A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty. —Philippe Ariès
May 19, 1980: grey ash falling like a dirty, late spring snowstorm in northern Idaho, shuttering the sun and blanketing the world into a black-and-white post-apocalyptic scene—all color erased, all sound dampened, everything gone still. Five years old, dressed in light spring clothing despite the sky’s grey swelter, I went outside armed with a dust mask and specimen collection jar, surveying the blurred and silent landscape, inches of ash lying silky and dimpled with the winding tracks of insects. I was alone, my father at work, my mother having sped away, rooster-tails of grey spitting from her tires as she drove the two hours from our backwoods mountaintop to the nearest airport, jetting to her mother’s deathbed just in time to hold her hand and say it was okay to stop struggling, to stop gasping for air, to give in and let go, the cancer completing its endgame just as Mount St. Helen’s blew, its volcanic eruption swallowing the light and cloaking the world in the colors of mourning just as my mother lost her own mother—a very literal “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” rendition.
From that point on, I understood death as a kind of deep, mournful nightmare. Throughout that year I would lie in bed long after being tucked in and think about Gram dying, imagining my mother and father dying, leaving me forever alone, forever without them. I felt this alternate version of reality deeply, its sorrow moving me to sob-weeping night after night as I fell asleep. I felt it as surely as if it were already my own reality: death’s dramatic, destructive force—whether human or in nature—a lesson that would last me a lifetime.
January 3, 1995: the snow and cold in the Idaho mountains settled in heavy. I was seven months pregnant with our first son, my abdomen beach-ball round and streaked silvery with stretch marks. Just past New Year’s, and my husband’s mother was pulling decorations off the Christmas tree, wrapping the ornaments in tissue and storing them in boxes for next year. My father-in-law wrestled the stripped, bare-needled tree out to the front yard, planted it upright in the white-heaped snow bank, and then fell over dead of a massive heart attack.
My husband and I were shopping in a valley town an hour away when the call came—the ambulance speeding toward the hospital, EMTs performing CPR and pumping his father’s body full of drugs on the winding mountainous road, trying to revive him even though he was already cold when they’d reached the front yard. When my husband hung up and told me what had happened, I shook my head with sure and complete confidence, saying over and over: “He can’t be dead, they’re wrong. He’s not dead,” bent on denial this time instead of an active courting.
There’s a kind of sheer disbelief to it, when confronted with loss so suddenly—a liminal space where your loved one is still very much alive, still very much existing inside the space of your life, their world intersected with your own, before the truth sinks in, before you understand that they’re really gone, and that therefore a part of you is forever gone, too. The reality of it so unforgivingly, unrelentingly final.
August 1, 2014: beating-hot summer, the sun bearing down like a relentlessly burning god-eye. I was walking out the door to a meeting with the director of a PhD program that I was seriously considering, a list of questions tucked under my arm, full of nervousness over the possibility of taking on a new doctorate student life, when the phone rang. I thought about ignoring it, letting the machine answer, but at the last minute I picked up. My father’s voice on the other end was nearly unrecognizable. I was used to his frequent phone calls, him chatting on for an hour or more, repeating stories I’d heard many times before, quelling his loneliness after my mother’s divorce from their forty-year marriage. Now he lived alone in a tiny place overlooking a lake with a little dog that I had talked him into getting named Skipper, who was always barking in the background. But this time there was just the sound of my father’s sobbing as he kept saying, “Oh, Annie, oh Annie, I just can’t believe it,” over and over, his voice sucked in, wracked into a new wavering pitch—the most broken I would ever hear him.
I sat islanded in a chair in the middle of the kitchen, trying to take in what he was telling me. My brother was dead, shot by San Antonio police in the middle of the night after someone had called in a vehicle prowl. My father’s only son, my only brother.
In shock, after I hung up, I walked hot, tree-heaved sidewalks to my meeting, inanely apologizing for being late to the program director, telling her as we stood in line for coffee—the space warm and buzzing with light, friendly conversation—that my father had just called to tell me my brother had been shot by the police. My emotions not yet caught up to me, I sat down and asked the woman my pre-written questions and dutifully recorded her answers, but I remember nothing of those details, only the sunny table where we sat, coffee beans trapped in artful patterns under the glass, my head swirling with the violent newness of it, the woman regarding me with uneasy concern.
