Four years after she’d died of alcoholism, my mother’s ashes were still in a cardboard box in my sister’s attic. Alexandra and I had debated getting a plot for her ashes in a Boston cemetery or entombing them underwater in a coral reef built to evoke the lost city of Atlantis, but nothing felt right, so nothing was done. I was grateful for our indecision when I learned from my mother’s diary that our parents had spread my brother Yuri’s ashes on Cader Idris in Wales. From the moment he’d died, my mother longed to be with him again. I could reunite them.
The night before I departed, I brought the small, heavy box that held my mother into my sister’s guest room. Worrying that Alex might want to spread some on her own I decided to take only half. Sitting on the floor with a Ziplock bag, I opened the box and saw the ashes for the first time. They looked like dirty flour.
I shook some of them into the bag. My mother tumbled out in streams and spurts, a spectrum of grays and whites that were occasionally lighter than bone. It wasn’t just dust; chunks that looked like knuckles fell by themselves. I kept telling myself that this was my mother, but it seemed too strange to be true.
After 10 hours of travel with my mother, who looked like a lovingly packed bag of blow, I landed in Cardiff. Cader Idris was at the southern end of Snowdonia National Park, a huge swatch of land that touched the top of the country and ran rough along the Irish Sea. On two-lane roads narrower than most bike paths, I drove past glittering lakes and a patchwork of green forest and farms. The landscape looked as though a special-effects artist created it; it was more perfect than nature, more real than real life.
I kept telling myself that this was my mother, but it seemed too strange to be true.
When I arrived at my inn, the owner handed me a key and a warm pint of lager, and pointed me toward the steep staircase that led to my room.
Before dinner, I walked down to the park’s gates on a path covered in slugs swollen like blisters. Woods expanded into fields full of sheep that bleated in pitches high and low—short like hiccups, long like pleas. A board displayed maps and warnings in English and Welsh. One laminated flyer asked, “Will you go home tonight?” “A ewch chi adref heno?” Another detailed weather hazards and dangers hikers might encounter. “Do you have the ability to cope?” it inquired. “If in doubt— TURN BACK.”
Later, I lay on my narrow bed with another lager and wondered why my parents had chosen to spread Yuri’s ashes here. They were living in England when he died, but the country was full of beautiful places, many much closer to London. The history of Cader Idris didn’t offer an explanation. Cader meant “chair” in Welsh. Idris was a mythical giant who studied the stars as he sat on the mountain like it was his throne. It was said that anyone who slept next to one of the area’s three lakes might wake up to find they’d gone mad or become a poet. My parents wouldn’t have wanted either fate for their son.
My breakfast was waiting for me in the dining room the next morning. As I was leaving, the owner suggested that I change into hiking clothes. In tight jeans and battered orange sneakers, with a leather purse instead of a backpack, I looked ready for a trip to a farmers’ market, not a six-mile trek.
Sheep were everywhere again, scampering over slippery moss into bushes from which they berated me. As I gained elevation, the grass took on the silver gleam of the towering boulders shaped by glaciers thousands of years before.
I came to Tal-y-llyn Lake within an hour. It was as accurate as a mirror until I stood at its edge and the rocks that lay below the surface appeared and mixed with the clouds above.
I placed my hands in the frigid water and watched them age and regress as the sun played off them. “Was it here?” I wondered. Then I remembered that my parents made the trip in early spring. It would have been cold, the lake possibly frozen. I put my hand in my purse, touched my mother, and thought, “Too soon.”
Back on the trail, I saw my young parents in front of me, my father taking my mother’s hand when the trail was steep or slippery. I saw them separate as my father rushed toward a finish and she lingered behind to stall her arrival.
The trail became steeper. In some places, rocks grew from the earth in natural steps; in others, they were obstacles.
I came to a flat, grassy spot high above the lake. I sat catching my breath, tugging on wildflowers until my hand became a fist. I was starting to suspect I wouldn’t find one right place to spread my mother’s ashes. I thought of my parents again. The landscape was gorgeous but also foreboding, and the hike wasn’t easy. They may have felt their journey was a punishment, too difficult to bear in their raw state and not having even done the full loop.
I tried to see it differently. The overgrown ferns were my mother’s optimism, her joy and humor. The silver rocks were scars; the loose pebbles and dry grass, the difficult path she’d had. The wildflowers were what she could have been.
“Yuri,” I said, “I’m so sorry you died. Your death extinguished a part of our parents that they dragged with them to their own deaths. I don’t know why they brought you here, but I thought that you and Mom should be together.” I took a breath and kept going. “Mom, I know it took me a long time to bring you somewhere, but I’m glad I waited. I’m so sorry for everything that happened to you, and for the things you did to yourself because you were in so much pain. I’m sorry I didn’t really know you or understand you.”
I turned in circles, trying to figure out the wind by how it hit my face. I scooped up a small amount of ashes and released them. Some of them dropped straight to the ground, while some blew a foot away. The lightest bits landed on my shirt. I was looser with my next batch, which I tossed to the lake below. I looked for other “right” places, and found that now, everywhere looked right. Every place I saw was pretty enough, grand enough.
I let my mother fly from my fingers as I walked. I thought of her dancing as a child, and everything that dancing child wanted. By spreading her ashes, I was throwing flowers at her feet. Feeling lighter, I flung ashes as I broke into a jog. She flew into in my hair and onto my tongue, and when I licked my lips, I found her there, too. “Sorry,” I said. “I think I was trying to channel Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. I I never wanted you to visit me in New York, but if I’d let you, I would have taken you to The Sound of Music sing-along in Chelsea. You would have adored that.”
I let a rock cool my face. I was on a flat part of the trail, the other side of the mountain sloping into cultivated fields, then a town, then the light blue rub of the ocean. I reached into my bag and placed some of my mother there, whispering, “I hope you’re happy.”
Two hours later, I reached the end of the trail. I was sticky with sweat, but when a breeze ran up my arms, I shivered. I took out the bag and saw that much more was left than I’d assumed. The sun was low and my legs were tired, but I had to finish.
I went all the way back to the lake, the first place I’d stopped. The mountain was quiet, even the sheep had gone home. I shook out the bag until it was empty.
My mother was all over me. If I went back to the inn like that, some of her would end up going down the shower drain.
I peeled off my clothes. When I’d put my hands in earlier, the water felt chilly, but on my feet, it was a frigid cold I’d never experienced, so sharp it might slice my bones. I watched my feet go from pink to red to a deeper red that felt much worse. I crouched and let my hair fan out in the water. “You’re free” is what I told her, told the mountain, as I scrubbed. Although parts of her were still in Boston, I believed that she was. I wasn’t yet free of my anger and regret, but I was getting there.