Cancer and Dementia: Spreading ashes

I’ve struggled to journal since Dad was diagnosed in 2018. Somehow, even journaling seemed overwhelming in our grief.

Grief bites deep. Writing this journal entry feels like a nightmare come true… cancer happened. Dad actually died. And Mom is now in a memory care facility.

Reflecting back to September 29, 2020. Icy cold hearts beat within as our golden sun began to set over Hope Valley. Hope felt out of reach as as we stood cold and small next to this familiar creek, surrounded by endless acres of golden grasses against the now dark, snow patched Sierra Nevada mountains. The sun gently disappeared, leaving a scarlet sky overhead. My sister, Stephanie, and I, along with my three oldest teens, Ianna, Leora, Liam and my niece, Emma, stood beside the icy creek that runs gently through fields of golden grass in Hope Valley, CA. Steph held the box which contained our Dad’s ashes. Surreal dread filled us as her grieving hands clumsily fumbled the box open, revealing a plastic bag with all that remained of our Father’s body- powdered ash. It felt like a cruel dream as she tore open the bag and tried to honor him, attempting to spill his ashes into the flowing creek. Reaching to help, I too pulled at the plastic bag only more clumsy and spilled the ash onto my shoes and into the water. We laughed nervously through tears. Seeing his pale ashes flow down stream felt traumatic and not having Mom there felt disturbingly horrible.

Through tears, standing next to my car, I stared at this mountain sky that canopied my fathers ashes and our raw hearts. It was hard to leave. My mind flashed back…6 months earlier- I had walked here for the last time with Dad. Mom was with us. Patches of melting snow were barely giving way to spring, yet our hearts remained frozen. It was the day after Dad had signed Hospice papers and adjusting to the reality of his pending death felt suffocating. He was in physical and emotional pain, yet with a walking stick he had managed to hike a few yards from the car towards the snow covered, beautiful creak below this purple mountain backdrop that he and Mom had often enjoyed over the years.

Mom had lost much weight. Her memory was fading quickly as Alzheimer’s was hastened from the trauma of Dad’s terminal battle with cancer. Some moments she’d forget dad was dying. Yet most moments she clung to his arm protectively- gripping tightly as if she could hold him back from the inevitable separation before them. She was becoming childlike- frightened and often agitated- features that had never been part of the supportive mom we’d known.

A shout of amazement from my daughter brought my mind back… overhead, two blindingly brilliant shooting stars streaked across the pink sky and disappeared behind mountains. The two stars were BLUE and far brighter than any football stadium lights.

It wasn’t even dark out. It was dusk and the blue sky was flecked with vibrant coral and pink clouds. We sensed reality of an unseen world- one filled with Love. Somehow, this physical realm which we live within, seemed quite partial.

Emotions raw, I drove 65mph along the winding mountain road back towards my parents home in Gardnerville, NV.

Each bend along this narrow mountain road had become familiar over four months of caring for my parents- so far from David and our children in San Diego. It was dark and the two lane road narrow. Suddenly, A voice of peace spoke clear words to my broken, preoccupied, heart “Chris, watch for deer.” Dad has always called me “Chris.” I wondered- was God using that name for me because of Dad? Was it creepy to assume Dad was near? Yet, I felt extreme peace. I slowed to 40mph and began to watch. Suddenly a large buck ran out in front of my car. Because of the warning, I was prepared to slow perfectly without even skidding to a stop within a few centimeters of the buck. If the warning had not been spoken, I would have hit the buck at full speed. My daughter was driving our Tesla model 3 behind me and saved this video:

In this season of loss and grief, pain grips cruel. Many are suffering in covid isolation, grief, loneliness, depression or despair. More than ever, kindness is life changing and awareness of love is vital. Together, we can we can cling to Hope. Together, we must look for ways to give love, hope and grace away. Joy will return- just as spring arrives after winter.

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