The first time my mom had cancer, man, she could work me. I remember going with her and my dad up to Solvang, CA to visit my grandmother one time and on that trip I threw my back out and it was all my mom’s fault. There was something about that scarf-wrapped head of hers, the way it looked when she tilted her head a certain way and asked me something. I was probably faster to jump at every request than a love-sodden acne-ridden teen who’s just been asked to prom by Molly Ringwald in an 80’s rat pack movie. So anyway, back to Solvang.
My mom is, amongst other things, a fiendish rock hound. And her Mecca, her holy city, is the Santa Ynez riverbed in Solvang. Most people go to Solvang to eat pastries, buy overpriced souvenirs and…I don’t know…climb the statue of Hans Christian Anderson in the town square? But not my mom. No. When we weren’t visiting my grandparents there, there was one place she wanted to be and that was down amongst the rocks of the riverbed.
When she first brought it up on that trip my immediate response had been a resounding no. We had been climbing down into that riverbed for years and finding rocks my mom thought were worthy of convincing my dad to load in the trunk of the car and drag 6 hours home for her garden. But smack in the dab of chemo? With her hair falling out? When she wasn’t really supposed to even go to church or the shopping mall for fear of infection?
“Please?” she asked, head tilted, scarf tied so sweetly and cancer-patiently on her head? It was red with yellow sunflowers. I grudgingly gave in. “All right. But I am NOT carrying any rocks out for you.” I muttered. “Oh good.” she said, and handed me a bucket. One of those 5-gallon white pickle buckets they deliver condiments in to restaurants. I eyed her dubiously. “NO ROCKS MOM,” I bellowed.
Half an hour later I stood, gasping for breath at the bottom of the riverbed bank holding a bucket full of rocks, staring 30 feet up at where the car was parked. Mom stood beside me with a smaller load of rocks in her shirt. “How are we going to get these up the hill again?” I asked, scared and cowed by my own vulnerability to anything she asked. “Well…we could throw them?” “I AM NOT THROWING ROCKS UP A HILL MOM,” I bellowed.
The thing is, if you bend over and hold a heavy rock and swing it back between your legs real hard with both your hands and heave with all your might forward, you can throw a rock up a hill a lot farther than you would likely expect. And really, if you do that about three times with each rock, you could get a lot more rocks than you’d think up that hill and into your parents car than you ever thought possible. And the benefit of this exercise is that, by the time you get back to your motel and your dad sees the rocks in the trunk taking up space where the suitcase should go, you will look so bedraggled and exhausted that he will likely just say, “Do we really need to take all of these home?” and then give up before anyone even answers.
Mom sat sweetly in the front of the car on the way home reading Twain to us. When my chiropractor asked the next day what on earth I had been doing I muttered, “Don’t ask. You wouldn’t believe me anyway.” He’s very good with his hands.
Last night I sat with my dad and my cousin and husband at the dinner table discussing burial. My mom doesn’t want to be buried in a casket. She wants to be cremated. The question is, where do we bury her? A mausoleum doesn’t sound attractive to any of us. Mom loves rocks that still look natural like when she found them — she likes them to remind her of the places she was when she first laid eyes on them and chose them out of the others for their particular beauties and flaws. Polished marble isn’t her style at all.
We pondered together where it was she’d like to be, where she’d be happiest if she had to choose one place to rest until this world passes away. I stopped for a second and smiled before I muttered, “the riverbed at Grandma’s.” My dad looked up and a smile lit his face and he laughed. “Oh, Mary-babe,” he said, “you’ve hit the nail on its head.” We all grinned tearfully at each other.
Not that we’d do it. No, of course not. If sometime in the next few weeks a group of people were to be seen down in that riverbed, sad and oddly happy, lugging something around with them down there I wouldn’t assume anything was being buried at all. More than likely it would just be they’d climbed down there to throw some rocks up the hill in someone’s memory. And I bet you’d be right if you assumed that someone had been very special.