Monday, March 26, 2012

The Ashes

As you probably know, I'm working on getting my book finished. It's so much more work than I realized, to wrap up a project and send it out into the world, confident that it's the best that it can be.

One aspect of my story that's been hard to write about (so I've avoided it) is the story of what I did with the cremated ashes of my amputated foot. Yes, I have the ashes of the foot I got rid of, and had planned to throw them off a mountain some day, in a gesture that was to represent saying goodbye to my old life of disability and welcoming in my new life with bionics.

But with a bit of prodding from my trustworthy editor, I finally did it. I wrote about what happened with the ashes. The box of ashes I picked up from the mortuary just over eight years ago, and haven't done a thing with since.

I finally got brave enough to write about why they still sit in my closet. Here is the first draft of that chapter.

Someday it will be in my book, but today, here it is.

Just in case you were wondering what happened to the ashes.

What Happened to the Ashes

Of all the chapters, this has to be the hardest to write. Digging through the emotion of losing my mom, and then almost losing my son, was not fun. Dredging up the memories of feeling invisible and yet defined, by a body part that didn’t grow correctly, was hardly entertaining. But when the stories have been told and the book has to end, how should that happen? My story is not over, because my life continues. The toddlers I wrote about in the middle chapters are now tall teenagers, who raid my fridge and clean out my wallet.

Life goes on.

Through the years, as I’ve plugged away on this manuscript, several people have said the ashes story should be the final chapter. Many of my first readers were curious as to whatever happened to the cremated ashes of my foot. I dodged their suggestions, uncomfortable with the truth.

The truth was, those ashes remained in the top of my closet. Enclosed in a small plastic bag, which was tucked into a small white box, which was housed in a soft velvet bag with drawstrings pulled tight. They have moved with us, on every cross country relocation. From Utah to New York, then from New York to Colorado, the velvet bag was included in the stash of personal effects that I didn’t trust in the moving truck.

Even though I didn’t know what I would eventually do with them, I couldn’t afford to lose them.

So they rode along the endless highways that connected our old state to our new one, tucked in between the twenty six boxes of photos I took before I finally bought a digital camera, and our files full of hard to replace legal papers. That small blue velvet bag, that until this moment I had never realized was made of the same material as the bridesmaids dresses my sisters wore as they walked down the aisle in my wedding.

The monumental days of my life, united by a fabric.

When people would ask why I had not thrown those ashes off a mountain top already, I inwardly squirmed. The answer in my head was always, “I don’t know”, even as I came up with some different version to give to the curious friend. Sometimes the fake answer was ‘I haven’t found the right mountain’ or ‘I haven’t found the right occasion’. But in reality, I never let myself dig deep enough to know the real answer to the question.

Then I was having the last edits done to this manuscript. A very generous friend, with a journalism background, stepped up and jumped into the project with me. She and her partner gave me consistent, accurate feedback as they read through my story for content errors. I trusted them because their suggestions proved, time and again, to make my story- telling stronger. Then they asked the question I hate. “Why have you not spread the ashes?”

To make it worse, they went a step further and added, “That needs to be your last chapter. Tell us why you still have the ashes in your closet.”

When I stepped back long enough to let their suggestion reach past my instant reservations, and sink back to the place where I know that sometimes the hardest chapters have the most meaning, I realized they were right. It was time to face the question head on.

The ashes. In the blue velvet bag. Why do they haunt me so? Why do they remain in the top of my closet, year after year, tucked in amongst the folded sweaters and jeans? Why do I still have them, eight years later, when it was such a liberating idea to have that foot cremated in the first place?

I grabbed a clipboard filled with paper and retreated to the back patio. For an hour I sat in the bright Colorado sun, slouched down in my favorite plastic Adirondack chair, and had an old fashioned brain storming session. I wrote line after line of almost unintelligible scribbles, asking myself over and over again, “Why do I still have the ashes?”

I came up with three pages of convoluted reasons. Fitness level. Moves to new states. Life obligations that got in the way. Emotions related to my mom’s death. Uncertainty about which mountain to pick. Inner rumblings about what it would mean to throw my own body away.

It was not fun. It was not comfortable. But at least I had something down on paper, to sort through later. My sunny session ended as the dinner hour suddenly rolled around and I dragged myself out of the lawn chair and headed to the kitchen.

