If you’ve never scattered someone’s ashes before you might think they’re just that – ashes. Like the fine powdery residue you find at the bottom of the fireplace that’s almost silky to the touch.
Human ashes aren’t powdery. The remains of a cremated human body are more like gravel. Fine ash mixed with small stony pieces of bone. And so those gritty remains should be – something so hard should not be soft to the touch.
My mother’s ashes sat in my father’s walk in wardrobe all year. In January, my mother died of inflammatory breast cancer, the rarest and most aggressive form of breast cancer. This is the first Christmas I will spend without her. Sealed in an unceremonious grey plastic tub, she would have been furious to know she’d been stuffed into a bottom drawer in the corner of my father’s house.
I wanted my mother in the ocean. A woman who lived most of her life in chronic pain, she would say she felt weightless and free in the ocean. She spent the last weeks of her life there, in our small house near a secluded lush beach just south of Canberra. She said in those weeks she wished she’d been born a fish.
We’ve visited that beach all my life. One rainy afternoon, while staying at our beach house, I said to my sister, “it’s time”.
My sister and I walked down to the beach, a grey sky above us, storm rolling in, carrying that grey plastic tub with our mother’s ashes inside. We waded into the surf, my sister bringing a Stanley knife to open the tub. Once we were waist deep in the cold water, she cut a small hole in the top and handed the ashes to me, not wanting to touch them or look at them.
I scattered the ashes all around me in circles. So much gravel poured through the small hole in the top of the tub. Slowly, I spun tiny fragments of bone and they sank to the bottom of the ocean, bright white against the yellow sand, before being pulled out to sea by the next wave. On and on it went, layer after layer of bone, then sand, then bone again.
Sitting on the shore afterwards I felt heavy. It felt both deeply right and deeply wrong. My mother was where she belonged and yet I no longer had her. In a plastic tub at the bottom of a drawer wasn’t exactly where I wanted to go and find my mother when I needed her, but at least it felt tangible. Now I had nothing. Yes, she was free, but she was also free from me.
Selfishly I regretted what we’d just done. I wanted to run back into the ocean and find all those pieces of white bone. Scoop up the pieces in my hands and take them safely back home so I could still have my mother.
I finally understood the line from Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: “I put her burnt bones into my mouth and swallowed them whole”. Strayed was writing about not wanting to let her mother go. To hold onto her, corporeally and emotionally, forever.
But my mother was gone. And her ashes scattered, the knowledge that my life had changed irrevocably washed over me again.
My sister and I walked slowly back to the house as the rain began to fall, torrential and warm after the cold of the ocean.
One week later, my sister and I went back to that beach. On a warm night we walked into the pitch black calm ocean. As we stepped into the water, much warmer now, my sister shouted, “look!”. Small sparkles moved about in the water around us. They were plankton, tiny and phosphorescent sea creatures drifting along the edge of an inky ocean.
I ran my hands through the water watching the sparkles shoot off the tip of each finger. I waded further out and the green lights became brighter. Searching, I swam a hundred meters out to sea in the pitch black night.
I spun in circles, much faster than the day I scattered the bones. Like the white fragments had done on that day, a swirl of light surrounded me. Not bone on sand, but green on black. I spread my fingers and ran them through the water, each one creating its own little trail of sparks. I kicked my feet and a green glow spread out underneath me.
Looking up, the clear sky was full of stars – mirrored in the sparkling lights I was creating in the ocean around me. I found my mother again. It was as though in that vast ocean each of those white pieces of bone had come and found me again.
In that moment, I realised I knew exactly where to find my mother, and I knew I always would.
• Gemma Carey is a researcher at the University of New South Wales