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Jamaican Farewell
John Prohaska

I promised my mother I’d scatter her ashes in Africa. Two months after her death I lost my job and, with it, my ability to keep that promise.
She’d loved Africa, or at least her notion of it. Her eyes would fill with visions of cheetah prowling the veldt, listless and alert. Lanky Masai with their noble demeanour would greet her with a friendly smile. Breathtaking sunsets would meld into nights where the moon was always full. Such were the memories she hungered to know.
But practical women do not cross the globe. That is selfish. By the time she discovered she had earned a little selfishness, she’d become too fragile. So at the closing of her life, I was left with a bag of ashes and the burden of a promise beyond my power to keep.

I did not require my mother’s living voice to know she would readily forgive the breaking of that promise. It was I who could not forgive. They were my narrow shoulders that would bear the guilt. At thirty-five, was I not already carrying my share?
I’d been a traveler for some years. Those long winter journeys across unknown lands had become an integral part of me. Would I forfeit travel now, at a time when I needed it most? Was there no compromise to ease the disappointment of my failure?

Jamaica. She had loved Jamaica. Discussing her trip to that tiny island always brought joy to her. It was close, the airfare was affordable, and it was small enough that a few weeks would give me a sense of the place. I would leave her in the Africa of the Caribbean.

As our minibus followed the north coast, I was grateful to be still single. Even this pale compromise would be out of reach with the restraints of a family. Everywhere I went, I asked the locals about some special place that might be appropriate to my task. I wanted to do this quickly. I did not like the notion of carrying my mothers remains about like baggage. I sought a creek or a river; something that flowed to the sea. Perhaps some small piece of her might yet wash up on African shores.

In Ocho Rios, I heard stories of a place just west of Dunn Falls. Remembering that word of mouth is even less dependable in the Third World, I pressed everyone I met for details. I heard it was a raging river. I heard locals swam there. Some called it Roaring River. Others said Rolling. Some said it was surrounded by a fence. But everyone said it was beautiful, and I knew my mother had liked Ocho Rios.

I walk as much as possible whenever I travel. Although I’d been quoted several different distances, most of the responses could be traversed on foot. Armed with a new bottle of water, I set off down the highway during early afternoon.

The south side of the highway afforded some shade. There was no space to walk at times and I often found it necessary to peer around some mass of foliage to see if the road was clear. After an hour it had become asphyxiatingly hot. My breathing deepened and I forced more of the molten air into my lungs. I was soon out of water and regretted not having bought a larger size. At a little outlet in the middle of nowhere, I replenished my fluids with a big bottle of Jamaican orange soda. There, as at every other opportunity, I asked directions. When traveling, information can be exaggerated, incorrect, or a bald lie. To discern the truth, one must sift through it all.
I continued down the highway. I was beginning to have doubts of my success. Through the scorching light I saw a group of slender, muscular young men ahead of me. They were standing in a little stream cleaning fish. They pushed their dread locks from their faces as they saw me approach. This time, I asked directions and they pointed across the highway. An unmarked road disappeared into the trees. I was there.

I asked them what they knew of the place. They confirmed that the land had been taken over by the government. The once mighty river had been tamed by a small hydroelectric plant and a cement wall surrounded the property. Guards were posted to keep people out. This once beautiful public land was now used for the entertainment of dignitaries.

I explained why I had come in hopes of someone offering me advice on how to get in. Their faces grew sympathetic as I told them of my plight. They now hoped I would be successful. They were rooting for me. But they could not help me. They didn’t believe I would get in. I thanked them and crossed the road. From behind I heard someone say, "Good luck."

If there was any way to do this, I would find it. I suppose I could have looked for another suitable place. But I had already begun. And by turning back, it would have felt like breaking yet another promise. I could not let that happen.

There was less light under the trees and my eyes needed a moment to adjust. Once they did, I felt a stab of disappointment. The young men on the highway had been right. The road forked to the right, its goal, a large luxurious building. A wall surrounded the property. A guard stood watch at the road where the wall became an iron gate.
Still, I would not turn back. Beyond the turnoff the road continued, veering gradually to the left where another gate stood. I would see if this held any more promise. I didn’t know if the guard was aware of me. My strategy became one of a perverted masquerade. I tried to walk where and when the guard couldn’t see me. At the same time, I tried to do it in a way that, if I were noticed, I would appear to be a casual passerby.

Arriving at the end of the road, I saw another locked gate preventing access to a bridge that crossed the agitated waters. On the other side of the bridge was the hated electrical plant. I looked around. I could see no guards. To the left of the gate was a barbed wire fence. I looked closer. Someone has been through here. The ground below the lowest strand had no vegetation. It looked like a little furrow had been scraped into the earth. One last time I looked around before laying down on the ground.

