My aunt and I were not on good terms when she died.
It has been one of the great regrets of my life.
Her father had died just a few months prior, and in the last weeks of his life she and I had had a falling out over his care and other things. I thought at the time that I was doing the right thing, and I'm sure she thought the same of her own actions.
Until this falling out, she and I had always been kindred spirits. Often, it was me and her silently, gently, laughingly holding our own against the rest of the blood family.
At her father's (my grandfather's) funeral, however, the hug between us was chilly.
I had thought it would eventually blow over. Instead, I got the call one afternoon that her body had been found in her apartment, having ceased to function due to an apparent overdose, mixed, perhaps accidentally, with alcohol.
She had left her dog an exceedingly large bowl of food.
Make of it what you will. The coroner says one thing; my heart does not like to dwell on it.
There is no question she was lonely and despairing. That much is evident.
In the three months since her father's death, she had made it known that I, her previously favored niece, had been disowned and that a new will had been drawn up to protect any of her (meager) assets from making their way to anyone in her blood family, including me.
I didn't care much about the material matters, but I was sad about the state of our relationship. It had occurred to me on more than one occasion to pick up the phone and say, "Hey, I'm sorry. I love you."
On none of those occasions did I do it.
Following her death, a new will was found on her kitchen table. It had done all the things she had loudly declared she would do.
Or, rather, it would have done those things, had it been signed.
Instead, her matters were left apparently intestate, and headed to probate, except for one thing. I had a nine-year-old scrap of paper in a drawer, signed by my aunt, naming me her executer and beneficiary.
Handwritten on pink flowered stationery, but it stood.
If you ever find yourself in the position to be named executer of a will, think long and hard before you agree. I don't strictly recommend it. Had there been any assets to speak of, I would have hired an attorney to handle it. As it was, there were no assets to cover such an expense.
On the plus side (?), I learned a lot about just how much it takes to close out a life. It takes a lot.
After approximately a year of paperwork and phone calls and rude secretaries asking rude questions about the disposition of my loved one's estate and my feelings thereupon and my commitment to completing the work, it was done.
Except one thing.
She had left me her physical remains, cremated, along with the cremated remains of a beloved dog (different from the one she had left alive in her apartment, which dog was taken in by the rescue from which he'd been adopted before we arrived on the scene).
Several years earlier, she had asked me to spread both sets of ashes upon the ocean off the coast of Oregon, a place she had been very happy.
Instead, I had brought them home to North Carolina. I took seriously her request, but I had a business and a family and limited funds (her estate consisted of more debts than assets, one of the reasons for so many rude secretaries), and I thought perhaps it was a task for some future date.
Some of you know, if you've followed me for long enough, that my grandmother was the first of my departed loved ones to begin speaking to me. It started with gifts of coins, found on sidewalks and floors and chairs, containing messages. It progressed from there. My grandmother's name was Syble, and she was very dear to me, to everyone, to my aunt as well.
She had died the year prior to my grandfather's death, and everyone had taken it hard.
I'm jumping about a bit in time. I hope you will bear with me, as time becomes somewhat irrelevant briefly–we will return to chronology soon enough.
After my grandfather's death, through the wonders of careful estate planning and trusts and what-not, I ended up inheriting a small but substantial sum of money. Not enough to set anyone up for life (or even for a year), but more than many people ever see in a lump sum. I used it to buy a piece of land in the mountains, to honor the memory of the many happy summers I spent camping with my beloved grandparents, and because I wanted to.
That land opened me up. My grandmother had been speaking to me. Now I began to hear the trees speak to me as well, and the sand and the stones and the creek and the river and the land and the hills and the snakes and the spiders.
I became involved in a local shaman community, and began to learn more about ancient ways of communicating with the environment, with the many non-human consciousnesses with which we share our world. What my grandmother and then the trees and the land had taught me are known teachings among people who live close to nature.
My land lies in a hollow, bounded on the right by Wolf Ridge, at the back by an even higher ridge that is met by Wolf Ridge, and on the left by several ridges that finger into the land, but still create a visual, sound, and energetic boundary. Only the front is open to the world, and it is narrow.
In fact, the entire parcel is long and narrow, and steep. Hiking to the back ridge is a 45-minute strenuous journey for anyone as badly out of shape as I perpetually am. So it wasn't until we had a signed contract on the property that we even attempted it.
