I think the conclusion of a life should be shouted from the rooftops, memories of the departed recounted around a roaring fire with sparks snapping into the night. A celebration of escapades lived true to Hunter S. Thompson’s words: “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”
Chelsea’s grandma Virginia was 92 the first time we went to Sedona in 2012. Tiny, wrinkled, and barely able to see or hear, she still hiked close to five miles almost every day we were there. Her limited vision missed details of the landscape, but the giant red towers with names like Cathedral and Bell Rocks framed a horizon for her. She’d grab her trusty binoculars and scope out a singing bird, a pastime that took her around the world on many trips, then holster them and trek on.
Grandma, a constant part of vacations with Chelsea’s family the last eight years, wasn’t with us this April trip. She passed away last winter. Our visit to Arizona was in part to visit some of her favorite locations and join Chelsea’s parents in spreading her ashes. I felt honored to be there, yet was a bystander as they remembered her from years past as a fiery and determined woman fearlessly traversing the world. She was always down for anything we young whipper snappers threw her way, whether kayaking in the ocean or riding a tandem bike down the boardwalk. I recall Chelsea’s brother swamping with her in the kayak coming back in through the surf and she just laughed uproariously.
I find it hard for lessons of my elders to sink in sometimes. Perhaps we all do? It is easy to view their insights as anachronistic and musty, when the reality is likely that we just don’t have the experience to extract the wisdom into our current life’s context. The snapshot of a person is decades of layered travails, discussions, work, love, heart break and joy. How can a conversation or ten transfer that wisdom? It takes something like “Tuesday’s with Morrie” to even come close, and we rarely take the time to make such a thing happen.
Learning from their actions and exploits can be a more accessible way to take in the wisdom. She was only my grandmother via marriage, but I know this: If I’m half the explorer Virginia was when I’m older, I’ll count it a victory. She prioritized travel over all else and was constantly out seeing the world. Her possessions were few, experiences many. These days, it is too easy to fill our lives with stuff and emails and social media and fires “we have to put out now.” None of that crap will matter later, and the huge majority of it doesn’t matter now!
This passing of an elder is a reminder for me to focus on the important things in our lives, not the emergencies that divert energy away from where it belongs. Rest in peace, Virginia. May the end of this part of your journey remind us all to treasure the moments in front of us, to listen to a soaring melody from a bird, and to focus on putting ourselves into the world the way we want to be remembered. I hope that later, many years down the road, there aren’t enough ashes of my physical body to scatter in all the amazing places that I experienced with open eyes, wonderful people and exploring heart in the same way you did.