Fast forward four days, and I was again boarding a plane, this time to Minnesota to take my mom’s ashes to her childhood summer home in Crosslake. I did not want to leave again—I was weary from travelling. Several people advised me not to go to Minnesota, that I needed recovery, that I was not ready to put my mom to rest, that I should not rush it. I can understand that advice. When I returned from Vegas I was so sad, I lacked energy, and I lacked interest in anything I once liked to do.
Even making my syllabi, which usually gives me geeky joy, felt more like emptying a bowl of 10,000 marbles one at a time. I could donate only 2 or so hours to the computer every morning. After that, I just needed some time alone.
But this trip to Minnesota had been planned many months before my mom even passed away, because it would allow me to celebrate Aunt Lynn’s 80th birthday. And Minnesota winters are cold. There is only so much time before the lake freezes. I did not want to wait another year to grant my mom her last wish. So I was boarding a plane again, steeling myself for a little sorrow.
Although John and I got to the Phoenix airport at 2:15 pm, we did not reach the cabin in Crosslake until about . . . 2 am, I think? I can’t remember. There were flight delays, then torrential rain on the 3 hour drive from Minneapolis, plus a daunting few miles of driving through a frog migration with little white amphibia hurling themselves at our car in the darkness. But finally we arrived, and Uncle Rick was there to greet us with hugs, love, and a room where we could rest our heads.
The next morning we had some coffee and started a long and therapeutic chat with Uncle Rick. His insights helped me remove myself from some of the guilt I have had about my mom my entire life. I always thought I should have been able to save her from her mental illness. I always felt like a failure because I could not. Rick and I talked about the stages of my mom’s psychosis that each of us had witnessed—me, her suicide attempts, and him, her “little green men are in the room.” I used to admonish myself by saying that if my mother had been sick with cancer, I never would have turned my back.
At the cabin with Uncle Rick, as we talked about the depths of her psychosis, I was learning to extend the cancer metaphor a few steps. If my mother had been sick with cancer and had refused professional treatment, it would have been as devastating for me as when she refused treatment for her mental illness. If my mother had been sick with cancer, I would have been as helpless to cure it as I was at curing her mental illness. She would not have expected me, at 15, to treat her cancer, so how could she expect a 15 year old to treat her suicidal thoughts?
Soon Aunt Lynn and Cousin Kathy arrived, and we greeted them with big hugs and love, and we caught up after a year of absence. We did some more chatting in the living room, with the lake a gray sheet in my peripheral vision. The day had decided to be what some might call cliché for the occasion—drizzle and clouds. I was feeling weak. I was wondering when we would start. Finally, I said, “So how do we do this?”
My mother, throughout her life, gave me valuable gifts: an interest in literature, music, history, politics, travel. Now with her hand-written will she left one last gift. She asked Uncle Rick to spread her ashes at the cabin, not me. That little blessing turned into a large one, since I was aware I would not be able to do it myself.
We started by walking out to the dock. We put some ashes in the water, and Cousin Kathy reminded me of the time Mom went water skiing in a ballgown, and didn’t get a drop of water on it. Then we took some up to the birch tree where grandma Ewing’s ashes are. Then we took some to the fir trees that grandpa Ewing planted, and we added mom’s ashes to his among their roots.
As I watched mom rejoin her parents, I thought about all those years mom was estranged from her family and her cabin home. I felt such great peace to have her back where she belonged. The cabin is the Ewing family Camelot. Her separation from it was a constant source of sadness to me—the contrast of all that we had when we were there, versus all that we lost when we weren’t.
John said later it was as if a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders, and he was right. I sobbed. Then I felt better. We went inside and drank a glass of red wine to mom, which would have pleased her. We decompressed a little, then John and I and Kathy and Lynn drove to Gull Lake, where we would celebrate Lynn’s birthday the following day.
If the weather on Cross Lake had been cliché, the weather on Gull Lake the next day might have been too. The sun came out in spades for Lynn’s 80th birthday. Our gathering was a bonus celebration, since Lynn’s entire family, all 33 children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren had come for her party in July. Lynn said she forgave me for being in Europe at the time of her party. I really wanted to be with Lynn, in the flesh, on her birthday.
We went and had a lovely dinner, then we came home and played a game at the dining room table, then we had some ice cream cake. While the day before had brought me some sorrow, and then some closure, it was fitting that the day celebrating Lynn’s birthday brought me joy.
We had two more lovely days in Minnesota, which we spent enjoying the lake, the cool temps, and the loving embrace of Uncle Rick, Aunt Lynn, and Cousin Kathy. I came home feeling, for once, like I had done the right thing.