After the Falls

On a recent summer’s night I was rummaging through the vintage suitcase at my bedside, the one that houses garments worn infrequently and in private, I opened the case to reveal not only stockings but the last of the remains. My mother, my father and my brother all gathered (as) dust in Ziploc bags, inside silken pouches. What had been my lingerie chest had somehow become my dead family valise. Okay, this had to change.

July 21, 2010 // Tracy Shaffer // No Comments //

Ten days in Telluride for the Playwrights Festival; housed, focused, feted, fed. Perfect.
It also coincided with the anniversary of my brother’s “08 death. The first year on the morning of
that day, I was awakened by a dream and a phone call informing me that my play would be produced by Paragon Theatre Ensemble this season. (w)Hole was the script Steve adored, the last he’d heard read and the one he dreamed of making into a film. It’d been developed in Telluride the month before his fatal fall so this year’s return felt as if the planets were aligned.
On a recent summer’s night I was rummaging through the vintage suitcase at my bedside, the one that houses garments worn infrequently and in private, I opened the case to reveal not only stockings but the last of the remains. My mother, my father and my brother all gathered (as) dust in Ziploc bags, inside silken pouches. What had been my lingerie chest had somehow become my dead family valise. Okay, this had to change.
Our family believes in cremation, but unlike the devout who respectfully select a final resting place for their dearly departed, we divide and conquer. The larger part of our parents have become hearty olive trees, while my brother paddled out into the Pacific to catch the last wave from his favorite surfing spot. It was Steve’s idea years ago that we each keep “A lid of mom” and scatter about the globe as we saw fit, in honor of her wanderlust. The ritual was set in place and mom has made her way into the Arno, the Seine, a grotto in Cozumel and a river in Brazil. Now dad was different, or so I thought. He’d lived for a decade in Mexico and remarried; it was his bride’s wish that the ashes stay together. Having been witness, I was certain this had happened until I got an envelope marked “Bag O Bob” from my brother’s widow. Steve, with his independent nature, had overridden the Catholic tradition to preserve the Shaffer one and siphoned off his ‘lid’ before our tree planting ceremony.
Fourth of July 2010. The boys and I are packing the Volvo, loading up the cooler and ready for the drive to Telluride. Strapping the last bike on the rack I knew I had forgotten something… The family! Bolting back inside the house, I found the suitcase key, slipped what was left of three cherished people into a Victoria’s Secret shopping bag and trotted back out to the car.
On the seventh day in the San Juan Mountains my soul was calm, my lungs strong enough for the trek and I woke the boys in time to reach the falls before the pending storm. The hike is not considered difficult, but a steady climb gaining 1000 feet in 2.5 miles, and popular with tourists. With my head in the clouds, the three of us set off up the trail bearing too little water and the weight of time upon my back. As we ascend I feel the rocks, incline, altitude and attitude with their familiar challenge. It seems I’ve been on this path for years and now I must keep moving toward the water and release. My sons venture into the future, moving deftly ahead as I contemplate the path that brought me here. I ask a hiker on the downhill what the road ahead is like and how much more there was to go, as if he really knew. Could I have imagined my life as it is today from the lower elevations of my youth? This is not the path I’d dreamed of, thought it has a beauty nonetheless. The twists and turns of the past are played out on the path before me. Earth slips beneath my feet along the scrabble as Gabriel waits ahead, granting the wings of encouragement when my pace slows. “Come on Mom, you can do this. Let me help you do this.” He is eleven, this angel child, and wise beyond the moon. The road smooths out and flattens, rises up to climb again, to an open space, a glimpse of the falls, then narrowing in focused preparation for the traveler’s arrival.
Gabe runs ahead, empowered at the sight of falling water, and joins his brother in its spray while I spot a place where the water swirls gently before flowing over boulders to the sea. I face downwind remove my pack, and bring the bones of my ancestors quietly into daylight. August stands behind me like a sentry, aware of our mission and what others may think if they saw us. Gabriel negotiates the rocks and sits, curious to know who’s who, to hold the grandparents he never knew in a simultaneous hello/goodbye. He feels the differences in the texture as we transport ashes from their baggies to the currents and one by one we set them free.
It is done. I have made it up the mountain, released the final remnants of my sadness and I’m glad I made the journey. All of it.
We play along the waterfall until it’s time to go, Gabe taking my hand and holding it quietly all the way down the mountain.
That night I felt the need to fly: my new-found levity of heart. As midnight fast approached I joined my friends in a gondola car to float into the darkened heavens. Mercury Venus, Regulus and Mars were lined up diagonally in the sky above, as the town fell small behind us. Seven minutes later we reached the tipping point. Blowing kisses to my friends, I left our west-bound carriage for my solo return; an Ugh-boot Cinderella. Silent but for the sound of tears rolling down cheeks, the Milky Way and I, vast and close, were awed by all that we will never know. Then slowly… I landed.


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