Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Earthly Remains

For most of my life, I knew where Dad wanted to end up.

For a fellow who had travelled so far and seen as much as he did, he was still awestruck the first time he encountered the Rocky Mountains up close and personal.  It would have been the mid-70s, shortly after we moved to Leduc from New Brunswick.  Friends from Down East came out with us, and I remember staying at one of the Lodges in town, Marmot I think.  We drove around, and saw a bear in the ditch, and rode the tram to the top of Whistler.  I would have been perhaps 7 or 8 years old, and I liked Jasper a lot.

Not nearly as much as Dad did, though.

After a conference at Jasper Park Lodge that included tours of some area highlights, he began to speak of Maligne Canyon as the place he wanted his ashes scattered when he went on to his great reward, originally from helicopter. Later on that detail was left behind, but the place always remained the same. It's a beautiful area, carved out of the rock, rugged but accessible, peaceful but noisy at the same time.

Mum, and Tara and Jerry and the four of us traipsed into the canyon Saturday afternoon, myself carrying a blue shoulder bag with the container of Dad's ashes in it.  You could not have asked for a better day, cool in the shade and traces of snow on the ground in places but a sun so warm it threatened to burn.  The parking lot was about half full, and the trail congested in places, but the further on we went, the fewer hikers we saw.

Mum and Tara were happy to let me scout out what might be a good spot to send Dad on his final journey; I'd been there before and had a rough idea what I had in mind.  My preference was to be over the water, so as not to leave him on the banks, and preferably distinctive enough to find on a return visit.  A number of sites were considered and discarded for being too open, too busy, too dry, not...right.

The 4th Bridge isn't really part of the trail, it is a viewpoint that dead ends against a cliff face, and the trail to it descends from a large rock formation that actually serves to shield the bridge from hikers approaching from upstream.  Mum and Tara agreed this would be a good spot.

The act itself was slightly more complex than I had anticipated: the scattering vessel contained a thick plastic bag with  Dad's ashes, which we needed to remove, open, and then pour back into the tube itself.  The operation had a regrettable lack of elegance, but we still managed to maintain a modicum of respect.

We all took a turn pouring Dad's mortal remains into the Maligne River, from a height of perhaps 5 or 6 meters: Mum, then myself, then Tara, Audrey, Fenya and Glory, stopping once so that a father and his young daughter could explore the bridge without an awkward explanation.  After they returned to the trail, I tried to keep myself between the foot of the bridge and whoever was pouring, shielding them with my body, trying to afford them some sense of privacy.  Before too long, perhaps all too quickly, we were done.

Mum was sitting on a rock by the foot of the bridge, and I asked if she was all right.  She nodded.  "It's a little hard," she said, her voice thick.  "The last goodbye..."

The return journey to the parking lot felt longer than the descent to the 4th Bridge, despite having left so much there, but I'm not sure how much that had to do with physical exertion.  We had a beer on the deck next to the river, and let the sun, and each other, remind us how good it is to be alive, even in grief.

I like the idea of Dad's ashes entering the water, racing downstream to the river, to the sea, to the clouds, and perhaps returning to earth in drops of rain.  I like the idea that he will end up everywhere and nowhere, that his final journey will never actually end, and that he will never be too far away.

Even without a marker bearing his name, I am glad we have a place we can go to remember and commemorate him.  And I told the girls to pay attention, because when my time comes, this is how I would like my earthly remains returned to the Earth, and hopefully 4th Bridge will not be too far away.


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