Everyone of us, whether we’re aware of it or not, is building a death cairn.
If you’ve never seen one before, a cairn is a pile of stones piled vertically, without the use of cement or mortar. Cairns are built to mark a place. They can denote special landmarks. In backpacking, cairns are used up high above treeline to mark trails. In the Bible, people would stack rocks whenever something important happened…Jacob loved to build cairns. Peter wanted to Jenga-fy some rocks when he saw Jesus transfigured on the mountain. When you see a cairn, you’re peering into an importance of the past.
This week, I was invited into someplace special. A place that someone I miss very much would congregate for hours on end. As my friend and I stood in this place, I had two very distinct sensations. The first related to a near tangible presence of my friend-now-passed in this room with us. It was as though everything he’d been working on was frozen in time throughout the room…echoes of the sounds and sights most familiar to me of him reverberating off of the walls. The second sensation was one of mystery…the mystery of things we as observers -still living – had no attachment to. Things whose history didn’t involve us, but were important enough to my friend to stack with importance, carefully, on shelves around the room.
I’ve been in similar rooms now, more times than I can initially recall. I’ve seen no fewer than 10 death cairns in my 42 years here. The rooms filled with things that mark someone’s life. Things whose memories we have a shared history. Things whose memories are cold mysteries to us – markers from a path taken long before our part in that person’s story.
When those we love are taken from us…go on ahead of us, these cairns assume a holiness and reverence deeper than any chapel or sanctuary. We touch these things carefully, and place them back where our loved ones had placed them. To move or remove something is to risk freeing the echo of who they were bouncing trapped in that room with us. And so we leave everything where it was. It is. We close the door behind us and trap the memory echo inside with the cairn. For days. Months, or even years.
As I was remembering my friend this morning, I realized that we all are building our death cairns. Mine is in 2 places today….here with me in this office in my attic….down in the garage in plastic boxes and cordura nylon bags. One day my kids…maybe my wife, will walk in those rooms after I am gone and see these things…these post-mortem representatives of me. They will stand quietly in these rooms, and lightly touch them with fondness or inquisitive mystery. Some items will trigger a smell…others, a memory involving the inanimate thing and me and them. They will pick up the thing…admire it…study it, and place it down gingerly and carefully, exactly where I left it in my pile.
Months, maybe years later, necessity of life will require that these piles will be broken up and disseminated out into the family…into the world. It will be hard when this happens. Tearing a cairn down comes with a sense that you are somehow declassifying the importance of this place, of the person.
If I’ve done my job right this side of living, my wife and kids will have a hard time giving any of my stuff away. If I’ve done my job as a dad and a husband right – they’ll be fighting over everything…each thing triggering a memory that they can relive out into the foreseeable future. Things like the crescent wrench from my father with the engraved word, “Lydick” on it. Things like the burgandy handled garden tools my mother used almost every day of her life. The ones my kids use when they help Karen grow vegetables in the garden.
Thinking now – if I’ve done it wrong…the ‘mysterious stuff’ shouldn’t outnumber the memory mountain. Thinking now – I should probably share the stories of the mysteries. Their ‘holy heritage’. Tell them why I have these things. The lessons they have taught me. The toll they’ve taken on me. The hopes I have for each of them, through these things, into the futures of their lives. Not once should they say, “What was this for?”, if I’ve done my job right. Not once should they feel jealous of the thing…that it had somehow taken their place in my life…taken the time I’d been allotted for life from them, and given it instead to this thing more precious.
If I’ve done my job right…someone will back slowly from this room someday. They’ll stare through the crack of the door as it closes, so as to not allow my memory echo to escape. Maybe they’ll even sneak something out in their pocket and take it back home with them. Show their kids, their husband or wife. Or just put it in a secret place they take out from once a year on April 8th. In place of picking out a cheesy Hallmark card for me.
I have a shirt I take out on August 2nd. A photo that I look at, touch gingerly, on April 18th.
We are all building cairns.