Death changes the meaning of a place. Since the mid-1970s, I’ve been coming from the Bay Area for vacations and time–outs to a cabin in the village of Big Lagoon, some thirty miles north of Eureka on California’s northwest coast. Until two years ago, I’d never associated this wondrous place with the end of life. But since mid-2006, it’s been impossible for me to separate the living from the dead.
I’ve never liked the idea of burying family members, myself included, in a cemetery. This has nothing to do with religious beliefs or the lack thereof. I find no relief in parables of an afterlife nor do I feel any obligation to follow age-old religious rituals. My parents are buried hundreds of miles apart in England in anonymous cemeteries that have not and likely will never be visited by any of their relatives, certainly not by me, five thousand miles away. I don’t even know where my grandparents are buried.
There’s no solace for me interring my family’s remains in a place with which I no longer have any connection, or reducing days of the dead to prescribed visits to a gravesite. It’s not that I’m opposed to ceremonies of remembrance, quite the contrary. I have all kinds of totemic mementos of my parents in our Berkeley home.
In the kitchen, there’s the family breadboard on which I still cut baguettes, and bulky steel cooking pots that have boiled potatoes and vegetables for close to a century. I wear my father’s watch on special occasions, and Cecilia has kept some of my mother’s once modish furs. In our living room you’ll find a landscape painting by Jacob Einstein, known during my childhood as “the fried egg” for its orange moon hovering over a snowy Epping Forest. And interspersed with folk and modern art throughout the house are all kinds of silver knickknacks that my parents kept in segregated splendor after they crossed the tracks and moved us into a faux Elizabethan mansion in the Cheshire countryside.
I get a sense of comfort from these fixed reminders, though I know, intellectually, that there’s nothing more chameleon-like than memory. And since my son’s death a little more than two years ago, I’ve become quite ritualistic.
Daniel had four close calls and one final call in his forty-year life – all stemming from a brain tumor the size of a small orange discovered when he was a teenager – so I had plenty of opportunities to rehearse his death.
In January 2006, with time running out, I began to seriously address quality of life issues with him. I consulted a specialist in palliative care. “It’s important for the whole extended family to know what you want for yourself,” I passed on to the patient. By way of reply, he bought himself a new bike. “I don’t want to tip-toe through life,” he told me.
He packed a lot of living into his last few months. He threw a huge, surprise 40th birthday party for Anna, his wife and sweetheart of fourteen years, on her 39th birthday; he requested and we gave him for his 40th birthday in March a night of ooh-la-la in a deluxe San Francisco hotel. Worried about his kids’ lack of vitality, he enrolled 7-year old Nathan in karate, took 11-year old Jonah to a weekly workout in his gym, and hustled them both into a baseball league. In between these activities, he rode his bike precariously around Chico, deaf to passing cars, a balancing act to behold.
Late in May of 2006, Daniel managed to get away by himself for a weekend at our family cabin in Big Lagoon. He’s been coming here since he was a child and his deep love of this area is one of the reasons that I’ve held on to my share of the property.
Even on a calm night, in our cabin some two hundred yards from the Pacific you can hear the kettledrum booming of waves hitting the shore. At the coast, a barrier beach runs for about three miles north until you reach a place where Big Lagoon, fattened by streams and rain, occasionally leaks into the Pacific and where the ocean at extreme high tide pours its salty waves into the lagoon.
For most of the year, however, these two extraordinarily different bodies of water coexist one hundred yards apart. And this détente has lasted “from time immemorial,” as we know from stories passed on by the Yurok, who considered Oket’o (Big Lagoon) a sacred site. Until the Gold Rush they also lived here year-round, digging out their canoes from the then plentiful redwoods and eating more than their fill from the land and water. No wonder they imagined themselves at the heart of the universe, between an earth and sky that floated on an ocean bisected by rivers, everything put in order by spirits inhabiting the sea stacks and under-water caves.
Before Daniel left Big Lagoon for the last time on May 28th, he wrote in the cabin’s journal: “It’s been too long since I was here last. I’ve had a weekend of beautiful weather and salvation. The jade gods have been good to me on this trip. I love the porch on the side of the cabin and have spent time there when I’m not on the beach. Walked down to the point yesterday. Saw whales from the beach today. So many great memories from Big Lagoon. When my well-used body gives up, which I hope is not for a while, I’d like a Viking funeral and put out to mother ocean. Doesn’t have to be here, this beach is a bit treacherous. Muchos besos, love Daniel”
Six weeks later he was gone, no deus ex machina this time. On July 22, the family gathered in Big Lagoon to fulfill his written request. Anna brought his physical remains, a few pounds of ashes in a cedar box. He and we had no interest in preserving his well-used body. Together we all made a raft from long pieces of buoyant driftwood washed up on the shore, lashed together by strands of twine. At twilight, we built a small pyre to hold the cedar box on top of the driftwood. There were rose petals for us to scatter, and two bouquets of herbs to accompany the ashes: rosemary, oregano, lavender, sage, yarrow, thyme, and a little bit of forget-me-not. “And we never will.”
We carried the three-tiered edifice to a promontory jutting into the lagoon, a sanctuary of calmness facing the treacherous ocean. The pyre lit up immediately and moved gradually off shore. Sooner than we expected, the section holding Daniel’s ashes separated from the raft, now ablaze too. But, inexplicably, both kept burning for ten or more minutes, with the pyre moving further and further into the distant heart of the lagoon. “Just like Daniel,” somebody shouted as we watched his Viking self sail off into the lagoon, the fog lifting to reveal a crowded sky.
I’ve been back to Big Lagoon regularly since then, enough time to hone my rituals. I collect black-green jade on the beach to place on a memorial bench – made by a local artist from reclaimed redwood – that sits in our cabin. During each visit I walk along the western shore of the lagoon to pay my respects to Daniel's launch site, now marked magically by three sentry-like limbs of a beached tree sprouting through the sand.
I usually chat with Daniel here, not unlike the Yurok who used to visit nearby Nrgr’i-o-il (“As far as it comes”), where the cliffs and beach meet, the site of a spirit who helps you “if you go and talk to him.” On a warm day, like it was yesterday, I sit by the lagoon, propped up against Daniel’s tree, and imagine the place where, according to the Yurok, disembodied souls pass through a lake into the underworld.