A mother’s dying wish sends her daughter on an endless search


(Penelope Dullaghan/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
May 11, 2012

Standing in what seemed an endless sea of boulders, we realized our search had come to a grinding halt. We had not found what we were looking for — not by a long shot. I was bewildered. In the deep green of Shenandoah National Park, the early summer day was coming to an end.

“I don’t know where else to look,” I told my husband.

“Should we try again later, or maybe just pick a spot?” he said.

“I just don’t know,” I said.

My husband and I were searching for a particular rock that had held special significance for my mother. On her deathbed, she had told me of a large boulder in a forest in rural southern Virginia, not far from her former home, where she would go to contemplate, to meditate, to be alone and commune with the natural surroundings. I tried hard to remember every detail of that description. Her hospital room had been crowded with visiting relatives that day, and during the low buzz of conversation, she singled me out of the group, quietly beckoning me to her bedside.


The author and her mother, Susan Dolges, on a West Virginia climbing trip in 1999. (Courtesy of the author)

“Dan, there is something I want you to do,” she whispered. “I want you to take my ashes and spread them at that rock.”

I had those ashes with me now, but somehow couldn’t find this rock she had said was so easy to reach. She and I had explored the back roads and hiking trails around her home together. Now, every road, every curve, pull-off and copse of trees — every rock — looked familiar. The summer day was leaning into dusk, and we were running out of time.

***

My mother, Susan, had married my father at 19, when she unexpectedly became pregnant with me. They started out with nearly nothing. She did what her role required, but silently loathed it. She took care of him, the housework, their babies. But she thought there had to be more to her life, and she took up hobbies for relief. She raised sled dogs, studied for her pilot’s license, went rock climbing, and played music with her brother. Sadly, the gulf between her and my father grew too large, and they divorced after 10 bumpy years. She kept her married name, Dolges, for the sake of her children.

She took my brother and me, then 9 and 10, and moved into an attic apartment in a nearby town. With my father’s financial help, she finished engineering school, finding work at first as a programmer and then as an engineer, eventually making her home in southern Virginia. She was smart, tough and beautiful, and I looked up to her as I did to no one else. She liked her new independence and the traveling sometimes required for her work. Friends and loves came and went every handful of years, but she never committed herself to anything or anyone who threatened her independence.

Then, a month after my wedding, in the summer of 2000, she told me she’d had a bad stabbing pain in the area of her liver. A doctor’s visit, biopsy and MRI scans revealed late-stage cancer all over her body, with two large masses on her liver and a kidney.

She saw specialists everywhere, who all told her the same thing: What she had was a rare neuroendocrine cancer. Only one in a million in the country succumbed to it yearly. There was about a 20 percent chance chemotherapy would be effective. If it wasn’t, she could expect to live roughly six months to two years.

She tried a round of chemotherapy, but it had no effect.

Still, she remained hopeful. She went on long-term medical leave and decided to pursue a dream that she had had since she was a child. She would return to her native state of Pennsylvania and purchase a big, old house where all of her family could be together. She had grown up in a small coal town, in a ramshackle company house with no running water. Her dream house was everything her childhood home had not been.

In less than a year, she had secured a large, unwieldy, three-story fixer-upper from the turn of the century. She made plans for the remodeling and restoration; drew layouts of the gardens and landscaping elaborately, in fine pencil, to scale, revealing a mind shaped by long hours of study and work as an engineer. She labored on the house for as long as she could.

She had wanted me to follow in her footsteps, to be an engineer. She said I had a mind for it, that there weren’t enough women engineers. But she didn’t tell me this until long after I had been in and out of school, floundering from major to major. I was disappointed in myself, and I wondered if she was disappointed in me, too.

As mother and daughter, and as friends, she and I were close, but also sometimes estranged for long periods of time. I went through serious depressions, and I was ashamed to go to her for help. When I did see her, I wondered if I was like a stranger to her. I learned to distance myself emotionally, telling myself it was for her sake as well as my own.

