“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.” ― Norman McLean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories
Earlier this summer my Mother passed away. She had lived the majority of her life in the Pacific Northwest where most of our family is from. It is a strange feeling I have that no one from my family lives there now, even if my older brother lives near Portland. I think the sense that there is no one from that older generation living there that brings about that notion in me. It seems there are only the ghosts of my past that live there now. The feeling is a strange mixture of sadness and a joy that comes from the memory of those people in me and my love for them.
My mother and I had our difficulties. The hows and whys are not as important as the fact we didn’t connect as we should have during our time together. When she passed away it was so final. I would never speak to her again and would never have the chance to repair what we had broken. My greatest wish is when I pass I will get to see her again…to see all my departed loved ones again but especially her. Perhaps we could both say all the things to each other that circumstance in this life prevented us from saying. Perhaps we could have time together unburdened by all that burdened us in life.
I needed to say goodbye to her. I needed a ritual and she deserved a fitting one. Earlier in the year I had planned a trip to visit my daughter in Pullman, Washington where she attends Washington State University and decided this was a perfect opportunity to spread my Mom’s ashes and honor her.. I had always wanted to see the Clearwater Valley in Idaho. So after a 4-5 day visit in Pullman, I would be off to Kamiah, Idaho for a couple of days then on to the Lochsa Lodge which is right on the Lochsa River about an hour from Lolo, Montana. My Mom was born in Idaho so spreading her ashes near the headwaters of the Lochsa seemed fitting. There was some symbolic gesture I was trying to effect. A final journey for her to take. From the snow-covered mountains to the sea. The Lochsa Lodge is near the headwaters of the Lochsa River. A beautiful place for her to begin her journey.
One of my favorite movies is A River Runs Through It. The final scene is at the river. Norman McLean has outlived everyone and he now finds himself at the river alone to find solace and remember those he loved. This particular scene in the movie always got to me but I never really tied it to my own experience and understood it’s power until now. I started thinking about the symbolic nature of rivers. How they represent life and the endless cycle of time. How a river represents eternity.
A mountain represents the highest levels of thought and spirituality. A mountaintop is as close as you can get in nature to Heaven. It gets covered in snow and rain during the Winter and in the Spring the snow melts and out from the side of the mountain a spring emerges. This spring converges with other rivulets and forms a creek which then joins a river. Rivers join together and eventually empty into the Ocean where all things become one. The spring represents birth, the joining of creeks and rivers represent our relationships and those who result from them. When the river empties into the ocean, it symbolizes death… when we all become one. To me, this was pretty powerful stuff.
On the day I was determined to finally say goodbye I hiked a few miles down the river and found a beautiful spot. I waded out into the cold, clear water to a suitable rock in midstream and spread her ashes and said goodbye. I hoped she approved of the spot I had picked for her. I prayed that I would someday meet with her again and have that chance for redemption and salvation from a life of missed opportunity. I was alone in the river canyon which was shrouded in a blanket of fir trees…the wind gently rustled their boughs and adding to the song of the water rushing over the stones. The eternal symphony of the river canyon. I pierced the symphonic calm with a tremendous yell. I wanted to signal to the world that she was now a part of this place and so was I. When all of the air had emptied from my lungs I drew a huge breath and noticed an Osprey had heard my cry and circled me a couple of times. It held a trout firmly in its talons as it tried to ascertain who was making such a racket in its peaceful world. I took it as a signal that this beautiful place understood my intention.
I made my way back to shore and as I sat there putting my socks and shoes back on my cold feet I recalled again the end scene from A River Runs Through It. He is all alone. All of his loved ones have passed away and all he has now are their memories and the thought that their words are in the river. The river speaks to him with their words. It was a very comforting thought. I thought of the symbolism of the river and I suddenly understood the connection of the river and eternity. If you were the water running past this very spot…someday you would again snow on that mountain and become a spring and join creeks and rivers and eventually flow past this exact same spot. Also, if you stood on the bank of that river for long enough…you would eventually see the same bit of water flow past you again. It might take an eternity but it would happen. Then it dawned on me that this inevitability… the inevitability of eternity could also mean that if you knew someone… if you loved them and wanted to see them again, you would. All you had to do was wait on that shore long enough or pass by the same spot again. The thought that the people I loved and now miss would be waiting for me, or I waiting for them, brought a smile to my face and a sense of contentment I hadn’t known before.
I think I also began to understand my own life a little better. I read somewhere you can never step in the same river twice. The constantly flowing water is everchanging and renders someone standing still, stuck in a world of constant change. Perhaps that constant change is unsettling and our natural inclination is to try to stop the change. I see now the futility of trying to stop a river from flowing. Maybe my Mom and I both spent our lives trying to stop our own river and would have both been better off simply jumping in and going with the flow so that we could find a new and better place downstream. Perhaps we should have simply let the water flow on by and hope for something new, something better. I can only speak for myself. My hanging on to the bitter memories of the past was my trying to stop the river. It didn’t work and the price for my foolishness, my immaturity is huge. The old saying “water under the bridge” should have meant more to me. As I walked the miles back to the Lodge I contemplated the notion that the past should be left there. Things I can’t change or stop should be allowed to flow on by and there is always something better downstream if you are not happy with where you are.
It seems I too am forever haunted by waters.
I will come back here from time to time to listen for her words, and hope, until we someday meet again, she can hear mine.
Until then, I love you, Mom. Rest in Peace