An Excerpt from The Trail to Tincup

Our second task is much more physically arduous. We clear many pickup loads of brush from our part of the Tincup cemetery, four miles from the cabin. One sign directs us to Tincup Cemetery, while another points out, Cemetary. I don’t know whether an unresolved spelling dispute remains alive, or if one sign-maker made a mistake. We pass the Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish knolls, along with Boot Hill. Again I remember Janice as an eight-year-old who sat so confidently on the fence a few feet from where her ashes now lie buried.

We laid the red granite markers for Janice and Dianne last summer, but they are directly on the ground. This year, Ed brings a large family marker, etched with a silhouette of the cabin, the Sawatch Range behind it. On the granite stone is our family name. Underneath is a line from Paul Tillich, “From Thee we come and to Thee we return, Ground and Source of our Being . . . Shalom.” He brings, as well, a marker for Mom and one for Dad. On pieces of a cardboard box, Ed draws a schematic for measuring distances and placing the stones precisely in a semi-circle, with a space beside Janice’s stone for Tom. We ground our grief in labor. We build forms for concrete out of scrap lumber, then mix it by hand in Ed’s wheelbarrow. To do this, we carry sacks of cement from the truck and haul five-gallon buckets of water up the hill from Willow Creek in the meadow below. I’ve been lifting weights, and show off a bit as I carry two buckets at a time up from the creek. The guys seem impressed. We pour and shovel the concrete into the forms. Tom pats it smooth with his bare hands. We wait for it to set up, before placing the markers on the concrete. It takes all three of us to drag and lift the big central marker in position. Ed measures; if we are off a quarter of an inch, we have to reset the stone to satisfy his precise expectations.

Through the spring, the four of us have collaborated on the wording on the markers. On Dad’s marker is “Light of faith, followed through,” one of the lines from the TCU alma mater that I sang to Mom and then Dad as they were dying. Janice and I graduated from TCU as well; these words carry memories of football games, formal convocations, and campfire circles. Dad followed his light of faith all the way through his life. On his marker a chalice design of our denomination is etched. On our mom’s is “She wove us together in love,” with a spray of lupine, one of the mountain owers she loved. On Janice’s, we engraved “Born of Love, Bearer of the light of kindness,” with an opened-up heart, one of the ends forming a dove. I am especially pleased with these words. Everyone who knew Janice remembers her exceptional kindness as well as her strong intelligence. Dianne’s reads, “Not all who wander are lost,” with a feather, reflecting her Native American heritage. Ed tells us that these words from Tolkien resonated for Dianne, with all her wandering.

For four days we sweat and work hard. I had no idea so much physical work is required to clear brush, haul buckets of water, make forms and pour concrete. Tom, Ed, and I labor cooperatively, continuing the home death tradition by performing needed tasks to lay our family to rest. We loved our people as they died, and now we love them as we create a memorial place. Back in Missoula, Gary crafts a hexagonal wooden box, reflecting the shape of the cabin, to hold Dad’s ashes. Even though the box will be buried, he crafts it out of ponderosa pine and finishes it beautifully. I miss Gary and wish he had come with me to be part of this meaningful set of tasks, and our friendship. We plan a memorial service for Dad in July at the Community Hall, a day and a year later than the service in the cemetery last summer. On our last day at the cemetery, we build a rock garden in the center of the semicircle. We transplant wild owers among the circle of rocks. “They may not make it,” Ed advises, “but the seeds will scatter over the site in ways we can’t predict.” As we leave for the last time, I realize we have recreated a symbolic fire circle, as we always did in our summer campsites. As our human forebears have done for tens of thousands of years, we plant owers and scatter seeds, our archetypal gesture toward life in the wake of death.

