Kirk Thompson died of AIDS in 1996. His brother, Mark, is my partner of more than thirty years. I remember a summer day when five of us rode horseback to scatter Kirk's ashes in the Upper Carmel Valley of northern California. We moved over ridge tops until we reached a secluded canyon. A grove of redwood trees was growing along the banks of a stream.
Our family group on this occasion included Kirk's sister, Gail; his other brother, John; Kirk's partner, Donald; and Mark and me. We gathered in a clearing, grasped one another's hands and then remembered Kirk in quiet words. Together, we dug a hole in the earth.
Mark opened his backpack and took out a brown plastic box that held some of Kirk's ashes. They had the consistency of coarse, lumpy sand. Each of us scooped out a handful and placed it in the ground. It was a magical kind of moment when the wind picked up momentum, spinning the ashes into a cycle of energy.
What was I thinking or feeling? Dying confronts me with solemnity and a kind of wonder that can be momentarily overwhelming. Kirk's death also struck me with the hard reality that he was 40 when he died.
Later, Mark placed more of Kirk's ashes in a canning jar that had belonged to their grandmother, Bonnie. He put the jar in a fruit box, about the size of a cigar box, designed to resemble a miniature old-fashioned steamer trunk -- reflecting death as the beginning of a long journey. He also included a grade-school photo of Kirk, surrounded by decals of yellow flowers, reminiscent of Kirk's work and vocation as an expert gardener.
When I realize that recently I observed my own 91st birthday, and that Kirk never made it past 40, I am unable to do the math or come to any easy conclusion. I am in strange, uncharted new territory. Dying always seems to involve me in taking a trip of some kind, except there are no reservations.
Whenever a large number of people face imminent death because of a war or an epidemic or any kind of major disruption, it seems to give the rest of us an opportunity to come to a momentary halt. To be quiet. To pray if we wish and practice it.
What, precisely, is going on when someone we love dies? Any number of things. It seems to me that those who have died have in some ways moved from what we call time to what we call history. When I was a kid there was a famous media slogan, "Time marches on." Well, indeed it does. You and I may be moving from time into history. Whether we want it or not, we'll become ancestors.
In memory is discovered the most fathomless wisdom.