I looked toward the mismanaged row of trees – leaning into each other and pitched curiously forward as they looked back at me. I can’t rightly explain why I chose France as the place to spread her ashes, but something about a chateau in the mountains posed an opportunity to put her where she wouldn’t want to return. There was the beach, sure, or the creek she grew up on. But I recalled an afternoon when she got the most brutal sunburn on her knees, and I recalled all the horrible memories she had in the house on the creek. I couldn’t let her burn again, or spread across the water, blanketing the murky, salted mire until she sunk beneath the surface forever.
She jokingly said, “Yeah, a one-way ticket to France,” at the deli counter of our local grocery store every time the portly butcher asked what she wanted. It turned into a ritual for them. I only remembered the phrase because I was very young at the time – that and the free slice of bologna he hung down over the counter for me each visit. I’d reach up to grab at the free food and look through the glass panes to his discolored apron pressed against the display case. He’d laugh at her jokes and she’d order meat and cheese for the week, and I’d return to my seat inside the cart alongside boxes of cereal and canned goods; I wondered to myself in my sea of groceries if the butcher was in love with my mother and what it would be like to have free bologna all the time. There aren’t too many memories that live in the forefront of my mind anymore but for some reason, as the years passed in their domino succession, out of order with the way things should be, I always remembered her comment about France.
Her death was just as much a shock as much as we weren’t surprised she died young. It had been twenty years since her last doctor’s appointment; She drank every night – and eventually every day; She never went without a cigarette between her middle and forefinger.
“Merit Ultra-lite 100s, please. For my mom.” I would hand the cash up to Kevin, the grocery store manager. He’d hand back change and two packs of cigarettes to me, a seven year old, and I’d run back to my mother in the checkout line feeling accomplished and responsible. By the time I was nineteen and she’d ask me to go buy cigarettes for her, I’d stand in defiance. “I may as well just hand you the gun along with the bullets.”
She gave up asking me, the same way she gave up saying, “Yeah, a one-way ticket to France,” and the same way she stopped going to the grocery store altogether. A driver’s license became my freedom ticket and her death sentence expedited because I’d run all the errands and she could drink in silence and in secret without the worry of peering eyes. I could deny trafficking her cigarettes, but I couldn’t keep her from a bottle. Eventually I looked forward to leaving, so I didn’t have to watch her hurt herself. I began to go to the deli counter on my own, but I just ordered a half-pound of ham, half-pound bologna, and a pound of American cheese. I never asked for France – France wasn’t far enough away.
I went away to college, traveled around Europe, and by the time I was ready to start my life I had to come home to watch hers end. The hospital was only a short drive from where we lived, but it was certainly the most foreign place to me those two weeks. Bright white walls and high ceilings didn’t take away from the mental prison that I lived in. Each day, a little more of her escaped her body and crossed through veils we couldn’t see; Veils searched for with large overhead fluorescent lighting but never found. I sat in a room cramped with wet eyes and runny noses and mentally found myself as far away as possible. I stared at her body and saw a woman who wanted to escape the grocery store, the town, the house on the creek – and only found her answer in death. After we closed her casket one final time, I found myself waiting for the same thing. I wanted to be back in the cart, with her, wherever she was.
Instead, life happened. Her urn found itself in the back of my walk-in closet, all but forgotten between a pair of suede pumps and an empty laptop box. My time with her was spent opening and closing the door to look for a sweater or a scarf. A picture of us hung in a thrifted frame on my wall where she stood next to the three year old me and looked out at my bedroom and watched me judge my changing body, saw my heart break more than once, saw my dog die – all trapped in silence, unable to escape. Sometimes I caught myself gazing into her eyes and wondering where she was in the photo. Not the catering hall where she held me on her hip – but mentally, where was she? Had she already predicted in 1993 that she wasn’t going to live 20 years more? Was the sadness always there? I asked myself where she wanted to be. Looking up at her urn on the shelf, I knew in my heart that my walk-in was not her plan of escape. Weeks passed until one afternoon the encounter with the butcher rushed to the front of my mind like he was placed there by someone.
It was much easier to bring the cremated remains onto a plane than I originally anticipated; I could stow the ashes of my mother in my overhead compartment, but not more than three ounces of liquid. There are three essentials to transporting a compact container of a dead person:
- They must be in an x-ray friendly box
- They must be carry-on and not checked (honestly though could you imagine an overly-jostled container of dead mom exploding all over? I thought my mom would have liked that chaos)
- A copy of the cremation certificate from the crematory and also a death certificate for good measure
My mother never left the country before that day. When I was younger, I heard a story where she told my grandmother that she had a trip planned to Florida, but instead moved to the Southwest for three months to live with a boyfriend. Eventually, she returned, met my father, and married. She stopped flying in 1998. She stopped leaving town in 2009. She stopped leaving the house in 2011. At times, I blamed my own birth for her lack of exploration. I felt guilty whenever I traveled around, or when I studied abroad, because she was stuck at home. We would email back and forth – she’d say she was proud – but I also felt like she was longing.
When we landed in Toulouse I felt more energized than exhausted from a flight to Paris followed by a flight to the south of France. It was finally happening and all it took was a couple of swipes of my credit card. With my mother rolling comfortably behind me through the airport, I picked up the keys to a small rental car and fastened her to the front passenger seat before making my way further south to the chateau.
Toulouse itself became the perfect place to start my adventure. The city is juxtaposed between new and old, with its museum of natural history only a short distance from its space museum. In one time, a mammoth stands next to a space suit. Ancient artifacts next to tools intended to explore the universe – neither in a race with the other, both fueled by the thrill of discovery. There, in Toulouse, existence isn’t in dominoes of life and death, but rather bundled together in beauty and feeling. Time was free. It was the perfect place to release my mother.
My childhood itself was frozen in amber. I had no choice but to suspend it in time, lest the joyful moments be overrun with the crawlin, toxic monster of the end of my mother’s life. There was a time where I thought about learning to sail with her, or kayaking on the creek, or roasting myself on the dock in the summer. I rested my head on the memory of salt water and the constant smell of cigarettes and hairspray. After she died, though, my mind shifted to the odor of cleaning chemicals, the sounds of hissing oxygen, and the taste of my own tears. In order to preserve my memories, I had to displace the horrors. I turned to journals, articles, publications, and blogs – anything to keep the realities out of my mind and away from my innocence. And in order to preserve who my mother was, I had to put her where time stood still, where existence itself was one great moment. I didn’t rightly know why I chose that chateau – just south of Toulouse – but as I turned the car towards that structure, backdropped by mountains, flanked by wildflowers and a pond, seated between snow and Spring, I knew it was where she would want to stay.