We were not disappointed. As you come to the end of Wolf Ridge, where it meets the back ridge is a beech-covered summit. Abby was hiking with me that day, and she was ahead of me. When I reached the base of the last summit, I found her standing there, staring up at the view.
"Welcome to Syble Summit," she said.
And thus it was.
Syble Summit is a sacred place. You can feel it when you are there. Sometimes literally. The first time I hiked there alone, I sat upon the highest spot and felt an earthquake in my root chakra. I am not being metaphorical. That day there was an actual, historically rare earthquake, measured by scientists several hours away, and I felt the jolt and shudder of the earth below me, there at the top of Syble Summit, right in my buttocks.
It sent me bolt upright, in denial at what I'd felt, until I sat down again and felt it again. I have never felt it since, and I am convinced it was the god of the summit's way of saying hello.
Now. Let us fast-forward again.
My grandparents are dead. My aunt is dead. I have become active in a shaman community and my friend and shaman sister Keli has come up to the land with me to camp. We are sitting in the camper and I am telling her about my aunt, and the desire she had to have her ashes spread in Oregon, and Keli says: What if you spread them on Syble Summit instead?
And I heard her voice. My aunt's.
Clear and high and laughing: "Yes, yes, yes!" she said.
"I would like that," she said.
Then she spoke to Keli, rapid-fire. Keli repeated to me what she was saying and it was things Keli could not have known, stories and pictures and requests. Then she spoke to my son! And he passed on a message that also could only have come from her.
In the course of the conversation, she asked my forgiveness, and I requested hers. She said it had already been given, long ago. She said she wanted me to remember her as the beautiful, happy child she had been, and the lovely, sparkling, elegant lady I had known.
Later, Keli drove into town for snacks, and when she got back, she said my aunt had ridden with her, laughing and joking.
I told my aunt that I would do it, that I would take her ashes to Syble Summit, and that I would bring flowers.
Aunt said, "no." She said she would bring the flowers, and I said, "Okay," not knowing what she meant.
It was quite some time. Ahem, 4.5 years. Before I finally did what my aunt requested. But let me tell you: She fulfilled her end of the bargain almost immediately.
The next time I hiked to Syble Summit, there was a pink lady's slipper orchid blooming there. Elegant like her, and in her favorite color.
So it was sealed. My task.
But then life happened. So much life. So very much life.
Thus, it was only this past Monday that finally, finally, I have (partially) completed the task. I took her ashes and her dog's ashes up to the property.
I carried her ashes up the mountain on my back, but left Duffy's in the car. You may or may not know this, but a human body, even cremated, is heavy. I gave up on the idea of taking both hers and the dog's up at the same time. There will be other days.
I had on a previous trip marked with a stone the place where the pink lady's slipper blooms. I gathered more stones from the base of an ancient oak tree, and dug a shallow hole near the flower. I placed her ashes in the hole, freed of their plastic confines.
Aside: Another thing you may or may not know about remains... human ashes are heavy in the aggregate, but as a loose material, it is wispy and light and sticky all at once. You cannot handle a full human's worth of ashes without getting them in your clothes, your hair, your pores. Especially not in a brisk breeze. Never mind. My aunt is in me, as we all are in each other.
I pulled leaves over the top and stacked stones atop the leaves. Made it as pretty as I could. Took a photo.
All done in ceremony, in communion with the land and the gods and spirits of the land. With permission.
Then I lay on my back in the circle of trees at the top of the summit and closed my eyes and rested.
It is done.
My aunt is happy and light and free. Her body has returned to the earth, and I too am happy and light and free.
Next trip, Duffy's will join hers. All in due time. Time is subjective anyway, a boundary only as strong as we make it.
Life is beautiful and brief. Life is also eternal.
Merry meet and merry part, and merry meet again.
Fen Druadìn (they/them) is a storyteller, a visionary, and a book midwife.
Fen's mission is to change the world for the better, one paradigm-shifting book at a time.
Fen works with CEOs and consultants who care deeply about their impact on the world and want to enhance both their legacy and their personal effectiveness through the power of a professionally published work, in their own words.
Fen has applied the magic of more than two decades of professional storytelling, an impressive business background, and a deeply rooted, trained connection to earth-based medicine and spiritual practice to develop a system that helps clients do their most focused, powerful work, and produce a book they're proud to hold in their hands.
When they're not working with clients or writing their own books, Fen can usually be found wandering the woods alone, sitting around a campfire with friends, or swimming in the cold spring waters native to the Southern Appalachians.