Later, at home, I looked up the San Antonio news online, trying to understand what had happened, what had gone so terribly wrong, unprepared for the first thing I saw: photographs of my brother’s body, the top of his tousled head, in the grassy field where he’d been shot, emergency responders, police, and yellow police-line caution tape surrounding him. Photographs of EMTs zipping his body up in a bright blue body bag and lifting him onto a gurney. Photographs of his body being wheeled into an ambulance and taken away. The shock of it was paralyzing, surreal, like something you watch on a crime show, or in a movie, only this time it was real, and so unrelentingly public—blood of my blood, bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.
It only took six months for my father to follow. February 7, 2015—his body and mind broken beyond repair, giving in to what he’d been courting for some time with his binge drinking, his loneliness and self-destruction.
For weeks, I drove to my father’s hospital bed and then nursing-home hospice bed—first to the ER, and then, when the delirium tremens kicked in, the ICU, his ankles and wrists cuffed and tied down, both of his hands bruised deep purple, his long, white, hairless legs exposed, gunshot and scarred from a rough and wild youth, but as shapely as ever. Legs he attempted weakly but persistently to maneuver off the various beds, trying to sit, trying to push himself up with each labored breath, trying to leave, escape.
When I told him he had to stay there, in his bed, he said, “What the hell for?” and I said it was so he wouldn’t get hurt any worse. When I showed him his bruised hands, his scabbed and torn arms, his IV taped where he couldn’t tear it out again, he said, “So what?”
And that’s how he’d been living—especially after my brother was shot. Drinking himself to death. Falling and bashing himself to smithereens: cracked ribs, blackened eyes, his body covered in bruises and scabs and tears. The owner of his little local store called me to express concern: my father had been buying and drinking four bottles of wine and a six-pack of beer every day. He often showed up confused an hour before opening and was using a two-years expired driver’s license. Once, driving drunk, his car broke down on the highway and he tried to walk the seven miles back home on wobbly legs, holding onto his cane.
I had called the sheriff’s office and the VA social worker; my sister from Texas had called Idaho Adult Protective Services. But there’s no stopping a person who doesn’t want to be stopped. A lifetime of smoking, of drinking. Of feeling adrift in a sea you cannot find bearing in no matter what you do. No matter how skilled a carpenter you might be, no matter how natural of an outdoorsman you might be—teaching your daughters, your wife, your son-in-law, your grandsons and granddaughters, your boy-scout troops the way of the woods—no matter what, the drinking is the only thing you have left. That and your voice. A quaking hand lifted weakly to your mouth, from your hospital bed you said, “You know me, I love to talk.” And so you do. Story after story, even dying and shackled to a hospital bed.
As a family, after we move your things out of your house and drive your car home, we sit in the hot tub tracking constellations, looking into the night sky. Steam rising and drifting, I try to find some kind of reckoning after it all. Like a moth, I can’t stop my eyes from going to the source of light—the candle’s flicker, the porch with its yellow-walled glow, Orion’s Belt, the Big Dipper’s handle, pointing oddly this time of year, upside down. There, Uranus. There, Cassiopeia.
In the winter air, we tell stories of you as if you are already gone. Only a little time left now before you are. My teenage sons wearing your work boots, loading your tools, your life, in the back of their trucks. Your crockpot full of cold, fat-scrimmed stew. Your cocked and loaded pistol we find lodged in the side of your recliner where I know you sat and sorrowed over your wrecked life, contemplating taking it, my mother talking you out of your final plan: going out on the lake in your canoe to do the deed. Your laundry in the hamper. Your soiled shorts. Your soiled sheets. Bag after bag of snack food opened, then left in your kitchen drawers. Forgotten? Distasteful, like the carrots your sister fed you tonight in the hospital. A spoonful of juice. A spoonful of milk. A spoonful of blueberry yogurt from which you spit a single blueberry onto your naked chest.
In the hospital and the weeklong stay at the nursing home, wishing you weren’t there, you talk about paddling a canoe, of how you don’t like winter, of how you already know from experience that you will be lonely, that I won’t visit as much as I say. You break my heart with your sobbing. With your bird-boned chest and shoulders. With your bruises and self-destruction. ER. ICU. DTs. TIA—everything an acronym of your state. A damn drunk. A kind man. A lost soul. Toolboxes full of dreams, your brothers circling in for your things, you not even gone yet.
