The DeHaviland Beaver droned over the foothills of the Brooks Range as I craned my neck to see the tundra below. My husband and I had yearned for wilderness again, especially this wilderness so far north and remote.
We circled and landed on our destination, a small lake, hearing that comforting sound of a small splash, our anticipation swelling with the thought of the ten days of walking and wandering that lay ahead. Shouldering our heavy packs, tightening the straps and our boot laces, we headed west across a relatively flat plain of low brush, moving slowly and letting our bodies adjust to the new rhythm of this land. There was only the sound of our packs creaking and the shush of the brush as the deep silence settled in on us; my body began to relax and the mind to empty. I only had to walk and notice.
After a few hours into this reverie, I was brought to a stop by an unusual mound on my feet. What was it? As I knelt and peered more closely, I could see it was a pile of dwarf birch leaves, about the size of a thumbprint. But it wasn’t a natural falling of leaves. It was too early in the season and never would these leaves have dropped into this very precise mound. That is what struck me first–that it seemed it had been built with much care and intention, as if each leaf have been lain down individually. But why? I smoothed away some of the leaves to see if there was something under it–and there was. A white ptarmigan lay on its side, pristine and unharmed, yet obviously dead. There were no marks on it, no sign of a struggle or attack. It was if mourners had come and covered this bird with a pall of tiny birch leaves, no other kind, although there was plenty of willow and grasses around. Again, there was such intention with this seeming burial, that I was touched. In this raw wilderness that surrounded me, lay this act that appeared to be an honoring, a reverence, a laying to rest. I so wish I had seen this ritual.
Today, I will lay my friend to rest, down at the river near her home with just a few friends. I’m preparing a small ceremony, the ritual that mysteriously heals. I want it to be as intentional, as honoring, as much a laying to rest in that same sense as that white bird I once glimpsed. I want it to be memorable and full of wild mystery, a true repose–done with such infinite and precise care as that which I touched me to the core.
Yet as I think of the past 8 months and her long journey of illness, I realize I have been part of something that has been preparing this ceremony for a long time. I have watched so many friends and members of her family honor her each day, in the worst of times. Some have brought food, some sent flowers, some ran errands, some sat by her bed and read poetry or sang hymns. A few of us helped her bathe and gathered all the hair that fell into the drain after chemo started. Some sat in meditation with her. Some created prayer flags. Some brought lotion. Some redecorated the small downstairs room she was moved to. Some talked to her of memories. Some talked to her of what was to come. Some cried with her and some laughed, some commiserated, some listened. Some bought her socks or a new soft blanket or mattress. And particularly a few changed her dressings and got medical supplies and were endless advocates for her to receive the best health care possible. Some made an engagement part and the wedding of her daughter possible just three weeks before she died. Some called on the phone, some texted, some wrote. Some sewed her presents or brought her gifts. I was some of those who did these things. But also it wasn’t really me.
What I sense now is that Love does these things. It was so powerful that I never considered not being there, not responding. It was what I wanted to do even though it was so very hard. It wasn’t sentimental or unselfish, because, how can I say it, it just WAS something moving through all of us which we can only say was Love. It was so abundant and ever-present. It never failed or faltered. It sustained and held us as we held her. She was Love, we were Love, it was all Love.
It’s been a long walk with her in a different kind of wilderness than the Brooks Range, and not one I looked forward to. It was wild and full of Mystery and not knowing like that journey. It was uncomfortable and tiring and literally gut-wrenching. Yet mostly I will remember the delicate tenderness that surrounded her and the uninhibited kindness and the unending steadiness of so many. So many small leaves were laid down around with deep regard and intention.
Fly away now, my white bird. With our love.