Now, in her desperate state, we had become close again. She leaned on me, keeping me always near, fretting if I left the room. My brother moved in with her, and I spent my life in transit: half the week with her, the other half at home just outside Washington. I knew to stay strong around her, knew the consequences if I didn’t.

“Oh, Mum, I can’t bear to see you like this!” my brother said once and crumpled at her feet.

“Get up!” she snapped. “I need you to be strong. Keep yourself together so I . . .” the end of her sentence dissolving into violent tears.

Once, as I was getting ready to leave, she suddenly pulled me close. “I love you, Dan,” she said matter-of-factly, addressing me not as a daughter, it seemed, but as a friend, as if this feeling were one she had just discovered. The directness and honesty in her voice took me aback.

“I love you, too, Mum,” I said, so inadequately.

***

Soon she was in the hospital, and when they could do nothing more for her there, and we had set up hospice care, she was sent home. Nearly two years to the day after her diagnosis, she spent the last night of her unfinished life in her unfinished house, surrounded by her family. In her last moments, there were no sirens, no fanfare, nothing to mark her passing but a quiet death rattle, a last breath.

I did not make the journey to spread her ashes immediately. In my depression and fresh grief, I crashed hard.

My brother decided to stay in our mother’s house for a while; neither one of us ready to sell it right away. We didn’t put the ashes in a nice container, but left them in the plain, brown box in which they had arrived. I considered transferring them to a china vase that had been hers, but what if I spilled some of them? And what would I do with the old container, with some of the ashes left on it? The prospects seemed messy and disrespectful. Instead, we put the ashes in a small backpack that had belonged to her, as if readying them for the journey to come, and positioned the pack on the mantel in her house, along with a photo she had taken of her rock.

After a few months, my brother moved out and handed over the ashes to me.

“It’s time for her to go stay with you now,” he said, smiling. I felt uneasy. Something in his tone of voice suggested that he had formed an attachment to the ashes, and at the same time was relieved to be parting with them.

At first, I wasn’t sure where to keep them. I wondered in which room my mother would have been comfortable. Would she have liked these colors? Would the room be too noisy? Did this spot feel safe and secure? I knew how irrational all this was, but there was no room for an altar, no mantle, no high shelf or place of honor that seemed right. Plus, I planned on spreading them at some point.

My husband, Curt, and I moved often, and each time, I settled the ashes into some quiet, private space. The first was my music studio, where I wrote an album’s worth of music dedicated to my mother. Then, when we moved into a tiny apartment, I kept them in a large walk-in closet and would look in on them every morning.

As my sadness began to ease, I knew that it was time to fulfill her wish. I had imagined I would be making the journey alone, but my husband was also close to her and wanted to take part.

“Whenever you want to go and are ready,” he said. “We could drive down and camp.”

In her morphine-drip haze, my mother had penciled me a map to the rock. But in the chaos that surrounded her death, the map had disappeared. In our numbness, my brother and I searched for it, to no avail. I didn’t panic. I was secure, perhaps overly so, in my sense of direction. And my brother had the photo she had taken of the rock. Armed with that and a loose memory of the area, I felt certain I would find it.

***

A few days before the summer solstice — the anniversary of her death — my husband and I set out. I asked my brother if he wanted to join us, but the difficulties of Mum’s passing had proved too much for him. And I believed it was my responsibility, since my mother had asked me. We did some planning, having learned from the Park Service that spreading ashes is allowed in many national parks, some of which don’t even bother with the formality of issuing permits.

We headed down the long and curvy mountain roads of southern Virginia through old-growth forest and rustic farms, winding round mountainside pastures full of grazing cows and sheep. We talked little. Instead, I thought about my mother’s choice to be cremated. It made sense to me then, considering the practical person she was, not to mention her disdain for organized religion. I found a certain solace in a ceremony that emphasized our impermanence. But after her death, I also longed for a lasting memorial. Since she was reduced to ashes, I needed the permanence of her sacred rock.

