November 5, 2015
In the glow of bonfire light, she showed me the ring of ashes which circled the old maple tree, the ashes of her friend who had died from cancer this year. There had been a dignified ceremony the day before, the friend’s ashes spread and mourners telling stories about her. Tonight, it was as if the friend was watching the bonfire party.
The ashes were put there as a remembrance of a happy day, decades ago, friends and family cleaning up the edges of the farm fields and mowing and preparing to plant spring flowers. Her friend was hard at work, loosening the soil with a hoe, between the then young maple tree and the storage shed.
She was mowing grass when, out of the corner of her eye, she saw people jumping up and down. She shut off the mower and hurried over to the tree. A nest of baby rattlesnakes, ten of them, had been unearthed, and her friend was screaming, and the company was freaking out.
Her father was in panic mode. He grabbed a gas can and doused the baby snakes and set them on fire. And the horrified onlookers, their reptilian brain stems firing from humans’ common fear of reptiles, watched the babies die.
No doubt there are good and bad deaths. But it all ends badly. Snakes on fire, Russians on a bomb-exploded jet, cancer, crossing the road to get the mail and getting hit by a car, in sleep. It all ends badly.
And it is harder on the living—death.
Most of the party goers were over sixty-five, save for a young folk singer entertaining the crowd, and he could snap his fingers and he’d be old. I imagined the listeners on benches, warming before the fires, to be mountain climbers on a particular peak. No matter how high you go on that mountain, there is still the hike back down.
You get a few hours, on that peak, for sunsets and holding babies and drinking red wine and traveling to your homeland and getting high and saying the words “remember when” repeatedly and singing and dancing badly and regretting and celebrating and marveling at wonders of the world. And then you roll or crawl or stumble or fall or use a walker or walk erect, back down, backwards with eyes shut. For that mountain, on ascension, is life; the descent is known by another name. And then you are ashes ringing a tree, your loved ones telling stories.
I am on that peak.
I have some solace. Parallel universes make me hopeful. Stars make me weak-kneed. Tree frogs are miracles. Love may be chemicals, but I am high on them. Atoms disperse, not die. The atoms in the universe are finite, reformed. Her friend re-formed and left some dust: stardust.
So there is no death. Who morphs into whom, and life and death are sisters, their fingers enlaced, their hearts beating as one.
The living walk forward. The dead, unsleeping, dance.