February 4, 2000
And, yes, Howard, we did eat Steve.
"When I die let my ashes flow down the green river,
Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester Dam.
I'll be half-way to heaven with Paradise waitin'
Just five miles away from wherever I am."
Right after Steve died, when I brought his ashes home, I opened the ugly black plastic box labeled "Cremains of Steve Rogers', unsealed the twist-top tied heavy duty plastic bag and dipped a cautious finger into the chunky gray substance. I lifted it to my mouth, tasting the gritty bitter ash of Steve's body, as I affirmed our connection and karma from life to life, this one, others past and those to come, making a commitment I never made when Steve was alive.
I had never had that little girl's dream of growing up and getting married. Time after time, Steve asked me to marry him, but it wouldn't have been right. Ours was a non-marriage, but it endures beyond death. So I took a taste of Steve and pledged to that. And wondered how his ashes would taste to someone else. Would they be sweet? I remember how on one of our pilgrimages with the Huicholes, one bite of a peyote button was bitter, so bitter it soured my mouth, and yet the next was sweet, attesting to the changing nature of reality, our shifting perceptions.
On the morning of the chosen day I awaken with a lot of nervous anxiety. I remember how, seven months ago when they were getting ready to carry Steve's body out of our house, I started to hyper-ventilate. I couldn't breath! It was like my chest had been crushed. (Three weeks later, I developed pneumonia.) Talk about separation anxiety!
And this is more of the same, really, just more subtle. ("Same same, but different," as they say in Thailand.) I've had a squabble with a girl friend, and I feel abused and misunderstood. Adds to the tension! But I take her good advice: "If you didn't do anything wrong, don't feel bad." By mid-afternoon, I've worked through that and decide to take myself in hand and gear up for this major event. I can't back out, and I can't just turn into a puddle in my hammock. I put on the blazing deep blue necklace Dobie gifted me for my up-coming birthday and throw on a sarong.
Chile and Marian asked me, why Feb. 4th? Is this a special day? I tell them it's no day in particular, 7 months and three days since Steve died, and we're going to make it special.
I ask Churpa to send Brian and Josh, the Georgia boys, over so I can give them a talking to. I understand that they are thinking of not attending this memorial because they never met Steve, feel maybe it wouldn't be appropriate. They've read the People's Guide, haven't they? I ask, knowing full well it was their veritable Bible on the trip down. Yes, they nod. "Well, then," I say, "you know Steve. You're family," I add. "It never even occurred to me you wouldn't come!"
This settled, the kids and I load up Josh's truck with petates, coolers and the coffee grinder crate with the box of Steve's ashes disguised by the lovely silk cloth traded long ago at a barter fair. The tape deck is blaring Hank Williams, and we bump on out the dusty road to the boca, where the Rio Purificacion runs into the sea.
We lay out the petates on a flat crest of sand with view of both the ocean and the lush green of the palm tree covered banks of the river. The coffee grinder altar is flanked on one side by Steve's Teddy Bear dressed in a tie-dye T-shirt and his fishing cap and on the other by the colorful feathered prayer arrows and cross that Jacques made for us last year. People begin to arrive, and Marian brings a magnificent bombastic colorful curtain of flowers-- bougainvillea in red, pink and purple, zinnias and the first brilliant yellow sunflower from her beach garden. Thirty-five of us have gathered here at Steve's favorite sunset fishing haunt for a picnic feast and to remember him before we consign his ashes to the sea. We are a circle of his friends who mostly were absent from his illness and death, only able to participate by phone or written card, with this one opportunity to come together in his honor.
I open our circle with a few words, hefting Steve's photo album, put together by Lorena, reminding anyone who hasn't seen it to take a look. I also pass around the memento card with Churpa's portrait of Steve and his obit, for anyone who hasn't already a copy. For those who don't know, I say that Steve is with us here, his ashes holding down the coffee grinder. A small ceramic bowl made by Anya Goertzen, Steve's last gift to me, sits atop the crate, and it also holds some of his ashes. I talk a little about how we keep Steve alive with our memories, our stories, but that we also grant him some immortality when we choose to embody some quality of his that we admire. Several have suggested that in token of that intention, we have the opportunity to imbibe some ashes, either sprinkled on food or tasted. It is not a required condiment, I hasten to add!
