Monday, April 24, 2023


[I wrote this essay in 2018, but for some reason never posted it on this blog. I'll do so now.]
For the last year of her life my mother had, as they say, lost it. Anything she picked up, she would lose in a minute. Any thought that she had, she would lose in a second. She was in the nursing home’s double-doored lock ward, so the one thing she couldn’t lose was herself. She’d been dead for several years before I managed to lose her. No, not “lose.” Misplace.

My mother’s ashes came in a lacquered box, about 10 inches long, 6 inches wide, and a couple of inches deep. Inside, what was left of her was in a plastic bag. Thick plastic, the open end folded over twice. There was no twist-tie—no extra precautionary measure to prevent her escaping.

Anyone who has ever seen the ashes of a loved one—but why do I write “seen”? We are all so conditioned to think that what we see is what is most important, when what we hear and taste and smell and feel can matter just as much. What we feel, in this case. The seeing is ordinary, unremarkable. But the feel of a human’s ashes? Anyone who has ever experienced that feeling will tell you that they’re heavy—a lot heavier than you’d expect. For their volume, they must weigh three or four times more than the ashes from a wood fire. And they are gritty, with little chunks all through—not soft like wood ashes. The bones, I guess.

My mother could never decide what she wanted done with her after she died. She knew she wanted to be cremated—that much was clear. But after that?

She’d said at one point that maybe it would make sense to have her ashes buried next to her own mother’s grave. But that was in Pennsylvania, nowhere near where any of the family lived now—and besides, she’d said herself that she didn’t feel any real connection to Pennsylvania.

Perhaps I should bury the ashes in the city I was living in—or the city my brother lived in, where our mother had lived herself for more than twenty years. But it was so cold there; she’d never been very fond of the place.

Maybe scatter the ashes? That would be fine—but where? A few of her favorite places, I supposed; I could think of two of three spots that might qualify. I equivocated. More than once I wished that mother had been more definite as to what she wanted to happen, after she died. So it was that, for years, I kept the box that held her ashes, not sure what to do with it. With them. With her? For a while they were on the top shelf of a cupboard, for a while in a bureau drawer. But at least I knew where they were—and some day I would decide what to do with them.

Then I moved. Then I moved again a year later. And then that place was turned upside down by renovations, and everything had to be moved from one room to another and back again.

So it was that early last year, when for some reason I started to think seriously about doing something about my mother’s ashes, I couldn’t find them. I looked in the bureau drawer where I was sure they had been for a while at one point. I looked on the top shelf of the renovated cupboards. The basement? A lot of things had ended up in a jumble in the basement during that renovation. I looked in each place more than once. She was nowhere to be found. A few days later I looked again, and a few weeks after that I looked once more. She had not reappeared.

My mother had died of Alzheimer’s, and now I couldn’t remember where I had put her.

I tried to laugh, as people do about things that have to do with death. If it hadn’t been me who was responsible, maybe I would have found it funny. I tried to tell myself it didn’t matter, that she really hadn’t cared about what would happen to her after she died. And she hadn’t. She hadn’t been religious in any way—other than having liked the sound of a choir. She had believed that we die, and that’s it; what lives on is whatever we have done in the world, and our children and others who remember us.

At odd moments over the course of almost a year I found myself looking for her again. Might I have put her in that forgotten space behind the furnace? Might I have stored her in that closet upstairs that’s never used? I looked behind everything. Twice.

To be reminded of the death of a loved one is to be reminded of one’s own mortality—many people will tell you that. But it’s not true for everyone; certainly it’s not true for me. I may sometimes be reminded of my own mortality by the death of someone I’ve known much more distantly—an acquaintance from high school days, for example, who I was never close to then and have rarely seen since. But if I’m reminded of the death of a loved one, what I’m reminded of is for the most part simply the loved one—nothing and no one else. This was about my mother, and I had lost her.

She always had a tendency to make her children feel guilty about one thing or another. She was doing it still.

I found her last week. The box that held her ashes was in a dark corner of the basement, behind four things and underneath two others; somehow I had missed her all those times when I thought I’d looked everywhere.

What to do now? Finding my mother means I no longer have to tussle with that twinge of guilt that no one who loses their mother can avoid. But it also means coming up hard against the fact of her never coming back.

I’ll be travelling to Pennsylvania for a conference in the spring. Maybe I’ll take her with me.

[Postcript, 2023: My brother and I finally decided last year what we would do. Ashes have gone as ashes will always eventually go, into earth or air, and a memorial stone honors our mother's memory:

Sarah Catherine Chambers LePan


We had a small gathering when the stone was placed; we wept, and we said things in remembrance of her.]

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