As the afternoon sun faded, Curt and I found a quiet little campground near what we believed to be the right area, and set up camp. It was cool here for the time of year, and we stocked the wood pile for our evening fire. We were reminded just how isolating the mountains can be.

The next day, we set out early. But narrowing down the places to look proved tricky. Mum had said her rock was easy to get to from the road. We looked around every pull-off or place to park. When we didn’t find it, we broadened our search to all of the nearby roads and their pull-offs. We soon discovered there are many rocks of that shape and size in the area. I was disheartened, and by day’s end, we contemplated spreading her ashes in the general vicinity. But that didn’t feel right. Mum had been a perfectionist. She deserved better.

We decided to try again, but the next year proved as fruitless as the first. We broadened our search area and reached deeper off the beaten paths into the forest. After a long day of searching, all of the rocks resembled the one in the photo, but none was the right one. Ultimately, I began to look at the missing rock as her gift to us, pulling us there every year, promising us some time away from the summer heat to the cool and quiet of the mountains. The search itself became her memorial.

***

After a few years, we stopped going. We couldn’t get away as easily, and what had held such intense meaning for me no longer seemed so urgent. I held onto the ashes, and we told each other that we would return one day to finish the search.

Eventually, I took up the sport of ultrarunning — running races that are longer than marathons, most on mountain trails. At one point, in a remarkable coincidence, I found myself running a race in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia that began at the very place my husband and I had searched for Mum’s rock so many years ago. The night before the race, I dreamed I found it.

In the dream, I ran along the ridge, floating effortlessly, and as I looked down over the mountainside, there it was: just at the end of the slope of the hill in the sunlight. Before I spread the ashes, the dream shifted, and I was now in a room in my mother’s house. Mum was there with me, and I was telling her excitedly that I had found her rock. She nodded and smiled, but never spoke.

When I woke, the dream was replaced with the cold, dark anxiety of predawn, race-day reality. Nervously, I prepared for the ever-changing mountain weather of a winter ultra, donning layers of high-tech clothing and gear. I looked more like I should have been going scuba diving.

The first moments of running in the cold wind, under a dark cloud cover spitting snow flurries, were as exciting as they were painful. Our headlamps and reflective-striped clothing flashed sharply through the murky darkness.

Later in the race, I rounded a reservoir, the surface of the water catching sunlight through trees. I was certain I had once hiked with my mother here, and memories flickered. I bounded down the gravelly mountain switchbacks, remembering our last days together. I recalled taking her to some favorite spots near her Pennsylvania home. Weak and wheelchair-bound, she had insisted on going antiquing, and to the fabric store, on working on projects for the house.

Once, we stopped off at a little bistro. “I have been wanting to share this place with you,” she said. I carefully helped her inside, and we sat at a sunny booth. The room was empty save for a young woman wiping down a counter. Now, she looked up at us.

“I’m sorry,” she said across the room. “We’ve just closed.”

I glanced desperately around and back at my mother, seeing now through her eyes. We both understood she would never be here again. I walked over to the woman.

“Couldn’t you just fix us a couple of quick sandwiches?” I asked quietly. “We won’t be long.”

I had hoped she would see our sorrow, the dying woman, the desperate daughter. But she was young. Her thoughts were already somewhere else.

“I’m sorry, I just finished cleaning the grill,” she said.

I wheeled my mother back out.

As the memory faded, I powered up the next mountainside driven by a fresh anger I had suppressed for years. But there was also something soothing in the struggle. I felt there was an exchange taking place, as if I were taking part of the mountains into me, their solidness and strength, and leaving a part of me, my sorrow, behind.

I finished the race and decided to attempt it again, maybe every year. Maybe sometime I will take some of Mum’s ashes along. And maybe if I run the race for many years and stop looking for her rock, I might at last find it.

Daniele Seiss is an editorial aide at The Washington Post Magazine. To comment on this story, send e-mail to wpletters@washpost.com.

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