Our Earth is enveloped in rhythms; the constant beating of ocean waves against the shore, pulsating winds rushing through the leaves on trees, the syncopating sound of a woodpecker that resonates through the forest as its beak rapidly meets dead wood, the rushing sound of water in a narrow brook as water splashes off of smooth rocks after a storm. Our aboriginal people were in touch with these rhythms and used their energy to understand the human place on this planet.
The sudden death of my sister Cheryl at the beginning of last October interrupted my life’s rhythm and has haunted me for the last 9 months. Like any unexpected death of a loved one the first part of getting through this was to somehow understand her passing. I spent many a day in the forest wandering, sometimes alone and and sometimes with hounds, looking for an explanation. Of course, I never found any reasonable answer to my query.
During this period of questioning many old memories flooded my conscious. Remembrances of playing together, laughing together, periods where the three and a half year difference in our age separated us, and long stretches of time where our difficult childhood family life separated us. I never fully reconciled our traumatic childhood, nor have I ever wanted to. But remembering and understanding the roll that my sister played in helping me through this stressful period has helped me heal. At least in part.
While peregrinating the deep woods in search of answers and solitude I would often be caught off guard by signs in nature. These signs in my Abenaki and Cherokee belief system are critical in processing deep emotional thought. Immediately after Cheryl’s passing I kept experiencing the presence of owls. They’d fly, seemingly out of nowhere, and land on a branch in front of me. Or I’d be trekking in an evening forest and an unusual number of barred owls would be calling back and forth as if there were an escort or guide watching my whereabouts. Beyond barred owls over the first few months I would experience screech owls, snowy owls, and even a great gray owl. Part of me would try to explain these phenomenon by thinking I might be looking for answers where none existed but deep down in my spiritual self I believed that these were messages from beyond, either from my sister or one of our ancestors.
With support from my immediate family, especially my wife Maureen, I was able to run the course of emotions. Yet still I was not spiritually ready to move on. My personal rhythm still disconnected I talked with my brother-in-law regularly knowing he was suffering much more than me. I tried to stay in touch with my sister’s two daughters who were also captured by grief. In time, it was still late winter, we understood that we had to put both my sister and our grief in perspective and to rest. We planned to bury her ashes on our land in Heath in June 2016. It was time to bring a discernible rhythm back to our life.
At moments over the next several months time stood still. Occasionally minutes seemed like months, and weeks could act like years. The stretching of time is a strange concept. It seems to lengthen our consciousness and allow us to seek answers in unusual places. In only a moment an item longed locked up in some odd recess of our mind can be revealed. For me sometimes the revelation was fractured and sometimes it was whole. Information that seemed irrelevant, tangential at best, would somehow morph into a useful part of my psychological anatomy. I decided to embrace this and tried to use the phenomenon as part of my healing process. I decided that the irregular beat of my life was, in fact, meant to be. During the winter, a year when deep snows failed to materialize, I was still able to navigate the steep terrain of the deep forest without snow shoes while mulling over all of this. The owl connection seemed to fade. Instead I was now seeing ravens. Ravens in my Native American spiritual beliefs are one of the most powerful and revered birds of our natural world. They are the great communicators capable of spanning dimensions. They act as messengers from other places. At times it seemed as if there was a single raven that would follow me. It would nearly always find me as I ambled about whether it was beyond the ledges south of our homestead or on top of the highest peak to the southwest of the the most southern corner of our land. I often wondered if it was the same raven. It was very large and very black and like all ravens had an amazingly dark and thick beak. On one early March morning while only 200 yards from my house I was sitting on the trunk of a fallen tree when the raven landed on a branch not 30 feet in front of me. There it perched silently and watched me watch it. After about a minute it flew directly towards me and then veered off about 10 feet from my face. It flew off making a variety of raven noises, deep gutteral squawks that resonated deep and with a steady beat into the winter forest. After that day I never saw the raven again at close range.
Through the spring I was unusually appreciative of each beautiful moment that I experienced in the natural world. I am lucky in that much of my work is outdoors and I primarily recreate in the wilds as well. The budding leaves seemed greener than ever before. Fresh cloud free skies were never so blue. The cool spring air filled my lungs and brought me pleasure that I had never before recognized. And despite the pain I lived with each day seemed like a testimony to healing. I never knew that our lives had so many dimensions, so much beauty, and such connection to every item in our midst; family, friends, and the Earth. And I sometimes wondered if all of this was a distraction from grief. The beat of life being restored.