In July, Tom flies to Missoula, and Gary, Tom and I drive to Colorado. We hold one more service in the Tincup Town Hall, where Dad preached so many times. The sign at the edge of the almost-ghost town still proclaims, “This is God’s country. Don’t drive through it like Hell.” Family friends come, hugging us tenderly. They were not able to say goodbye to Lamar in person as they did to Jean last year. Gary prays, and Ed reads the eulogy and a poem he wrote. Ed remembers the times Dad comforted people who died from res, adding a story I did not know. When Ed was in high school, a boy scout dived back into his burning tent, pulling out his friend, but he was burned himself. Dad visited him every day in the hospital until he died. Dad recognized nobility. I speak of Dad as a father, playing two excerpts from his taped sermons in which he speaks of his love for his family and his hopes for us. I do not give my own personal statement at this time, as I want to represent the whole family. Later, I regret that I did not speak of his in uence on me. We sing two hymns he suggested, “Oh God, Our Help in Ages Past,” and “Thine is the Glory.” Dad had requested the Micah passage about doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. We end with a recorded version of the “Hallelujah Chorus,” also his choice. At the cemetery, Newton, the minister, gives a heartfelt sigh after speaking, and adds, “I hope the Hockers don’t have to come back here for a very long time.”

We do go back, every summer, to communicate with our people, grounding ourselves at this place. The historic cemetery functions as an old-style churchyard, where in the past, people walked past the graves of their ancestors every Sunday. We know where we’ll memorialize Chris, our upstream neighbor, later this summer. We know that Molly and Morris will be buried right next to our plot. When I sit with my memories, I feel comfort in knowing where my own final remains will rest.

For me, the site serves as one place to voice my ongoing inner dialogues with my family members. I know now that death ends a life, but it does not end relationships. A few summers ago, I took my laptop to the stone semicircle, wanting to write a dialogue with Janice. I felt angry, troubled, and upset about my marriage. We were faltering due to too much grief, simmering resentment from both of us, too many differing needs, and lack of trust that we would regain our closeness.

I wanted to experience an internal, written dialogue with Janice, to carry on one of our deep conversations. I wrote my concerns and waited for an inner sense of what she would say. I do not think that her voice is in any literal sense more available to me there than anywhere else, but this pilgrimage felt right for that day. I did not think she was there, more than anywhere else, but the ground holds spirit for me in its sacred enclosure. I am able to meditate there. I wrote for a while. Silence. I asked open-ended questions. More silence. Then I imagined my father’s voice behind me. Inside myself, I distinctly heard his low, resonant voice that would fill the sanctuary, the sound Janice and I used to call “the voice of God.”

I have something to say, Joycie, I hear inside. And he did; I moved over to sit cross-legged on the pine duff with my laptop, in front of his marker. I typed for a couple of hours, barely getting in my own written voice because he had a lot to say. In my imagination, his voice sounded just like him, and the counsel sounded like his counsel. His words were firm, loving, definite, and wise.

I’m not saying you have to forgive or move closer to Gary, Joycie, but I think you’d better try. No one is perfect. You will be happier if you let these resentments go. I could hear his voice and his advice very clearly. I had sought Janice’s kindly inquiring style; instead I received Dad’s definite opinion. But he seemed to speak with a voice of love and wisdom. The ancestors speak when they want to, apparently, even in my own psyche. I’m not in charge of that experience.

Now I know what I would have said in that personal eulogy I did not give for my father. It’s not too late for me to write it.

Dad, your strong voice lives on inside me. You are closer than breathing. Thank you for saying you loved me so often. Thank you for taking me to the libraries in Dallas. Thank you for talking with me about ideas during all of our life together. Thank you for treating me as an intelligent girl. Thank you for explaining your ideas on social justice, theology, and politics. Thank you for handing me your books to read when I was a teenager. I am grateful that you left me so many recorded sermons and manuscripts. Thank you for saying that you trusted me to figure things out my own way. You gave me my passion for an ethical life, and for social justice. You taught me to make myself present when people are suffering. You told me that nothing I could ever do would change your love for me, and I tested your statement several times. You taught me to speak up with courage. Not everyone remembers her father as a heroic, ethical man. I am so fortunate. You gave me the gift of your vulnerable, heartfelt speech. You asked my opinion and listened to me. Back in 1976, when I was sick with pneumonia, depressed, out of a job, and going through a divorce, you said, “Joyce, you are strong. I have known you since the day you were born. You will get through this.” And then you touched my small girl heart when you asked if I wanted you to send Mommie up to Colorado from Texas to take care of me. How I wish I had said yes, and how I love you for asking. I go through my life with this, your benediction to me.

I will continue my interior dialogues with those I love. I am able to keep writing to them. I write about their unlived lives, about their special qualities, about my gratitude, my regrets, and my memories. We grow along together.

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