I had a totally different topic in mind to write about tonight, something that had been lingering on my mind since this morning, but, such as grief always goes, I was overcome by emotion on my way home from work this afternoon and soon found myself in a heap on the sofa, clutching Hudson’s ashes in one hand and the plaster mold of her right hand in the other.
This is not a scenario I ever imagined. This may sound ridiculous—who ever pictures such a thing? But truly, not even after Hudson died did I imagine that I would ever feel such an intense need to hold her ashes in my arms, to clutch them to my chest and wail over them.
When my mother died, we were all surprised and puzzled by her decision to have her ashes interred in a columbarium at a church to which she did not even belong. The church was in the bigger town near the small town where she grew up in Alabama and she had become close to the priest there while she was sick, but still, we were all a bit baffled as to why she would want her ashes there. Still, it did not matter much to me, because to me, her ashes were just that: ashes. I never had any desire to visit them, for they were not her, and just because her ashes were there, it did not mean she was there. I felt the same way when I thought about visiting people’s graves in cemeteries—wherever those people were, if they were anywhere after they died, they were not in the ground under a headstone. Certainly I did not need to be near my mother’s ashes in order to be near her. I began to think about what I would want done with my own ashes, and all my potential plans involved sprinkling them in places I loved, but not tying them to any particular spot with a marker. Anyone who wanted to visit with me could visit with me anywhere, is how I thought about it. I never wanted any child or loved one of mine to feel any kind of obligation to visit “me” in some particular place. And the idea of anyone keeping my ashes in their home seemed almost macabre to me.
I couldn’t feel more different about Hudson’s ashes. When Ed and I first started contemplating what to do with them, planting them with some trees (likely Christmas trees) in different places special to us seemed like the right thing. We thought we’d plant one at each of our father’s homes, one down at Belhaven where we were married ( even though she never got to visit there), and one at our permanent home in NC, whenever and wherever that home comes to be. That way we could visit “her” whenever we were at any of those places, and a natural way to celebrate her birthday (which is coming up far too quickly upon us—December 1 is three weeks from today) each year would be to decorate the tree at our home with winter treats for the birds that she loved so much.
At the beginning, I thought we’d go ahead and plant the three trees not at our permanent home (which does not yet exist) and sprinkle a portion of her ashes at each. For some reason, I was anxious to do this before this birthday rolled around so I could put my plan into place. After all, if not that, what could we possibly do to celebrate her birthday?
And yet her ashes still sit on the table in her playroom that holds many other pieces of our life with Hudson—photos of her, her favorite books, some of her fingerpainting, her Carolina pom poms, her stuffed lamb with a dishtowel laid over his belly, just how she used to put him down for a “nap.” Her ashes are still in the plastic bag in which they were delivered, closed with a twisty tie at the top. When we received them, they were inside a small white plastic box, cushioned by two puffs of natural fiber, and the box was inside a black shopping bag with the funeral home’s logo on it. Leaving them inside that impersonal box seemed wrong, and yet what container is ever right for your child’s ashes? We found a piece of pottery, a ceramic lidded jar that we had sitting around unused, with a small chip in the lid, and placed the bag in there, still cushioned by the fibers, and put them on her memorial table. I propped her Elmo up so that he has his arms wrapped around the jar. I guess I think of him as keeping her company. Even though I know she is not “there.”
So there her ashes sit. At least for right now, I cannot fathom having them anywhere else. I certainly can’t imagine them being anywhere but in the place that I live, whether in my house or under a tree in my yard.
I’ve taken her ashes out only a few times since she died, usually in moments of intense grief, where I just want to be with her so much and am faced with the reality that those ashes, and the few locks of hair that we cut from her head after she died, are the only pieces of her physical body that remain for me to touch. One time, I held the bag in my hand and turned it over and over. If you’ve never seen human ashes before, I apologize if this becomes rather graphic, but even after the cremation process, some pieces of bone often remain, not having been fully pulverized. On that day, I found myself turning the bag over and over, looking at each of the pieces of visible bone, trying so hard to find something that looked familiar, perhaps a part of a tooth, or the tip of her nose—I have no idea what I was looking for, really. I just wanted so desperately to see some part of her that I could recognize as her.
Today, as I walked home, I began imagining Hudson as an older child, so many moments that I would never witness. I pictured her with long pigtails like I had when I was a little girl, wearing denim overalls and smiling gleefully as she mastered riding her bike without training wheels. You can imagine that it only took a few seconds of this before I was in tears (do you ever get tired of hearing about how often I cry? I certainly get tired of how often it happens myself.) I cried openly on the whole walk home, not caring whether people passing by in their cars could see me. I got home and for no reason that I can explain, I was just drawn to her playroom in the back of the house. I took her ashes out of their jar and then opened up the keepsake box that holds the plaster cast of her hand (not a handprint mold, but a full 3-D cast of her hand, with her fingers cupped in natural, relaxed position), one of her locks of hair, and the handprints and footprints the PICU nurse made the night she died. I took out the cast of her hand and went into the living room, where I sat down on the sofa and clutched it and her ashes to my chest, sobbing for a very long time. I talked to her and said, for the millionth time, how much I miss her, how much I love her, how very sorry I am for her that she is not here to have so much fun with us, how precious her life is to us, and on and on. I slipped my right finger inside the cupped fingers of her hand, just like I used to hold her hand when we walked together. And for the first time, I kissed the plaster mold of her hand—I kissed each one of her little fingertips and put the whole thing up against my cheek, remembering what it felt like to hold her beautiful little hand when it was warm and pink and plump. I clutched both things to my chest again and just held them there. It was hard for me to get up and put them back in their places. This has never happened to me before. When I went to put the cast of her hand back, I pulled out the tiny Ziploc baggie that holds one of her locks of hair. One of the things I miss the most about Hudson’s daily physical presence is being able to sweep that beautiful hair off to the right side—it was too short to cut yet, but was getting long enough that it was in her face if I didn’t brush it aside. One of my favorite things to do was to run my hand over it and push it off her sweet face. It was always so soft to the touch. Even now, I sometimes make the same motion on a picture of her, brushing her hair out of her face, remembering the hundreds of times I did it when she was alive—so simple, so ordinary, and yet so intimate a gesture. I realized that it had never occurred to me before that I could open the baggie and actually touch her hair—until today, I’ve always just looked at it. Today, I opened the baggie and reached my hand in and stroked her hair. It felt just as soft as I remembered. I just never imagined that being able to hold and touch these physical remnants of Hudson’s body would ever be so important to me. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Today, I really, really needed them.
I still think we will plant a Christmas tree at our eventual permanent home in NC. And I still think we will decorate it every year on her birthday. Whether I’ll ever want to sprinkle her ashes underneath it remains to be seen. For now, they will stay right where they are, tucked inside a slightly imperfect piece of pottery, being hugged by Hudson’s Elmo, where I can take them out and hold them anytime I need to.