Fearing death can mean that our lives are lived to defer death rather than to live.
The summer after my freshman year at Michigan State, in 1985, was the last one I lived in Grayling. Some time during that summer, mom and I launched my grandfather’s canoe into the Au Sable at the same place where several canoe liveries gently pushed canoes full of tourists onto the river.
She didn’t trust my steering skills so I sat in the bow and she piloted from the stern. A casual trip from the liveries to our destination of McMaster’s Bridge takes about 8 hours and we spent most of the time in silence and floated at the water’s pace.
We ate lunch under the canopy of several trees that arched over the water, their roots having lost most of their purchase from the soil of the river’s edge. She was quiet and present with me yet withdrawn into her love for the water and the woods. The Au Sable was her holiness. The murmurs and surges of the water, the cries of birds and the wind pushing the boughs of trees, her scriptures.
When we pushed back into the flow of the water, we talked in short, quiet phrases of observation, questions and brief responses. There were times during our trip when I felt like I was an encroachment on her spirituality, just as I had constantly felt like an accidental imposition on her life. Yet, our time together was easy and without the tension that extended time together usually created.
As our canoe angled to navigate a bend in the river, I smelled the odor of cigar. Not much of a fan at all of cigars, I looked over my shoulder to find the man who fouled the air. Yet, it was not a man smoking but my mom. She looked at me directly to make clear that voicing my opinion was unwelcome.
I turned back toward the bow, confused. I thought I knew her, that lost woman, unsure of herself, easily manipulated. She had become more of herself in the 9 months I had been in college than all the years before. The pilot of my canoe had become the strong woman she might have become earlier had she never met Jay Reynolds.
In 1976, we came back to Grayling because of the circumstances of her marriage and because Grayling was a haven. I suppose that even if she had finished her degree, and married a different man and birthed a different child, she would have come back to Grayling because she loved the woods, she loved the Au Sable and she loved the people who lived and fished there. Maybe someone better suited for her than my dad would have provided her with comfort in another place more urban than Grayling.
Or perhaps, in this theoretical other-version of her, she wouldn’t have needed any man nor wanted any child and would have been content with a small house near a glorious river. For that was the state of her life when she died. The northern woods of Grayling were not merely a refuge for her. The woods were the sinews of her soul; the river, her heart; the dirt road that led to her house, the only path that mattered.
It is unfortunate that I was unable to recognize and value her preference for the woods, the water and wildlife until it was too late. I judged her on the basis of my preference for the city, for activity, for skillful work and a comfortable paycheck. None of that mattered much to her. She never made much money because she didn’t need nor want much of it. Though her life was often hard, she found her way to the organic life she wanted. My mom lived in the house her father built, where she and her brother and sister were raised.
Unlike most people today, mom died in her home, the same place her mother died. It is easy for me to imagine my mom and my grandmother surrendering both their souls to the woods, to the animals and to the river. It is easy not because I am perceptive but because their love for the woods was obvious. I never fully understood that love and it is for this reason that I misunderstood so much of who my mom was.
When I gathered with my family, some friends and a few strangers to spread my mom’s ashes into a small stream of water near her house, I said to everyone that we came from dust and we return to dust. I said it as I looked at the plastic bag full of her ashes. I felt amazed that we are unquestionably dust and unquestionably souls and no one ever knows where the dust and the soul go.
Sometimes, though, I think of her dust floating down the little creek into the Au Sable. I wonder if, though the cycles of rain and snow, she fell back to the river and drifted past that canopy of trees where we had lunch and if she smiled when she passed that place where she smoked her cigar and defied me to object. She sought the organic life when she was alive and I hope that she still lives in the Au Sable, feeding the woods with her dust and her soul.