I gave Shannon to the river today. It’s January 2nd, 2012. Forty-two years ago today she was born. She died on September 21st, 2007. I have had her ashes in my cupboard, in a box from Wonderbucks. Her mother, Leta, gave me some of her ashes when she got them. I always meant to take them to the Red Deer River and release them there. I was going to do that in the winter of 2007, I think. Or maybe it was spring of ’08. I don’t remember. But I never remember to take them when i go home. Anyway, that was never one of her rivers. Grand Forks, perhaps, there’s a river or two there, that would do. Or a river in Manitoba, near where her parents are from. Clandeboye. It’s near a giant lake, there are oceans of rivers there. But not the Red Deer River. That’s my river, not Shannon’s. So I picked the Capilano River. I don’t know if that’s the river she meant when she scribbled “take my ashes to the river” on the letter she left for us the night she died, but it’s one she enjoyed, I know that much.
It was a cool grey day today, but it didn’t rain until late afternoon. I was in the gym by then, and noticed the pavement was wet and people were rushing around covering their heads with paper to try to keep dry. But when i went to the river it was not raining. I took a co-op car from the Mount Pleasant community centre. That was a good idea. I meant to get there at 9 and work out, but i didn’t. I slept until about 8:30 more or less, and then i had some breakfast and i didn’t go to the gym. I thought i wanted to write to Shannon. So that’s what I did. I put some laundry in the wash machine, called Suzanne, Shannon’s older sister whom she only met over the phone and e-mail, and sat down to write a letter to my dead friend.
Suzanne had called me yesterday to wish me a good new year and to tell me that she was thinking of me, and that she was really glad that i had told her my plan to send Shannon’s ashes away today. She cried a little bit on the phone as she left the message. I saved it. Because that’s what I do. And I like Suzanne. I like her because she heard about me from Leta and thought, “this is a significant friend” so she looked me up. She read a part of my thesis and found my e-mail address and sent me this beautiful letter. How do you write to a stranger who knew the sister you had never met? I don’t know. All of this is completely outside of my experience. But she took the risk, and sent me that brave letter. So I sent her one back that very night. I was in Ottawa, at the Women’s Worlds conference, and rooming with a couple of comrades. They were delightful roommates, but one of ’em tends to snore. i was glad i wasn’t in the same room, but only in the same residence suite. it was kinda shitty, but it was comfortable enough, we enjoyed each other, and we were never there. there was so much to do, so much to do. So many women. and the debate about prostitution was HOT. Well, it was pretty congenial, actually. The pro sex-work lobby was not much in attendance, so that was good. And the abolitionists came out of the woodwork from every corner of the globe! You would think we were winning to have seen and heard us all!
And in the midst of all of that, all those women, all that politic, all that excitement, there was this letter in my inbox. “You won’t recognize who this is from” she said, and told me a bit of her story. In August we met for a couple of hours. We just met at Lonsdale Quay close to where she was staying with her family before heading off to Whistler for some vacation adventures. We sat together in the sunshine and she read a letter i’d written to her about Shannon and my friendship together. I told her as much as I could put together. It was five or six pages long, and included everything i could think of. The working together, the drinking, the short romance, the fights, the times we stood beside each other, the betrayals. I said, “some of this will be hard to read.” She said, when she read that part, “I’m so glad you wrote this. No one has told me any of this before.” Leta doesn’t know most of it, I don’t think, and her brothers would not approve. They hate me anyway because I said ‘fuck’ in the funeral service. I loved Shannon.
I wanted to keep her ashes with me, at least some of them. Find a medicine bag and wear it around my neck sometimes, just a small piece of her. But Rita, who is Aboriginal herself, from the Prairies, (like Shannon’s mom’s family, not the same people, but Prairies anyway), told me once, she said, “you can do that if you want, but if she asked for her ashes to be given to the river, you should probably do that.”
The peace i felt when i was doing it, and after, was amazing. I went to the Capilano River Park, and parked close to the fish hatchery. I walked to some pools right off the parking lot, and then started to the falls lookout. I didn’t know where to go or what to do exactly. I just kept walking. I walked along the Coho loop, then to the Chinook trail, and finally found a path to the river. Narrow and steep, it was not good for people with children or dogs to use, so I went down there. There was a great expanse of big smooth rocks between the bank and the river rapids. To the right of me and ahead was a quiet pool; alongside the path a brief little creek heading down to the water, it filtered through the field of rocks and toward the rapids ahead to the left of me. I went almost to the river, picking my way along the wet rocks, the hem of my jeans and my boots getting wet and muddy. I was cautious. I found a flat rock and sat on my rain jacket.
Shannon had given me a beautiful pottery dish, shaped like an oyster shell complete with barnacles on the outside and a glaze like the ocean. It broke last summer, in July. I’d put it in a stupid place, and a friend jostled the table it was on and it fell and broke into four or five pieces. I haven’t glued it together yet, but I took the biggest fragment and a box of matches and a bit of sweetgrass a friend had given me last year. I took the box of ashes. I pulled out the bowl, and put the sweetgrass in it. Then i took some of the ashes and mixed them with the herb. Ashes from human remains don’t really look like ashes. They look like dust and gravel. There were small shards that looked like slate, and others that looked like hard sponges or bits of coral. It didn’t look at all like Shannon. It didn’t feel like her either. There was nothing of Shannon in the air, or in the dust or rocks.
It didn’t matter, though. As I walked, watching for a good spot, I muttered to her under my breath, even though i didn’t feel her near. I said to her that I’m sorry i let her down. I told her that she was right about Melinda. I talked to her a bit about what the day was like, and told her she was a pain in the ass sometimes, but so was i, and she stood by me when it counted. I did for her too, mostly. But I abandoned her at the end. I didn’t visit her enough when she was in the hospital. I didn’t call her when i knew she was getting out soon. Her depression frightened me. I didn’t understand.
I lit a match and set it to the sweetgrass and ash. I took off my glasses and my rings and scooped the smoke over my head, to my eyes and ears and mouth, and to my heart–as i had seen Elders do in the ceremonies in the Downtown Eastside and the sweats on the North Shore that Shannon had taken me to a few times. I emptied the bowl into the quiet water near the rock. Then i remembered the letter. I crumpled it up and put it into the bowl. I sprinkled some more of Shannon’s ashes on to it, then set fire to it, When it was ashes, I added it to the bag of Shannon’s ashes. I’d brought a bit of egg-and-bacon pie that Mom had sent with me when I left home. So I added some of that to the ashes, an offering of nourishment for my friend’s final journey. I mixed it all up, and then picked my way toward the river. The rocks were slippery, but the water in which they rested was not deep. I crouched on a big rock right where the pool fed into the rapids.
Six handfuls. There were six handfuls of Shannon’s old place, the body she inhabited–and now they are in the Capilano river. With each handful, I said “Goodbye, Shannon, I love you.” I folded the ziplock and lurched from rock to rock back to my bag. Then i walked back to the car and drove into town.
I felt completely at peace. It was the right thing to do. I will always miss my friend, and there was so much I should have done when she was alive–but there was also a lot I did do, and that we did together. We saved each other from drowning and we walked together for a few years, keeping one another from falling off the edge. In the end, she took her own life because she didn’t know how to belong to the world of the living with all of it’s capriciousness and meanness. All of her suffering, and the suffering of others, became too much to bear. She couldn’t remember that she didn’t need to bear it alone.
Ah, Shannon. My darling friend. Sweet Dreams.