I had to take off the daypack I wore that held my mothers remains. There was barely room for me to drag myself under. Reaching back, I pulled the bag through after me. The next step would be to pass under the bridge. I had to be careful. The concrete sloped toward the water at a perilous angle. Thank god, it hadn’t rained. Once on the other side, I found yet another wire fence. This one had also been tampered with, and not subtly. Here in the bush, away from human eyes, somebody had literally wrenched the wire up from the ground. Again I was forced to crawl underneath, but this time it was not a tight squeeze.

It wasn’t long before the way became impassable. Before me the trees and bushes grew thickly together. To my left was only the racing water. I looked to my right. At the back, I could still easily see the mansion, tauntingly white. Between us was an expanse of well-manicured lawn. Though there was no cover, I would have to step onto this lawn in order to continue. I told myself it was unlikely the consequences would be very grave if I were caught. What would they do, shoot me? And the guards were normal people, less sticklers for the rules than we North Americans. Perhaps if I explained, they might even let me do what I’d set out to do. However, that might make things worse. The transportation and disposal of human remains in any form in a foreign country was definitely against the law. Enough. No more thinking.

I burst onto the lawn, running a few feet before spying another opening into the brush. I lunged for it and found myself again hidden by thick foliage at the side of the river. Following the water, I soon sensed the sea. I could only hear it since the woods severely limited my vision. I arrived at a bush adorned with colourful flowers, their petals stretching wide like fireworks. Looking overtop, I could see the ocean and where the river ran into it. I could also see another guard, seated on the ground, looking out to sea. I withdrew until I was sure he would not see me.

I could go no further. Still, this was a good place. The river forked here. There were flowers. I was glad of that. She had liked flowers during her life. I peeled off my pack and emptied it, item by item. Untying the drawstrings of the blue cloth bag, I pulled out her ashes. They were sealed within another plastic bag. After locating the best blade on my Swiss Army knife, I slit the bag and began to pour. I had never taken the ashes from the bag before. It was the first time I had seen them. They were so white, like ground bone. I was surprised, but I don’t know why. I hadn’t given any thought as to what they might look like. Perhaps I expected them to be more like charcoal. I don’t know.

I tried to pour them out slowly, to add them to the river a little at a time. Pouring them out rapidly would have been . . . like throwing her away. The water was fast. My emotions emulated the grey mixture, swirling, disappearing and reappearing, changing. The ashes were so fine as they slid from the bag, like something magical. The breeze whisked away the very last particles for itself before they could reach the water. I looked about. Still no one coming.

The camera was next. I took a few shots of this, her final resting place. I realized that the photos would be the most permanent things from her "burial." Nobody would come every year to place flowers in this spot. In fact, nobody would know this place but me. That must be why people erect markers; a desire to link their lives with something more permanent. Something less transitory than ourselves. Something that will be standing centuries after our passing.

And like all such illusions, the comfort comes in not looking too deeply. Yes, the stone will endure. It will carry our name and people will read it. But it will register like words from a foreign language, unknown and without context, the stone writing forgotten before the next marker has been passed.

I had no time to feel. Above the bush I saw the guard stir, rising to his feet. I hastily threw my things in the bag and ran back through the brush, a darting semi-circle on the lawn and back to the river. When at the barbed wire, I knew no one had seen me. Without haste, I pushed myself back through the narrow gap.

On the other side I lifted my day-pack and began to knock the dust from my clothes as I trudged back up the road. But my load was no lighter. It had been months since my mother had died and I had done my crying. But my throat slowly tightened and, as if from far away, I heard a sound.
It was like the bolting of a door or the snap of a cable being cut. She had been gone a long time. But she was really gone now. I hadn’t calculated the significance of this last task. This one obligation had kept me linked to her. Through its completion, I’d severed our final connection. Inside me, these realizations pushed their way around, freezing everything they touched like ice, until I was totally numb.

The young Rastas were still there as I mechanically stepped onto the highway. They raised their heads as I approached. "Did you do it?" someone asked. I nodded my head, halting once I reached their side of the road.
"Yeah. I got in." It grew quiet and I didn’t like it. I wanted to say something more. They had done nothing, but they had been kind and that made me feel like I was in their debt. I mumbled, "I hope she’s happy now."

Stupid! Such a stupid thing to say and I grew infuriated with myself. Happy?! Is someone happy here? What the hell does happiness have to do with any of this? I realized to remain here was futile. Leaving was futile. Every damn thing was fucking futile!
"I gotta go," I said abruptly and turned away.
The words, "Yah. Take care o’ you’self, mon," caught me from behind.

I was speaking to Carol through the tall latticework fence that separated our properties. She was a short, stocky grey-haired woman with a homemade haircut. Her and my mother had become friends the final years of her life.

"It didn’t feel right. It wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. I had to break the law, crawling under barbed wire and breaking in. It was too fast. I’d have liked to sit there a while, to be quiet . . and remember."
"She would have laughed," Carol said.
I soon said good-bye and turned to go back inside. As I climbed the stairs, I thought about what she’d said. "Yeah. That’s true. She would have, wouldn’t she?" I smiled as I pulled open the back door.
"She would have laughed."

© John Prohaska 2001

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