding a broken hockey stick from our basement. Once there, we all waited, not breathing, while he inched along, banging the stick every few feet on the frozen water. Sometimes we'd hear the unmistakable "pop" of ice giving way under his weight, and he'd scurry off as we all exhaled our collective disappointment. But the rest of the time, he'd work his way out, 5, 10, 20, 30 feet until finally turning back to us and proclaiming, "Ok ... it's safe!" and we'd all whoop and cheer and start pulling off our shoes.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
We're almost there, and Maggie still hasn't spoken. I decide she deserves some answers, so once we're far enough ahead of the others, I ask, "Do you know why we're here, Mags?"
"What's in Pop-Pop's box?" she counters.
"Those are ashes," I say.
"What are ashes?"
"Well, remember we told you that Daddy had to go live with the angels after his car accident? The doctors couldn't make him better, so he died and went to heaven, remember?"
She nods, waiting.
"Well, your body is sort of like a big candy wrapper. While you're alive, it holds together all your thoughts and feelings and ideas."
More silence. I'm sweating.
"So, when you go to heaven, you don't need it anymore. It stays here, and then after a while it turns into ashes."
She squints up at me. "Daddy's ashes are in Pop-Pop's box?"
She thinks for a moment. "Can we get Happy Meals after this?"
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Maggie was 3 when it happened, and still retains a surprising number of specific memories. "Daddy took me to this store once," or "Daddy taught me how to push myself on that swing." Eddie, on the other hand, was just 2 -- conscious enough to have adored his dad, but still young enough that now, a full third of his life later, his memories seem blurry and few. When waves of sadness or frustration hit him, he struggles to put their source into words. Sometimes, when you ask him about it, he simply points one finger up at the sky.
I can't decide if Charlie was the lucky or unlucky one to have been only 3 weeks old at the time of my brother's death. No memories, no baggage, no idea what he's missing. He'll just have to take our word for it when we tell him he has his father's dimples.
We're coming up to the spot we'd all agreed upon. When we were young, it was our favorite place for netting frogs and turtles. Twenty years later, my brother brought his own kids there to catch tadpoles and float sticks on the cloudy brown water. I watch Sharon brush off a stump and sit down, arms still folded, and I'm wishing that she had more of a connection here, too. She'd seemed agreeable to this location when we discussed it, but I hope she wasn't just being diplomatic. She's not easy to read.
The truth is, I barely knew Sharon when my brother was alive. We all lived far enough apart that we'd only see each other for holidays, and even then, she'd seemed guarded. She had a very different background than ours. She came from a splintered family, never graduated from college, and was already pregnant with Maggie by the time we even heard her name for the first time. I think she was aloof because she was wary of being judged. I'm embarrassed to say, she may have been right.
But grief is a great icebreaker. For many long months, Sharon was a crumbled, terrified mess, and we worried that the kids were going to spend the rest of their lives in front of the TV, eating Froot Loops for dinner. But eventually, she clawed herself out of her own fear and began piecing a life back together. Day after day, she somehow pulled herself out of bed, knowing that she'd spend the next 14 lonely hours feeding, dressing, driving, entertaining, refereeing, bathing, and changing the diapers of three toddlers, themselves still in the throes of unpredictable, mood-altering grief. In the process, any concern Sharon might have had about being judged by others got replaced by a much healthier attitude of "Go to hell."
- - - - - - - - - - - -
The kids are entertaining themselves by poking at the rim of bright green pond scum that has accumulated at the water's edge. We watch them for what feels like a long enough transition time, at which point Sharon and I look to my father.
"Well, should we get to it then?" he asks. He opens the simple gray box, inside of which is a clear plastic bag holding the ashes. It's true what you hear about this stuff: It's not ashes as you'd picture them -- those fragile gray flakes at the bottom of your fireplace. Rather, it's more like a mixture of gravel and chalk dust. Dad hands the box to me. I quickly calculate the politics and offer it instead to Sharon, "You go first." She seems appreciative. "OK. Thanks."
Staring at the open box sitting in her hands, the three of us suddenly realize we haven't brought anything to scoop it with. Dad and I look at Sharon.
"I'm not reaching my hand in there!" she laughs.
We search the ground until we find a good-size chunk of bark. Sharon takes it and walks to the pond's edge. She uses the bark to dig out a portion, which she flings into the water. The chalky part floats there, mingling with the pond scum. We stare at it for a few seconds, then Sharon turns and hands the box to me.
As I dig in for my turn, I find myself wondering if this is even legal. Surely there must be ordinances about this stuff: "Regulations Governing the Disposal of Human --" I can't believe this is what I'm thinking about right now.
I stand on the bank, and toss in my scoopful. I'm struck by how uneventful it feels. I'd pictured a certain amount of lip trembling and eye dabbing, but it all feels oddly ... normal. What does seem strange is not having my mother here. She's visiting my sister in Texas, but even if she'd been in town, I'm not sure she would have joined us. She has avoided anything too tangible connected to the accident. She still refuses to drive on that one particular stretch of Route 7, even if it means going miles out of her way. But if nothing else, we've learned that this is the most individual, personal process there is. Everyone has to be allowed to do whatever it takes to keep going.
Dad's next, and repeats our ritual. I'm wondering what he's thinking, but I don't ask. As he casts in his share, Maggie looks up from the water.
"I want to throw some!" she cries excitedly.
"Me, too! I get to go next!" Eddie follows. He has no idea what he's even referring to, but Maggie wants to do it, and that's good enough for him. We're thrilled. We certainly weren't going to push it on them, but this is exactly what we'd hoped for.
Maggie stands at the water, digging into the box. Dad crouches next to her, holding onto her belt loop for insurance. She pulls her scoop hand back behind her head and then hurls it forward with all her power. The gravelly mix rains down into the water.
"Goodbye! Goodbye!" she calls, bouncing on her toes and waving. We swallow hard and smile at each other. For a moment, I even wonder if I should have brought a video camera.
"I'm next!" Eddie reminds us, and pulls the bark and box from Maggie's hands. "Mine's gonna go farther!" he announces. He shovels out his due, and then pitches it with such enthusiasm that our bark shovel goes sailing along with it.
"See? See how far, Pop-Pop?"
"Good job, Eddie!" my dad agrees.
"Me turn! Me turn!" Charlie is jumping up and down, trying to get in on the fun. The scoop floats well out of reach, so my father pulls the plastic bag out of the box to make whatever's left a little more accessible. Charlie, with dimples shining, takes it from my father, bends at the knees, and then jumps in the air, whipping the bag over his head. Ashes fly out in all directions, coating Charlie as they fall to earth. It's in his hair, in his eyelashes, stuck to his cheeks.
Maggie and Eddie squeal with laughter, which makes Charlie giggle, too, proud of his own buffoonery. For a moment, we adults consider trying to salvage some semblance of decorum, but we all know the truth: Their Dad would've loved this. So instead, we just brush Charlie off, and let them laugh.
We gather our things, take a final gaze at the water, and head after the kids, who have already started chasing each other back up the trail.
"Who wants chicken nuggets?" I call out.