After my boyfriend’s tragic death, I learned he planned to propose. Only he never got the chance and I found healing in an unexpected place.
It was my first time walking into the creek bed since the day I saw Mark lying in it about a mile downstream, surrounded by first responders. The sun was going down quickly and I appreciated the sense of urgency it brought. I didn’t want to stop and think about what I was doing.
I turned the canister upside down and watched the wind carry away what little I had left of my almost-fiancée.
My mom and I had just walked down one of the many wooded trails leading to Barton Creek. We were in the Greenbelt, as it’s called in Austin, Texas.
On our walk in, she and I passed a couple stragglers heading back to their cars while there was still light to see the path.
By the time we made it to the creek, my hand was tired from carrying the weight of the small, but full urn. I glimpsed the shadow of a guy sitting with his back to us, facing the creek, when we turned left onto the trail leading upstream.
Sadly Ever After
Fifty feet up the creek and fifteen minutes closer to dusk, the shadowy guy found my mom behind me on the trail while I wept in the creek bed empty-handed. My twilight sobs must have sounded like I was injured because he asked her if everything was okay. She told him what was going on, he nodded and went back to his original seat.
My mom was leaning on the Sitting Tree, named for a thick limb that grew out sideways at the perfect angle to sit and watch the lively happenings of the creek. Rock climbers, mountain bikers, and runners cross the rock bottom to access deep trail networks and cliff face when it’s dry. When rain refills the creek each spring, dogs and people cool off in the water.
Mark and I visited the Sitting Tree countless times together. It was both the first and last stop on our Greenbelt walks. We used to talk to fellow nature enthusiasts who almost inevitably asked him if his feet hurt — Mark preferred to be barefoot. After his death, I learned that Mark planned on proposing to me at the Sitting Tree.
Leading up to that night, I contemplated where to go, what to say, who to invite, and how to do this impossible task. Mark’s mom asked me on more than one occasion if I was sure I wanted her to give me any ashes. She didn’t want to put more undue stress on me.
One thing was consistent in an otherwise volatile time: I knew there was a step I needed to take with Mark’s physical remains. I thought I wanted to honor Mark with some kind of thought out, meaningful ceremony that ended with him resting somewhere he truly enjoyed, a place he would be at peace forever. I wanted to do something deserving of him, deserving of the big love we shared, the life we wouldn’t lead together.
My lofty emotions produced a lofty (and impossible) goal for me to reach. His ashes sat on the shelf above my clothes.
Happy Birthday… but you can’t blow out your candles anymore
Last spring, Mark and I were in Florida together visiting my family’s old farm house. My younger cousin heard Mark whispering with my Dad. It was sunny when my cousin took me behind the barn and said, “I think Mark is going to propose to you. I didn’t want you to be caught off guard.”
On November 6th, Mark’s birthday, I flew back to Austin from a different visit to the family farm. This time I was alone on the plane, not knowing how I would make it through the first birthday we wouldn’t celebrate together.
I tormented myself about how it might go. I watched mental replays of birthdays past. My family mustered up the courage to talk to me about it, tip-toeing on eggshells, knowing tears would likely ensue. How would I spend his birthday? Was there a right way to handle it? If I thought about it hard enough would I eventually figure it out?
What was my best possible option… or at least my “better” possible option?
In one conversation, I mentioned to my Mom that Mark’s birthday might be a good time to spread his ashes. One place I mulled over doing it was Barton Springs, his favorite place to swim in our old neighborhood. Even though I didn’t bring it up again, my Mom gave me the opportunity to decide. She waited for me to land, find my car and drive to meet her at Barton Springs, where she gingerly held the slim bamboo canister of ashes.
I was still undecided when we found each other in the parking lot. I kept running into familiar objections: nowhere was good enough for him, there was nothing I could do to make the moment worthy of what was lost. So my Mom and I talked it out. She asked me, “Why do you think you need to put his ashes somewhere he wants to be?” That was one question I hadn’t considered yet.
I knew that Mark didn’t care where his ashes landed now that his spirit was free. So why did it really matter? Why does it matter to any of us what we do with a loved one’s remains? The people that we lose aren’t suffering anymore. It’s us, the survivors, who have to find our way through grief.
Maybe I was grappling with the idea that I could still give Mark a birthday gift. Of course I couldn’t give him anything anymore, but there was something I could give myself. So I chose a place that was not just related to our past, but aimed at the loss of our future and the part of me that was his partner.
I knew exactly where to go in the Greenbelt, the place where Mark decided to commit his life and his love to me. I wanted to spread his ashes in the creek where we swam and watched water flow and dogs play, in front of the Sitting Tree. That’s where we met Kevin.
My mom told me about the guy who had come to check on me when we started walking out, following my phone’s flashlight pointed on the trail. She said he seemed sad. “I think that’s him,” my mom said, nodding toward his blurry figure on the ground a few feet away. “Do you want to go to him?” Without responding, I walked over.
He stood to meet me as I said my bravest hello. He was taller than me and he had a little bun sticking straight up on his head. I couldn’t see his face very well but I could tell that he was young. I didn’t know what to say.
“Do you come here often?”
“Sometimes. More now because we spread my Dad’s ashes here.”
“I’m sorry for your loss. Would it be okay if I hugged you?”
We embraced each other in the dark in the Greenbelt that night. It didn’t feel like hugging a stranger though. His chest pillowed my face.
Once I realized how dark it was, I let go and walked to the car with my Mom, who waited silently at a distance. Somehow Kevin beat us to the top of the trail. His dog greeted us first. Then we saw him getting into the only other car parked at the trail head, directly in front of mine.
I asked how he was grieving, hoping he could tell me something that would clarify the chaos and pain in my life. “I wasn’t sure for a long time. Nothing was happening, I didn’t cry. Now sometimes when I hear a song on the radio and I’m driving alone in my car, it’ll happen. I know it sounds cliché.”
“Whatever feels right,” I affirmed.
“That’s what I thought too.”
Kevin asked, “Do you think it’s by chance that we met today?”
I looked down, confused, and saw that Kevin was barefoot. My discerning look softened into a grin when I realized I was the one who knew something he didn’t.
Mark grinned, too.