I began the month of May on a verdant green hillside in Virginia, saying goodbye to a favorite cousin. Avis had passed away in early November just as a long, tough winter settled over the East Coast. Ever the bossy one, Avis had left clear, written instructions on what the family’s next steps would be and when we should take them.
So when spring was certain on that hillside, my siblings and I stepped into a circle of cousins formed around a large, newly dug hole. There, we passed Avis’ ashes one to the other, each taking a turn pouring what physically remained of her around the root ball of a pink dogwood tree.
We told stories of Avis, and we sang songs about taking leaps of faith and finding peace in the valley. At one point, a hawk swooped low over our gathering. Finally, a new generation of family, the young children among us, released bouquets of blue and white balloons into a clear sky. I watched the balloons rise high and retrace the path of the hawk.
We had followed my cousin’s last instructions to the letter. And I came to realize, through all the tasks she’d set before us, that while we were marking Avis’ passing, she had really been facilitating our transition. She helped us let go of the known world with Avis in it. We would now have to find our way in an unknown world without her.
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I guess, transitions are kind of the front porch to the unknown, and the unknown is the door to the uncertain. And, if you’re in the right frame of mind, the door to the uncertain can open to adventure — those unusual or exciting experiences that enrich life.
Though she might lovingly scold or correct you along the way, my cousin Avis, she loved a good adventure.
As it turned out saying goodbye to Avis was more adventure than funeral. It started on arrival. I had to catch up with my brother and sister, who had come in earlier to work on arrangements. With no Avis to pick me up as usual, I had to make my own way from an airport I never fly into (Dulles) to a town I’d never been to before (Middleburg, Virginia). I climbed into a cab, where the young Somali driver’s GPS would not even acknowledge that Middleburg existed in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Fortunately, his iPhone was better at geography.
The cabbie was nervous. His fares generally headed directly from Dulles to Washington, D.C. My journey would take him in a direction he seldom went and farther in that direction than he’d ever been before.
Together we drove deep into the unknown Virginia horse country. We both gawked through the cab windows at huge Colonial-era homes and sweeping mansions, all fronted by sectioned, rolling emerald pastures with horses grazing in the mist. The driver kept saying, “This is heaven.” I knew better, but I could see how he got confused.
The adventure continued in Marshall, just up the road from Middleburg, on the land where we planted Avis’ tree. I learned the story that shaped her father’s family, of how her great-grandfather was enslaved on that property, and then, in his own turn at adventure, came to own that very land soon after the Civil War. The land and the story have been passed from generation to generation ever since, and now her father’s 13 acres of it belong solely to her surviving brother.
As we gathered on the land, the cousins from her mother’s side (us) got to spend time with the cousins on her father’s side. We filled in gaps on our family trees and laughed as we searched the branches for the rumored common ancestor.
All in all, though we deeply felt Avis’ loss, we weren’t a weepy bunch. We stood in appreciation of my cousin’s life; of her bossy, organized ways; and of her wisdom in guiding us through the transition of her passing. Her pink dogwood on the hillside will root deep into her great-grandfather’s land, and she will be forever a part of the soil.
Still, in the end, as I watched the balloons drift high and away, I felt like we were sending Avis off to her next adventure. And that she would expect us to find ours.