Where do you go to grieve? As Easter approaches I’m reminded of the story of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane, how he prayed just before his arrest and execution. The garden was actually an olive orchard, probably with some fresh water source, a spring or well, nearby. No doubt it was private and quiet enough for praying.
Historically, people have often went to natural spaces like gardens and grottos to find comfort in times of suffering.
In 1965 I was just a young girl when my brother died in a swimming pool accident. The place I went to grieve was a large spreading oak tree in a field near my house. I remember climbing on a branch and crying. After a while I calmed down and sang to myself a Beatle song I liked: “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah…”
Fifty-five years later, this past fall, I lost another brother, this time to cancer. It was not as sudden nor perhaps as tragic since Matt had the opportunity to live a full life. Still, I had to get away by myself to grieve, somewhere outside in the open air, for death felt like a dark, stuffy crypt. In southern Idaho there aren’t any garden oases like Gethsemane, and oak trees don’t grow very well in the desert. There is however, vast sagebrush plains and steep rocky canyons carved by the ever-flowing Snake River.
I struck out on a walk one late fall day shortly after Matt’s death.
Wiping tears away with my shirt sleeve, I was startled when a jackrabbit jumped out from behind some bitterbrush. My mind was so preoccupied with death, the first thought I had was my husband’s story about killing jackrabbits in the desert during an infestation. As I watched the rabbit race over a hill, I noticed the sagebrush was almost done flowering. I ambled over to a large sage and swept my hand over its crown. Fine, yellow pollen dusted my palm.
I hadn’t planned to climb to the top of the canyon, but that’s what I did. I knew this trail well and had traveled it many times over the years. It was hard climbing, stepping over sharp rocks and around animal droppings, mostly coyote or mule deer. It wasn’t long before I found myself panting and sweating. The red-twigged Russian thistle, a noxious weed non-native to Idaho, kept grabbing at my pant legs. Up ahead I could see my resting spot. It was a basalt outcropping about half way on the canyon wall, flat-surfaced and good for standing and taking in the river view below.
One time several years ago I stood on this basalt ledge and happened to glance down at my boot. There, half buried in the dirt, was a black sliver of obsidian. I took the toe of my boot and pried under it enough to see the sliver’s shape. How surprised I was to find a perfectly carved Indian arrow head, presumably used to hunt birds. It was a nice memory and the view on the basalt ledge that day did not disappoint: beautiful as always.
Wiser people than I have considered this paradox we call life: blissful moments even in the darkest of times.
As I turned to head back down the trail, I felt noticeably better. But I had one more significant discovery that fall day: I found a dried up snake skin just off my path. Snakes can shed their skin more than once during a season. I picked up the snake casing and held it in my hand thinking about the last time I saw Matt. He was lying still on a hospital bed and I knew he’d finally slipped this mortal coil. Like the women standing before Christ’s empty tomb, I realized, he was gone.
Image Credit: Oak Tree Image Credit: Diana Hooley photo/Snake River Canyon Image Credit: Diana Hooley photo/snake skin