Ash Saturday at Camp
Some neighbors ask to borrow an egg, cup of milk, or sugar. I recently asked my neighbor for a tablespoon of ashes. Sean's ashes. I'd meant to pack them for family camp on Lake Coeur d'Alene. Camp Cross http://www.campcross.org/ was the last place Sean and I brought the kids together before he got sick. It's where we've spent every 4th of July (and many Labor Days) since 2005, when Fiona was a not-quite-walking toddler, and Finley was a (large) bump in my belly. We've canoed, changed diapers, sang songs, picked up children after they've rolled off cots onto the cabin floor, eaten s'mores, packed the kids on our backs, and savored grown-up moments alone (with help from other parents and staff). Camp is a place to disconnect from the chores of home and reconnect with each other and with the kind of relationship with God you only find outside.
I wanted to sprinkle part of Sean at camp, especially since I plan to take the kids on our year-long adventure in mid-August. I feel an urgency to tie up loose threads. When I realized I'd left Sean's ashes at home, I whipped up "Plan B:" One of my neighbors has a lake cabin (actually,her parents') around the bend from camp. Maybe she could bring them? I called her and said, "I know this is a strange request, and feel free to decline if it creeps you out. I forgot Sean's ashes. They're sitting on our back porch. Would you mind scooping up a small amount and bringing them to the lake?" Heidi's response was immediate: "Nothing grosses me out. Of course I will."
The Brown Box
The next day, I got a text from Heidi: "I got the ashes. It made me sadder than I expected." I thought of what it must be like to scoop up the remains of someone else's spouse. On one hand, you're glad your spouse's name isn't printed on the white tape label. You're thankful the sand-colored, fine powder does not belong to the person who was supposed to help raise your children. There's that. Then there's your own sadness: Sadness you've lost a friend, a neighbor... sadness as you realize, at some point in your life, you, too, will open another brown box. All of us will inhabit the brown box. No one gets a pass.
I asked a fellow camper who'd brought a boat if he could ferry me around the bend to "retrieve something a neighbor brought from home." I didn't tell him it was Sean's ashes. I didn't want him to feel obligated to run the errand. He said, "Sure," and the kids and I took a quick boat trip to grab a plastic bag on a dock in a flowerpot.
Like Heidi, I was surprised by the ashes' effect. After all, I've taken them to Canada, St. Croix, Lake Roosevelt, our backyard... haven't I been inoculated against cremains? I walked around with the familiar dust in my pocket all afternoon. It felt like my own personal Kryptonite. Any super-powers I possessed started to fade. I felt like someone had lined my sweatshirt with lead. I wept during the worship service as the priest talked about water and renewal.
A Little Child Shall Smear Them
That evening, at the campfire on the beach, we were invited to share whatever was on our minds. I couldn't talk. I could only reach into my sweatshirt pocket and pull out a Ziploc bag. I gave it to Fiona. "Do you want to sprinkle Daddy's ashes into the campfire?" I asked. "Can I do the whole thing?" Fiona eagerly replied. My 6-year-old, my heart, emptied the ashes. Many of them landed on a rock which Fiona later swiped her finger across after the fire died. She "anointed" other campers with the powder (and I wondered whether they knew what she was wiping on their skin). She smudged her nose, and mine, too. We looked as if we'd powdered our noses without blending well. I left the campfire feeling melancholy, but lighter. I had shared Sean in a place we both loved, with people who understood the gesture, even if they'd never met my husband.
Pass it On...
The next day, at the camp's playground, a couple from our church asked if it would be alright if they established a scholarship for family camp in Sean's name. The scholarship would ensure finances wouldn't stand between a family and memories at the lake. Sean had shown our friends a small kindness last summer, during their first visit to camp, encouraging them to hike alone while we watched their young kids. They had remembered the favor.
The kids and I are back home. I've unpacked the bags, washed the clothes and cleaned the van. I think about the weekend's souvenirs that live in my head: My neighbor's courage in retrieving Sean's ashes; the impromptu boat ride to get them; my friends' offer of a scholarship in Sean's name. Ashes still sit on my back porch, but the memory of how they joined us at camp gives me a tablespoon of peace.