The Healing Mountain
Karen M. Gibson
Apprehension courses through me as I watch Maria drive through the creek, her van’s back tires kicking up several large rocks. Surely this is not the way. I long ago lost sight of the vehicles in front of Maria, but continued to follow her anyway, assuming she knew the way, just as the long line of vehicles continued to follow me. But now I am not so sure. We have been travelling this dirt road for several miles, winding around the base of Mt. Sopris. Maybe we missed a turn-off somewhere along the way.
I didn’t want to come this weekend; too much was at stake. I would expect too much from my family and come away disappointed and disheartened yet again. My siblings and I have not been all together in over nine years. During those nine years communications have become strained between some and non-existent between others. Has too much time gone by? Will we be able to overcome our differences, even if just for this weekend? I have my doubts and quite frankly don’t want to be around to experience the carnage. But here I am; though whether out of a sense of duty or guilt, I do not know.
Ironically, the last time we were all together the circumstances were somewhat similar. My stepmother had spent the summer battling against leukemia. After she went into remission and began her long recovery, we converged at her cabin over Labor Day weekend, hoping her remission would prove to be a complete one. Nine years later we are gathered again to celebrate her life, and this time, to mourn our loss. Attempting once again to be that which she was never quite able to weld together: a family.
I hold my breath as I drive through the creek, hoping that no damage occurs to my rental car. As I continue to follow Maria’s van along the dusty dirt road, I wonder yet again about this unconventional memorial service. Ever since I first heard the plans, I have been trying to visualize just what will happen and how it will work. No clergy, no music, no building. Just an informal circle of friends and family gathered to celebrate a life and to grieve together at the base of Mt. Sopris.
Finally Maria’s van pulls off to the right shoulder, revealing several cars already parked along the side of the dusty road. I park my vehicle behind hers and, as I open the car door, the chill air reminds me that it is October, regardless of how warm the sun feels. I grab my jacket and follow my half-sister Jen as she strides out through the grass. There is no path; gopher holes abound, tall grasses grab at my legs, the undergrowth crackles with each step. The smells and sounds of autumn take me back to my childhood, reminding me of the leaves we would rake into huge piles, only to scatter them again when we jumped into the piles.
Just a few yards from the dirt road, Jen stops and turns to let all those who have been following her know that this is THE spot. Since she is in charge of today’s events, we gather around in a semi-circle facing her, awed by the majesty of Mt. Sopris behind her. It towers starkly against the cobalt Colorado sky, it’s grassy base dotted with shrubs and boulders. Farther up the mountain, aspens drip their gold upon the hillside.
What an eclectic group we are, yet so very representative of those with whom my stepmother shared her life. There are a few friends and relatives her age – a brother, an ex-husband, a couple of long-time friends and one very new friend - but most are the same age as her children and grandchildren. Many of us have traveled several hundred miles to be here today. Some have not seen her in more than a decade, while others were with her during her last days. All are here today to honor my stepmother, acknowledging the influence she had upon our lives.
Plastic glasses are passed around, champagne or sparkling apple juice is poured, and then Jen begins to speak. She shares with us how much she admired her mother’s courage when she moved to Colorado at the age of sixty-one in order to build a new life. She mentions the joy she herself experienced while watching her mother and her young son together and how thankful she was that they had that time together. And Jen’s voice chokes a bit as she tells us how much her son already misses his Nana.
As Jen continues to speak, a feeling of peace begins to spread through me. There is something almost mystical about this mountain. This inner peace continues to grow stronger as my two stepsisters speak of the love they had for their mother and the many ways in which they will miss her. Eloquently one tells of the spirituality that her mother had found in her latter years and of how she had felt drawn to this particular mountain. Suddenly I can almost believe that she is here soaring above us, floating on the shared love that is emanating from us below.
Hesitantly, memories are shared, toasts are offered, tears mingle with smiles. And then Jen invites the immediate family to follow her to the spot where the ashes will be scattered. I did not anticipate this private gathering – I thought her ashes were to be saved till a later date, when Jen’s husband would climb Mount Sopris and scatter them from the top. As I follow Jen yet again, I attempt to quell the anxiety and unease threatening to overcome that short-lived feeling of peace.
The semi-circle is smaller this time; hushed voices share words of love and sorrow, tears flow more freely, embraces comfort aching hearts. Her brother remarks that this must be where the competition ends, now that his lifelong competitor is gone. A daughter shares how much she already misses her very closest friend.
As the ashes are emptied from their container, the autumn breeze catches up some and they are carried toward the mountain. The rest simply lay upon the grass, a dull coating of gray soon to become indistinguishable from the soil of Mt. Sopris. My stepmother is now one with that which she loved so well.
As the service ends and the group disperses, most leave immediately, heading back to Jen’s house for the “celebration of life” party. But a few of us linger behind, gathering in small groups, exchanging hugs and sharing memories. Others wander off by themselves, seeking solitude, unable or unwilling to share their thoughts and feelings. I grab my camera from the car and snap some pictures of Mount Sopris framed by the blue Colorado sky, of the aspens in the distance, of a hawk floating overhead. I hope they will help me recall the serenity of this spot and the feeling of closeness I have right now with those around me. And I hope against hope it will be this closeness that is my stepmother’s final legacy, the legacy she would have most desired, a legacy of friendship, of family, and of love.
Copyright December 2002
Mother's Day, May 11, 2003
On April 20, 2003, exactly six months from the date of the above event, my five siblings and I were all gathered together again. Jen flew out from Colorado and we all met in Atlanta. It felt so great to be together without reason of illness or death. Even better, we all had a nice relaxed day together and have been in touch by e-mail since. We are planning on getting together on a regular, perhaps even quarterly, basis. Of course, Jen won't be able to fly out again for a while, but it does seem like we are all trying harder to stay in touch with each other. Perhaps my stepmother's death woke all of us up to the fact that we *are* family. We may not be the family some would have wished it to be, but we are the family we have, and we will never become more of a family without the efforts and attentions of all of us. Happy Mother's Day, Norma!