Jeff returned from a business trip two days later. We decided to claim a rare date night, somewhere outdoors. It was one of the first weeks of consistently warm weather as spring slowly chipped its way into our mountain town, and it didn’t seem right to sit in a dark restaurant or quiet movie theater.

We got the kids sorted out into their own evening plans then took the back way down the canyon, weaving our way through the rocky cliffs that still had snow clinging to the most shady spots. We ended up at the red rock formations, just west of Denver, as the sun sat low in the afternoon sky. The area was filled with hikers of every shape and size, most attached to a dog on a leash.

We picked a shallow trail, at the bottom of the ridge, and slowly made our way down its winding path. Jeff stopped every once in awhile, to survey the lay of the land, and make pronouncements about the way the hills rose and fell around us.

“This used to be the old road. See how that ridge is flat, and these concrete posts are lined up along the edge?” It’s one of the realities of being married to an archaeologist highway man. He can hardly drive down a back road or hike a trail without analyzing the lay of the land. We are constantly being educated.

“Uh huh…” I answered as I shook my head. It was fascinating, on some level, but I was, even more so, enjoying his quiet company, after a week of corralling children alone. In all the years that have passed and all the challenges we’ve faced together, he continues to be my best friend. I have never tired of his company.

We wound around the back side of a large red rock formation, jutting into the sky. The temperature dropped a handful of degrees. Some bright plant I’ve never seen before caught my eye and I stopped to examine it and take a picture of it with my cell phone. He plucked off what seemed to be a small bud and we spent the next few minutes guessing the details of this plant we had no experience with.

Then the trail wound around some more. We passed other casual hikers, and made friendly comments to them about their dogs.

As we came around a corner the hillside suddenly rose up ahead of us. Stairs had been carved into the side of the incline, with flat red bricks running up each side. The staircase border made a nice place to sit and talk for a few minutes. With the sun sinking into the sky, but still illuminating our faces, I decided to finally ask for his help.

I told him about my standstill with the ashes question. I rambled on about how I really needed to figure it out, and how I really did think it was an important question, if only I could answer it honestly.

Because he knows me so well, and lived most of the journey with me, I finally asked him, at the end of my rant, “So what do you think? Why have I not thrown those ashes off of a mountain?”

With hardly a pause, he answered. “Well, it really comes down to two reasons.”

I tilted my head in wonder and forced myself to be quiet, knowing from past experience that this was probably going to be just the insight I needed.

And then in just a few sentences, he spelled out what I had so desperately been trying to get across to myself, when I’d so frantically written line after line on my clipboard list, in my lawn chair brain storm session. It wasn’t as complicated as I’d been making it out to be.

So here it is. Here’s the answer, in case you’ve been wondering yourself. Just in case the image of those ashes, so carefully hidden away in my bedroom closet, bothers you, and you can’t imagine why I’d have such big plans for them, then seemingly banish them to long term storage, here’s my answer.

It does come down to two reasons.

The first is that, in the end, they weren’t the big symbol I had expected them to be. When I researched for this change, when I got my hopes up that it would be a huge jump in the right direction for my future mobility, I pinned a lot of expectation on those ashes. I imagined the big moment when my new life would officially kick in. Somehow, without realizing it, I painted this picture in my head that it was somehow a destination at which I would arrive.

But it wasn’t.

It’s every day, waking up, clicking on that leg, and attacking whatever adventure that day happens to bring. Maybe it will include dropping Sam off at school, an hour at the gym, then a trip to the grocery store, then a swing by the library, then an afternoon of writing, then making dinner, helping with homework, getting kids to bed on time. Or maybe it will include hiking trails with my husband and children, as we steal off on some weekend trip to some remote part of this gorgeous state we live in.

But either way, it’s just a part of the routine. It’s just a different way to get around.

Yes, it gave me mobility, and more than that, hope for my future mobility, but it didn’t give me any grand moment of arrival. There was no time that I thought, “NOW I have arrived! It’s time to throw the ashes off the mountain!”

Wrapped up in that idea is the fact that I had to put to rest the super athlete vision. Many of the rambling reasons I poured out onto the clipboard list related to fitness. I somehow thought that I needed to be at a specific fitness level to justify finding that mountainside to fling my ashes.

I’ve had pretty fit periods, since I got my new leg, and I’ve had other times when I felt a lot softer, and less strong than I’d prefer. But somehow, in the back of my mind, I thought that once I was perfectly toned and sculpted, that’s when the ash throwing would begin. That’s when I’d be able to scale that amazing mountain trail and make my proclamation to the world.

