What’s Left

By, Kate Tanski

The day we buried my father’s ashes was beautiful: golden sun, warm breeze, a quiet afternoon in the far corner of the cemetery tucked into the forest outside of a sleepy little town. It was the corner of the cemetery closest to the mountains, with a clear view of the smooth granite domes. This particular place was sheltered under a small tree. While my father was dying my parents picked it so we—the kids, the ones still standing after all that—could go back to that spot: reliable, serene, and always changing but always the same. Like my father.

My aunt and uncle and cousins were there that day too, had driven all the way up from Boston. The youngest was seven. The bucket of chalky, chunky grey ashes scared him, and he hid behind his parents. The rest of us took turns ladling scoops out of the bucket and into the small hole under the tree. The last of my father would rest in bare earth, put there by the hands of people he loved and loved him. He’d walked miles over those mountains and through those woods, with us or alone. It was an appropriate homage.

I thought about how much of a human body is water, and how little is left when that’s gone. The gritty contents of that bucket did not include the influence he’d had on the people around him, though. We told stories. We laughed, and cried a little. We spent a few wordless moments savoring the sun on our faces after that long, long Maine winter.

Then my life took me elsewhere.

Years later, I went back to the island for a day to go hiking with friends. That afternoon I peeled off from the chattering, cheerful group to spend some time alone in this place I’d grown up. To meet it again, pay my respects, and recalibrate my dusty memories. They took the bus back to town. I took off on foot, wandering through the marsh, breathing the crisp autumn air and enjoying the springy steps across the plank bridges over the mucky stretches. Young birch trees, with paper-white trunks and leaves now the burning red and gold of an sunset, arched over the path as the marsh petered out into woods. Afternoon breeze rustled the dry marsh grass and quiet trees. A wood post, shoulder height, marked the end of the trail when I got to the road.

Cross the road, follow the path to the end of the golf course, kick my way up the hill through the hip-high brush, autumn-dry and crackling under my feet, to the far corner of the cemetery. The gate at the front is far too formal for this visit. I find the tree in the corner by the woods, settle onto the cool granite bench under it. At my feet is a rectangle of polished granite about the size of a sheet of paper, the color of a dusty old dried-up pink rose speckled with black and grey, made from the granite of these mountains. Carved into it is my father’s name, his birthday, and the day he died. He didn’t want flowery speeches or expensive monuments. Just a little marker that will eventually weather away, indistinguishable from the rocks that have flaked off the mountains over the ten thousand years since the glaciers scraped them smooth.

The stone is set in the shade of the tree, in sticky packed mud accompanied by a few sparse weeds. I unpack my lunch that I’d saved to eat here, in this spot. The forest has grown up, and from my perch I can’t see the mountains any more. In 1947, a fire burned out of control for days and leveled half of the island’s evergreen forest. Birch grew back first. Evergreens come back more slowly; a few nearly full-grown examples look out of place among the birches. The understory is studded with young pine and spruce and balsam, scraggly because they’re starved for light. Like a phoenix, hatching very slowly and looking pretty sorry in the meantime.

I expected serene calm. Loneliness descended on me instead, like a cloud of voracious spring mosquitos. Why wasn’t this place the lush paradise that I remembered? Weeds and an unpruned tree aren’t suitable ornaments for this sacred ground. Did I lose him again?

I ate my lunch, hoping to wait out my disappointment.

When I was growing up, my father and I would walk the dog one more time before bed. My small hand in his—warm, work-callused, steadfast—we’d wander the familiar paths around our house. Sometimes we talked about school, friends, life. Often we were silent, familiars in a familiar world. My mother required him to bring a flashlight because it made her feel better; he never turned it on because, he said, then you could only see what it showed you and were blinded to everything else. When we got to a place away from houses and clear of trees, we’d stand there and admire the stars. His hand would steady me as I turned round and round, trying to understand how big the universe is and how small I am.

After he died, I went to India to walk in the Himalaya. He’d always wanted to go and never made it. I’d always wanted to go. Camped at altitudes that made it hard to breath and walk at the same time and days from any electricity, I’d stand outside and look at the stars. So many stars, glimmering dimly on the snow in the crystalline quiet of alpine nights. Half a world away, they’re the same stars.

I once had a dream where I was lost in an enchanted forest. After many adventures, I found myself at a castle in a clearing. The queen saw me in her throne room that was gorgeous with deep velvet drapes, intricate paneling, gold leaf, white marble, and handsome courtiers. She sent me on a quest. When I returned victorious, she spoke with me again. This time I noticed the peeling paint, the dirt crusted into the carvings, the torn curtains, the shabby furniture, the dissolute hangers-on. On the way out, I tapped a servant on the shoulder. “What happened here?” I whispered, “Why is it falling apart?” She smiled, and said “This place hasn’t changed. You have.”

Days keep rolling by. One generation gets old and another grows up. My shy cousin, no longer shy, is finished with college now, and no longer afraid of saying goodbye. The stars are still there, and I still look for them. The forest has risen out of the ashes, with more evergreen trees every year. Why do a few weeds matter? They live here, too.

I bask in the complex peace of this moment. Sitting here, right now, is exactly the right thing to do. I reach down to the rough edge of the bench, a piece of broken stone only polished on top, the same pink granite as my father’s gravestone and the mountains I know so well that I don’t need to carry a map, and run my fingers over the words carved there. It’s a poem by Robert Creeley, a single line, that my mother picked out just for here.