Wood smoke in the air, in the hot tub we talk of firewood. Of your backpacking gear. Of your wood-bending skills. We laugh over your crazy hair and eyebrows—the same as my brother’s, the same as mine. We reminisce about the life you once lived with my mother whom you still love. Whom you will always love. Sorrow lying in your wake. Your long legs bloodied along the shins from trying to escape the chair and bed the nursing staff put you in.
That last Saturday, I walked your little dog Skipper to visit you, played a classical CD in your room, read the weekend newspaper after covering your purpling feet, talked a little in the quick moments when you were awake—let you know I was there, that I cared. Then, fifteen minutes after I left, walking your little dog toward home, the nurse on rotation called to say that she’d felt a ghostly tap on her shoulder out in the hall and immediately went to your room, reaching your side just as you took your last breath. And then you too were gone, just like my childhood nighttime mournful imaginings. Your things dispersed amongst us, the warmth of your little dog settled on my lap, your life stories reframed into forgotten family lore.
I’ve learned to sorrow without sound. To cry when there’s not too much to do. But there’s always too much to do, too much to feel, too much to think, to say. Years pass this very way. The busy business of living, and of dying—drugs, hospitals, nursing homes, ambulances, body bags, transportation to the morgue, morgue services, caskets or burnings, grave-diggings, hearses, headstones, all the accounts to pay up and then close down, all the sorting through and out.
When my husband’s father died, his mother found one way to save. We begged her to cremate, but her religious beliefs didn’t allow for future resurrection without a body, so she asked my husband to take care of the transportation—to drive her 1980 two-wheel-drive, two-tone-brown Suburban to pick up the casket and bring his father to the cemetery. With the back seats taken out to make room, the morgue workers loaded the cardboard casket into the Suburban and my then 26-year-old husband drove two hours on the winding, mountainous, winter roads, alone with his father’s body, trying not to imagine it in the casket behind him rolling along with the corners, trying not to imagine his father’s body there behind him at all.
When he got to the cemetery, the gravedigger—a bearded, scruffy, out-of-work logger—helped him unload the casket, asking him which end was the head, but my husband didn’t know, so finally they hazarded a 50/50 guess, set it in the frozen cavern of earth, and called it good as the family started gathering for the service. Nearly 25 years later, it is still the only formal funeral we’ve gone to—solemnly standing graveside, our first son kicking out from beneath my heavy winter coat, shovelfuls of dirt thudding onto cardboard, intonation of a funeral sermon. Not one of us has ever returned to the grave since.
The rest have all been ashes. In late August 2014, when I got the flesh-colored package-pick-up notification, I took it and stood in line with the rest of the patrons mailing boxes off—chatty, cheerful people trying to turn the post office wait into a shared smalltown comradery. But I kept my sunglasses on, my arms crossed over my chest. When I reached the counter and handed the woman the slip, her face changed, some kind of code communicated on the paper, some special box checked. She glanced at me once quickly but held quiet as she went to the back and retrieved the box prominently marked “Human Remains.” She handed it to me carefully and I left quickly before any more emotion could seep out, the surprising weight and heft of the box something like shock.
When I got home, I packed the car with some food, camping gear, my brother’s letters, and the unopened box of his ashes. I sobbed the whole drive. My brother’s cremated body sat in the passenger’s seat, and I wound my way up the mountain corners to the river we’d all loved.
On that lonely, empty road I didn’t expect the flashing lights of a police cruiser, but suddenly they were behind me. I couldn’t stop weeping as I pulled over and an officer approached my window. I pointed at the box and said what I was on my way to do. The officer let me go with a warning to be careful, the concern clear in his eyes.
At the river, I packed a knapsack with my brother’s ashes and then hiked the fern and cedar-lined trails until finally I dropped down to the shoreline. I set up on a large flat rock, the swath of water winding its way past me, blooming asters and paintbrush studded with butterflies on all sides, an otter, kingfisher, and osprey vying for their waterborne prey. I lay a cloth down and sat cross-legged, making up my own ritual as I went, ceremonially smoking and drinking as I arranged the items in front of me: childhood letters, a leather pouch, a box of ashes.
After I had cried and reminisced, after I had re-read my brother’s letters and then wrote him back one final time, I stood calf-deep in the cold, clear water on top of a slippery, oblong orange rock the shape of a coffin and spread the bits of bone and handfuls of dust that formed the shape of my brother’s life, watching as they formed a calcium-rich shadow and drifted downstream, settling in the river silt, glinting like mica.
