I didn’t have Bill’s body cremated. He’s buried in a beautiful, small cemetery with a view of a mountain he loved. There’s a large granite marker to sit on. I like that three of my grandparents are buried not far from him. “One-stop shopping,” I quip. “I can visit them all with one drive and reduce my carbon footprint.” But burying him means there are no ashes to scatter.
A couple of years ago in Oaxaca, Mexico, I met a widow in her mid-seventies who was traveling the world with her husband’s ashes, leaving bits of them in all the places they’d been together. I wondered what that was like for her. Her quest seemed like a good excuse for a bunch of travel. She seemed fine; after all, he’d died well over a year before. I did notice that the day she brought his ashes to Monte Alban, she returned to the casa smiling, full of stories. Lighter.
Two years later, a widow myself, I understand what a short time it had been for her, and what she was doing. Scattering a loved one’s ashes means you go home with a little less of your burnt, prior life.
Perhaps that’s what I did earlier this month, traveling with my daughter Annie to Mexico. Family vacation, just me and Annie. Twelve days, city and beach. Murals and mosquitoes and muggy skies. Plazas and pesos, mercados, lousy beds, slow fans, blaring music from the streets below. Flattening heat, sudden downpours, Turista, iguanas, lapis-blue tiled swimming pools, pelicans, evening breezes, perfect sunsets.
Planning this trip, I didn’t realize I was combining vacation with grief duty. But grief follows you everywhere, and just when you think you’re done, it wallops you hard. A vacation to places we’d gone as a family, but just the two of us, a three-legged stool missing a leg? Of course it wallops. Traveling is what we did as a family, for at least three weeks every year, sometimes as much as two months. Our limited funds went to discount plane tickets and budget hotels all over the world.
Widowhood forces you to get old fast, and like an old person, everything triggers memories and nostalgia. Annie and I first spend a week in the first place Bill and I ever traveled together, five months into our relationship: Guadalajara. We shop for silver jewelry, study Orozco’s powerful murals, eat in the market. Bill’s absence is acute for me, but I don’t say anything to her.
We walk the streets of Guadalajara, the two of us matchy-matchy in our travel clothes: Teva sandals, cargo pants, black tank tops, oversized linen shirts (worn open), large-brimmed sunhats, sunglasses. We both have thick, dark short hair. We’re about the same height, stride the same stride, and trip at the same moment. It’s hilarious, a horror show.
“Promise me you’ll have a life,” I tell her. “Get married and have a bunch of kids. I don’t want this to be us in twenty years, the spinster and the widow, still traveling, just the two of us, looking exactly the same.”
During the unbearably hot afternoons we watch bad TV in the Hotel Frances and play Gin, using the call and response Bill and I developed through decades of card games. “Who dealt it?” “I smelt it.” “Uno McBoono!” “I call Hell!” We go to the theater at night, listen to mariachi music in the courtyard. We have fun.
The last four days of the trip we spend on the south end of Puerto Vallarta, at the quiet, lovely Hotel Conchas Chinas, where Annie and Bill and I stayed and swam seven and eleven years ago. Annie almost remembers it, it’s at the tip of her brain; the area is infused with him and the day after we arrive we sit at the restaurant open to the ocean eating a whole grilled fresh Huachenango. Brown pelicans glide by in formation, and we cry, racked with sobs, crying like neither of us has cried in months. That this grief can still hit this hard surprises both of us; that I can miss him this much with all my conflicted feelings about the relationship. A year and a half later and the waves sock in with a cold, salt shock. Everything here is the same — and he’s just gone.
In the night, my demons dance. The mirror reminds me grimly that my face and body are not the same as they were. This hurts and scares me. Next family vacation we’ll go somewhere new . . . if there is a next family vacation, for Annie will turn 18 in a few months and move on, away from me. I’m just waiting for my child to leave, my old dog to die, my job to fade. I never expected to be so alone.
The demons fade and let me sleep. The next day we eat a perfect Sopa de Mariscos in the local Mercado, something we never did with Bill. We’re honoring his memory, but we’re also building new ones.
On our next-to-last morning in Mexico I wake at dawn. Bill was a night owl, except on vacation. Early morning, wherever we were, I’d hear him rustling around the hotel room. “I’m going for a walk,” he’d say. “Stay asleep.” I’d nestle deeper into the sheets. The click of the door, restless dozing as I imagined him out there, somewhere. Finally the fumbling of the key in the lock, and Bill would burst through the door, hard footsteps, heavy breathing. Bill never was subtle. He’d bring fresh croissants if we were in Paris, sandy feet if we were at the beach. Or just his elated smile, “You’ve got to get up. It’s beautiful out there!”
I get up quietly and walk on the early morning beach, finding a smooth stone to carry home to put on his grave. Maybe I just need to do this until it’s done; travel the paths we took, scattering metaphorical ashes like my widow friend in Oaxaca. As his ashes dissipate, so, slowly, does my old life’s hold on me.