It took about a month to plan the ceremony for my sister. I planned to do an Abenaki send off. There would be drumming and Abenaki chanting that would invite and welcome our relatives and ancestors from the other side. Drumming is huge in aboriginal cultures particularly here in North America. It is thought to mimic the rhythms of our planet and put us in tune with all that is right. There would also be a testimonial to my sister. A time when everyone present could speak about Cheryl and share memories of her many wonderful qualities. It would all happen in a place yet to be chosen that will also eventually be where my wife and I will be buried.
During the late spring I spent much time in the woods on our land trying to find just the right location. I looked specifically at areas that I felt were sacred. For one reason or another none seemed exactly right. One day while walking home along a stone wall that runs directly south to north along our western property line I saw a flat area where a beam of sun light fell on the forest floor. I knew immediately that this was the spot.
My good friend Ramon helped me move a large quartz boulder to the site. Quartz has special relationships with energy and is thought to be both powerful and healing. After loading the 500 pound white rock into my bucket loader we scrubbed it with wire brushes and a strong soap. The end result was a beautiful, brilliantly white boulder. We dug a hole behind the carefully located rock where my sisters ashes would be placed with a flowering dogwood tree planted on top of the ashes. We prepared the site by clearing away some brush. We prepared a trail where the procession could traverse the lengthy forested walk to reach the site. The toil was cleansing. It somehow gave me worth.
On the day of the ceremony we had three drummers. My son Liam led the procession to the beat of his ceremonial drum. Fifteen people comprised of friends and relatives from British Columbia, Colorado, North and South Carolina as well as from New England climbed up the hill to the ash burial site. I stood at the burial site drumming and singing a chant welcoming my sisters ashes, the procession of loved ones, and our ancestors. Once the procession had gathered at the site we all sang a chant and Ramon, a good friend, led the ancestors in from the east to the beat of a third drum. Ramon would later tell us during our testimonial that while he waited to lead the ancestors a white tail deer joined him, absent of any fear, and stood there until he marched away, beating his drum, and leading our ancestors toward my sister’s final resting place.
There were many tears. There were a few laughs. And there was much healing in putting Cheryl’s ashes to rest. Each participant had a feather that carried a personal wish, prayer, or thought. These were placed with my sisters ashes in the burial site. Cheryl’s husband placed his wedding band in with Cheryl’s ashes as well. This was a particularly poignant moment. The tears flowed without reservation.
I had been nervous about the ceremony. My concerns about this being the first Abenaki burial service for almost everyone at the event were proven to be unfounded. The ceremony held up within its own beauty and energy. It was very well received, and brought some sense of relief to every person there.
That evening we had a chicken barbecue. Many stories were told. I remember hoping that Cheryl could see the love for her.
The next day after most of our visitors had begun their long journeys home I put a 5 gallon pail of water in the bucket of my tractor. I wanted to water the dogwood tree that had been planted over my sisters’ ashes. Cheryl’s husband Rick was still here as was her oldest daughter Jess. They walked up behind the tractor as I drove up a woods road to the burial site. They wanted to visit Cheryl’s resting place one last time before they went back to Colorado. The drone of the diesel tractor motor fractured the silence of the woods. At the time it almost seemed irreverent. As we approached Cheryl’s burial site I fantasized that I would get one last sign….perhaps a glimpse of the deer that had been visiting with Ramon the day before at the interring ceremony. Remembering the noise of the tractor dashed any thoughts I had that this was in any way possible.
And what I am about to say will sound like legend or myth but it is true. As I rounded a sharp corner and navigated around a tree with the tractor to approach Cheryl’s final resting place there, perched on the large quartz monument that is a memorial to my sister, was a fully mature and very large great horned owl. The raptor turned its head and looked directly at me. Rick and Jess were about 25 feet behind the tractor and I was afraid they wouldn’t see it. The owl flew into a branch of an oak tree. I turned off the tractor motor. And just as Rick and Jess came to the side of the tractor the great horned owl turned, flew towards us for a brief moment, and then flew off in a northerly direction.
Perhaps one last gift. Perhaps her last goodbye. Perhaps helping us all to find the best rhythm again.
Originally written for the Heath Herald in June of 2016.