But that hasn’t happened, and that’s not the real reason I made this choice.

All along I’ve been focused on getting back basic mobility. I’ve always said I had no desire to be the super amputee athlete. I gain much motivation from those who are, but that has never been my goal.

My goal was to stop the deterioration of my withered foot and replace it with something that let me live my normal life with more energy and opportunity. And that’s exactly what has happened. So there’s no place in there for major pronouncements on the side of a mountain.

And the second reason is a bit more complicated. Somehow those ashes are a part of me. Well, in fact, they literally were part of me, at one time. But in another way, they are a very symbolic part of who I am and where I came from.

Those ashes represent the huge, scary decision I made to have my foot cut off. They represent letting go of the dream that I’d ever have two normal feet, and trusting that technology could hook me up with something better. But somehow they are also a symbol of the person I was before.

They are the remnants of the shy little girl who just wanted to be noticed, not because she had a lingering limp or a van full of foster siblings, but because she was special and cherished as her own person.

Those ashes are the preteen girl who thought she’d never find a man who could truly look past the ugliness of her left foot and give her the dream of a house full of children.

They stand for years of slowly becoming a sedentary person, as Jeff took our offspring out on long hikes and ski slopes while I stayed back and pretended to be happy sitting in the lodge with the lunch cooler.

It’s not so easy to throw all of those parts of myself to the wind.

It’s scary, in a strange sense of the word, to freely let go of all that I’ve come from.

So for now they continue to sit.

I’ve come close once. When we lived in New York for five years, and often visited Jeff’s large family in New Hampshire, I thought more than once about taking that velvet box up to a peak in the White Mountains, where I’d missed out on a special life moment more than a decade before.

One of Jeff’s younger brothers got married on that mountain, when our kids were preschoolers. He said his vows to a beautiful young lady who eventually became almost closer than a sister to me.

I did not go.

I stayed back at the house with one of the grandmas and one of our babies. I couldn’t make the climb, on my withered old foot, and I missed out on a touching ceremony where I gained a sister and a bonus of a new niece. I’d always imagined that the spot where they said their vows would be a perfect place to fling those ashes and have my moment.

It would be meaningful because it was a specific location where I could say, “I couldn’t then, but I can now”. I am sure that my sister in law and the rest of the gang would have joined me on the peak, and been there to support me through my own touching ceremony. But maybe that’s why I never got around to making those plans. I was scared of the emotion.

I was scared that if I stood there, surrounded by those people who loved and supported me in all the years when I wasn’t so able, and then cheered me on when I made my decision and began my new life, I might totally lose control of my emotions.

I had a deep sense that all the pain and sadness I used to carry around, related to the ways that foot held me back, would come flooding over me and I would collapse into a convulsion of tears.

If I’m really and truly honest with myself, I also have to admit that some part of me might weep for another reason. It might take me back to that place I’ve only been to twice in my life - once when my mom died and once when my newborn son almost did. Those are the two times I’ve cried from the depths of my soul, and I don’t relish the idea of going back there.

To this day I guard myself from seeing a movie that’s too sad or reading a book with a grim storyline. I’m still not sure where the line is, when experiencing sadness, between a healthy, soul cleansing release, and that out of control weeping I wish I’d never known.

And some part of me is sad on a new level when it comes to my decision to cut off my foot and my mom not being here to see me through it. I’m confident it would have been much harder to make my amputation decision, if she had been alive, knowing how much responsibility she felt for my disability in the first place.

But it feels so big, so life changing, and it’s hard to imagine she had no part in it. She watched all my struggling years but never got to be a part of my victory years.

Just as it pains my heart that she never saw my last two children come into existence, I feel a hole in my heart when I think about her not being able to witness my new chance at a new life. I know some tears would come, as I watched the wind carry my ashes away, related to my mom, and her absence in the process.

So as I pondered whether I should throw my ashes off a peak in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, I continued to lock up in fear of emotion. Emotion that came from many different places.

The end result: I put it off so long that we no longer live on the East Coast, and I have a valid reason to go another year with no ashes ceremony.

So for now,there it is. The hard and ugly truth about the ashes.

Maybe by the time my book is ready for publication, I'll have a mountain top story. But for now all I have is some thoughtful insight from a caring spouse. And a fear of being lost in the emotion.