My father passed away in the early spring of 1984, a mere 18 months after my mother lost her battle with cancer. While my mother fought through months of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, my father's passing was almost gentle in comparison. His heart just stopped working. They found him one morning at home, slumped over in his favourite green chair, one shoe on, and one shoe off.
Perhaps it was the shock of losing a second parent so quickly upon the heels of the first that set Claire and I on our mission. We retrieved our father's ashes from the funeral home and drove up into the Gatineau Hills, north of Ottawa.
The Gatineaus, part of the Canadian Shield, are ancient mountains worn to rolling hills by glaciers that advanced and receded time and again during the last hundred million years. Now under the dominion of the National Capital Commission, they had been our playground through all seasons – hiking in the summer and cross-country skiing in the winter.
One year, when we were quite young, Claire came straight out of her boots, head first over her skis, into a snow bank on the Drum Sticks Trail. I still remember the look of complete indignation on her face when Daddy pulled her out of the snow bank. I tried to stifle the inevitable giggles while he patiently wiped her tears and helped her back into her boots.
Spring was late in arriving the year my father passed away, so walking through the melting snow presented a challenge. It was a glorious sunny day and the tall pines along Ridge Road formed a cathedral arch that swayed gently in the breeze. A beautiful, still-white snowy owl joined our procession, swooping amongst the branches as we walked towards Shilly Shally.
In happier times, my parents had rented Shilly Shally, a small wood cabin, for long weekends away from the city. Now open to the public, we rested there, feeding impatient chickadees, and warmed our frozen toes.
A small stream passed beside the cabin and this is where we chose to spread his ashes. Claire and I each said a few words, and then spent several awkward minutes struggling with the plastic box that contained his ashes. We'd neglected to mention at the funeral home that we intended to spread them. With the aid of a Bic pen, we pried the box open and spread the ashes across the narrow stream. We'd brought fresh flowers, which, once strewn, looked incongruous against the mud and snow of the melt.
We hadn't asked permission and were undoubtedly breaking numerous laws, but we wanted his final resting place to be one in peace and nature away from the grim anonymity of a cemetery.
What have you done for love?