It took me longer with my father. My husband and I picked up his ashes and a heavy-cast Army plaque from the funeral home in February—too early in the year to reach the river, the road still buried in snow. Not wanting the emotional weight that might come from confronting his ashes in the house each day, we made a place in the shed instead, balancing the box of ashes on a shelf made from my father’s old carpenter-shop sawhorses. It stayed there for more than a year like a haunting. One time the padlocked shed door stood inexplicably open, and from that point on each time we went in the shed, we would greet the box uneasily. “Hi, Pa,” we’d say, trying to laugh about it. We told ourselves that even when it was baking hot, he would have liked it in the shed, surrounded as he was by whitewater kayaks, fly fishing gear, and the uneven lengths of oak and fir boards awaiting our next carpentry project.
Finally, August 2016—two years to the month since I’d spread my brother’s ashes—we gathered up our camping gear, fly-fishing equipment, my dad’s little dog Skipper, and the box of ashes and as a family, headed for the river. We hiked to the little white sand crescent beach just up from the funeral rock and settled beneath the towering cedars, fishing and swimming. Skipper barked and chased sticks, then lay in the sandy shade next to the box of ashes, my dad’s old fly box and reel next to them, the whole scene arranged like a funeral still life.
My sons and husband standing on the shore behind me, I once again waded out and stood on the slick, orange rock releasing handfuls of ash into the clear swirling water, periwinkles leaving the trace of their slow crawl behind, trout swimming in close, curiously nosing bone in silt.
We set the plaque hidden in a trio of boulders and alder brush just back from the funeral rock, hoping to keep it out of the reach from the high roiling of spring waters or any would-be vandalizers. We haven’t been back yet, but I imagine it papered now in lichen and dust, the drifting ash of wildfire. The periwinkles crawling, dragging their pebble-studded cases formed from bones baked as hot as glass—shiny-edged bits that glint like teeth from beneath our feet.
Another August—this one 2017, the pale blue paper box of ashes with its affixed label stating my grandmother’s name, date of birth, and date of death, finally in my mother’s possession after thirty-six years of languishing in my uncle’s bottom dresser drawer. She’d told him that it was time Gram was freed, that she would spread the ashes where their mother had always loved to be, even though the thought of facing her mother again left her shaken and full of trepidation—all those buried emotions, all that dark history of alcoholism and abuse that she’d worked for decades to move beyond. But by now I was the experienced one, so I told my mother I would help her with the decades past-due release of her mother, that we would do it together, that there was nothing to fear. This one would be easier after all. A grandmother who had died when I was five years old, even if hers had been my first death, accompanied by a familial mortality-awareness that had already haunted me a lifetime. Each death echoing out from the other. Each death carried differently. A continuation, a deepening. A conversation I’d learned how to speak.
My husband, mother, and I carried the box with us to Indian Island, Washington—a naval-base island on the Salish Sea where my grandmother had once loved to go clamming. A dozen people in rubber boots were spread out below the parking area, humped over and digging in the damp tidal flats, the morning tide receded well into the minuses, leaving exposed kelp and clam-beds.
We walked the beach for a mile until there was nothing but rocky shoreline, steep sand cliffs, and the sea’s shallow, kelp-thick reaches. Sheltered from the wind by the cliff, my mother and I opened the box, took out the plastic bag inside, and walked down to the water, wading out knee-deep to a sandy-bottomed stretch that was surrounded by green and red kelp beds—a garden of swaying growth. My mother stood nearby, watching as I dumped the remains of my grandmother’s body in an arc around me, as the now-familiar calcium cloud dispersed in the water and the dried-out bits of bone settled into the sand below, indistinguishable from what had always been, from what will always be: matter and form, past and present—the movement of our lives, our bodies, into memory and story.
is the author of the novel Sins of the Bees (Pegasus/Simon & Schuster, September 2020) and the letter-press printed limited edition poetry chapbook Burning Time (Limberlost Press, August 2020). Her narrative essays, poetry, and short fiction have been published or are forthcoming in various literary journals and anthologies. She has been awarded the Dogwood Literary Award in Fiction, the Everybody Writes Award in Poetry, a Best American Essays “Notable,” a Pushcart Prize Special Mention, a Literature Fellowship Special Mention from the Idaho Commission on the Arts, and a national Bureau of Land Management wilderness artist’s residency in the Owyhee Canyonlands Wilderness. She lives with her family in Moscow, Idaho and is an Associate Professor of Honors Creative Writing at the Washington State University Honors College. https://annielampman.com