This past Mother’s Day I wrapped up a three-week tour of Italy with my younger sister, but our mom wasn’t with us. She passed away from cancer four years ago and we are here to commemorate her. Our mother loved Italy with all her heart; it was her Idyll, and she wanted her ashes spread at her favorite spot along the Arno River.
I had hoped that this journey would give me peace and bring a particular chapter in my life to a close. My expectations and the reality of the experience were different. Here is what I learned about traveling in remembrance of a loved one.
It took time to save up for this trip but we spared no expense in order to do it justice; hence the four-year delay. We hit up everything from Rome to Florence to Venice and the Amalfi Coast because I had put a great deal of pressure on myself to stay in all the same hotels our parents frequented. My sister and I also tried to relive special memories our mother shared with us. For example, when my sister came here with mom for her graduation they had a blast touring Tuscany on Vespas. It’s so cute to imagine my mom on a Vespa. I smiled from ear to ear on that beautiful day zipping through the Cyprus trees with the wind in my face up and over the green hills.
The tricky part was traveling with our mother’s ashes. Different airlines have different policies about transporting cremated remains and certain countries have bad reputations about arriving with them. It turns out Italy has one of the more stringent approaches to such matters — if you are following the rules. Not only could we not part with all of our mother’s remains but we weren’t comfortable being responsible for all of them on such a long journey either. Worst case scenario, there were many variables that could have shut the whole thing down. And one, or both, of us might have gone ballistic if anyone tried to interfere with our mom or our itinerary.
Having never done this before, I considered all sorts of shenanigans to achieve our mission. I never looked but I was under the impression ashes resembled gun powder or TATP and shortly following the Brussels airport bombing I had nightmares of some grumpy security personnel trying to confiscate her. I’m not proud of it, but the thought crossed my mind to pretend her ashes were Bare Minerals makeup and put them in one of the pressed powder containers. People must do this all the time, but when I was so anxious about the liability of traveling with something so irreplaceably precious, my mind went everywhere. In the end, we settled for the ceremony of releasing only the small amount of ashes that can be transported in a keepsake urn necklace. In the ninth hour, with apprehension, I ordered five from Amazon Prime to ensure we used only the two sturdiest and safest options. My sister guarded them with great care and we only wore them through security check points. No one even looked twice.
We had a lot of rain on this trip but the sky opened up for us at sunset on the last evening in Florence when we were to release her ashes. My father described a special spot on the Arno River below the Grand Hotel where an outcrop juts out from the road over the spillway. He said their rooms always had that same view and it was their favorite spot to stop and people watch on their evening walks. When we came to the place he described, it was boarded up with what looked like thick vault doors. Determined, we jumped over the locked gates and made ourselves ready for sundown.
I think I expected it to feel different. I don’t mean to belittle it, as this was incredibly important and special, but the reality with the traffic and the occasional ambulance passing by was a bit anticlimactic. Could this really be it? We dressed up for the occasion, the sunset was beautiful, and the Arno River was something my mother was very fond of, but I expected more magic. I wanted a sign or something. However, regardless of the surroundings, the intention was clear and the moment was here. My sister and I both held out our hands clutching our keepsake urns, but it was physically difficult for me to do it and I froze. My sister put her hand over mine and we did it together.
I did a lot of reflecting during the surprising stretches of silence between my sister and I, and frequently asked myself, “What would mom do?” No one answered back. It seemed my mom and my sister were always closer, and I envy that now. I was screaming inside, “Feel this like I do!” and “Open up to me!” but that’s not for anyone to say.
For the last leg of our trip we found ourselves enjoying the Amalfi Coast. Our mom dreamed of retiring over here but she never got this far. “The trouble is, you think you have time” (Buddha), so we will have to suffice as her proxy. And as I currently sip some local Pinot Grigio in the garden of the villa we rented, overlooking a valley on the Mediterranean in Vietri Sul Mare, I press myself for that closure I was looking for, that sign.
We were eating some prosciutto, the slight breeze carrying the fragrant smell of the patio flowers, the pastel sunset getting darker over the water when we both looked up and noticed the one huge brightly burning star in the twilight sky standing out as if it was approaching to come down and join us. We raised our glasses and I simply thought, “mom.” The moment was peaceful and happy. So after ruminating some, I believe the experience sinks in slowly and passes as it should. The moment of releasing her ashes was never supposed to be magic and there was never going to be a sign. The whole journey and the ups and downs and quality time with the loved ones that are still here is the magic. Maybe it hasn’t all been perfect, but I think it’s been just as it should.