Next Churpa and I invite anyone who knows the words to sing along with us on two of Steve's many "favorite" songs. We start with Red River Valley, which Steve and I used to play ad nauseam when we first got together and I was just starting to play the fiddle. The second is, of course, "Paradise." Collin and Cristy join in with a little harmony, and by the last chorus, we don't sound half bad, I exclaim! Collin is inspired to bring out his guitar and sing us "Slip Sliding Away", totally appropriate, and a favorite of Churpa's.
Then Fred, standing tall with cowboy hat and ceremonial Chiapas shirt, reminds us that he and Steve were the founding fathers of the Holy Soul Laundromat Church, whose membership was small because you couldn't join, since their credo was that organization is the work of the Devil. Steve was the church's deacon, and served long and well, says Fred, and we commend him to his journey, here where ocean and land, sky and earth, spirit and matter, each with its own nature, meet, touching, kissing and parting. "Good road to you, Steve," Fred closes. "I see you sitting playing cards with John Muir."
Weedie talks about how Steve was "one of the most accepting human beings I've walked into on this planet," how that is the gift he gave she wishes to assimilate more into her own nature.
Irving gives a rousing spiel, starting off with how easy is was to do fund raising when Steve first got sick, because Steve had so many friends and connections, and everyone wanted to help. He says, "And everyone had a 'Steve story'-- about how they were traveling, and the van broke down, and Steve fixed the carburetor with a shoe lace, and then, coming down the mountain, they had a flat, and some Indians came out from the village and invited them in to eat, and Steve cooked dinner for everyone, and then the entire village dropped acid, and the adventure began!"
There are lots of other memories, a few words from many, and we deem it time to eat before we all get food poisoning from our picnic dinner sitting waiting for us! People bring out their dishes, and soon Steve's ashes sit surrounded by gourmet treats made by the people he loved. Peggy sits beside me looking into her plate, tasting her food thoughtfully, and says, "Steve was better in the flesh!"
We sit eating and chatting until the sun starts to sink in the western sky.
"I think it's time," I tell Churpa, and we open the box and untie the plastic bag.
David passes around sticks of incense. "It's Jasmine," he says. "Steve always loved the smell of jasmine." Soon the scent floats on the ocean air, sea garden.
"We need a song," Churpa says, and with only a moment's thought, we start singing "Will the circle be unbroken," one of the songs that never failed to bring tears to Steve's eyes. Part way into one of the choruses, she and I each take a handful of ash and walk down the steep slope of the beach to the deep pounding waves. Churpa flings out her arm, and Steve's ashes hang momentarily like a cloud of smoke before vanishing into the ocean. As I toss my arm up and release the soft ash, I feel numb.
We sit on the rim of the beach and watch as others walk slowly, with great concentration and focus, into the water's edge to let their friend go. Several people walk down the beach toward the setting sun, towards the giant rocks where Steve liked to stand casting into the surf. I see one person bend over and bury ashes in the wet sand, carefully smoothing over the spot.
The sky is a glorious fuschia pink and red, with the sun a glowing deep pink fireball falling into the sea. Churpa sits between her friends Becky and Arradia, sobbing, held by Becky. I crouch behind her and touch her back, lean my head against her shoulder. People stand like statues all up and down the beach, just there., captivated by the beauty of this moment. I watch as Al carries a handful of bougainvillea down and tosses it into the surf. Almost immediately, a large fish flies up out of the water and dives back in, right next to the branch of flowers! We are all caught up in sanctified non-time, precious, dear and soft as our hearts.
As the sky darkens I return to pack up the ashes remaining in the black box, which I entrust to Bob. He has asked for some to take to Los Frailles, one of our favorite fishing and dive spots. A parmesan cheese container full of ashes remains back at camp. Most of those I will take back to Maki and Steve's brothers in Oregon for disposal as they wish. I like to think that Steve continues to travel to some good spots even in this last remaining physical form. May his adventures never end.
As we're loading up the trucks, Bob asks me, "Isn't it a relief to have done this?"
I'm pretty out of it. "I can't tell yet," I answer.
As we drive away, I catch a last glimpse of the dark hump of flowers left on the beach with one burning candle.
....continued with "56"