It was a happy day in my last weeks of social work school, where I felt the freedom to abandon studying one morning to take a quick bike ride up into the urban, heightened scrub of Griffith Park. There is a moment in my rides when I am in the park, have some climbing under my belt, legs warmed up, energy released, endorphins flowing, that view of the observatory to my right, the sparkle of downtown towers just beyond. That is when the frustrations of waking early, of feeling creaky begin to give way to grateful thoughts, loose associations and tremendous appreciation for the beauty around me. At that point in my ride in late April, many weeks into going back to DC to take care of my dad on the weekends, struggling to finish finals and complete my internship admirably, a constellation of issues around aging twinkled in my head: How will I live when we reach the point that we have to give up independence and say hello to Depends? How will the death with dignity movement progress as my generation watches parents live perhaps “too long” with poor quality of life and say: “if I am ever in that state please put a pillow over my head!”? What product design firms are going to step in and start making walkers that are not elephant-colored, with tennis ball feet? All of this was a stew under the surface as my body carried out its simple tasks – respond to the stress of climbing and exert energy, keep alert for cars or critters.
Turning around a bend I knew well, one which veers me towards the observatory and onto the last, almost flat stretch before the next hill to the top of Mt. Hollywood, I saw to the left a sight that I had to watch: an older woman stood at a picnic area just off the road, with views of the city below and the trees and observatory above. From 50 feet away she exuded a positive energy, here in the park at 7am, which I could feel. She had a plastic bag in one hand and her other hand reached in and thrust out into the air a flurry of material: white, some parts flying into the light breeze and others falling to the ground. The story crystallized in my mind and was true for me immediately: this woman had hiked these hills with her husband for years, he had died and, in accordance with his and her joint wishes, she was sharing his ashes with the park at a discrete time of day, their time of day.
I slowed down and made a U-turn and rolled quietly to where she stood. I saw such joy in her physical movement of reaching and spreading those ashes. I shared that joy and could not help but smile. When she saw me, I said “are you doing what I think you are doing?” to which she replied, ”I save up my bread and every three weeks and come here to share with the birds…aren’t they wonderful? Aren’t they grateful?” Her joy and energy were just as valid and contagious with this new subtext. I smiled and said, “Of course! They are so lucky to have you!” I turned around and continued on my way, at first feeling a bit silly for having been seeing everything through the filter of end-of-life but then feeling that same thump of happiness at having seen yet another beautiful thing on my beautiful ride.