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Rites of Passage: Our Fathers Die

Copyright 1993 by Bert H. Hoff

  This article appeared in the March 1993 issue of M.E.N. Magazine

Truths that wake,

To perish never.

William Wordsworth, Ode. Intimations of

Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood

My father died a year ago last December, and I scattered his ashes in the mountains last August. In the article below I describe my last ritual for my father. I hope this story will help other men with this difficult passage.

Many of us doing Men's Work are in our forties. Our fathers, who ruled our lives in ways we may not be open to admitting, and helped us define who we are, are growing inform or dying. How will you feel when your Dad dies? What ritual will you do to mark this important passage in your life? Have you reached "closure" with him, or will you be wearing a horsehair shirt and flailing yourself about the things you meant to say to him while he was alive?

If your father has already died, we join you in your grief. But he still lives on. Counselors encourage men to do "active imagination" exercises, visualizing your father and telling him the things you wish you would have told him. Or "journaling" or writing him a letter. Whether you believe in reincarnation, perpetual life of the soul, a Christian vision of heaven, or that at death it's all over, like a light switch going off, I firmly believe that when you do these types of exercises or meditations your Dad lives on -- at least in your heart.

Bert H. Hoff

A Ritual for my Father

by Bert H. Hoff

At sunrise on a summer morning Hank Hoff and his nephew Don Hoff completed their final trip to the mountains they loved, and made their final camp in a high alpine meadow surrounded by gorgeous peaks. There, in the time between light and darkness, and in the space between vegetation and rock -- the space between life and death -- their ashes were scattered to the four winds.

They were taken there by my wife Bernetta and me, and longtime friend, mountain man and explorer Stu Ferguson. Dad had been a mentor to Stu. He introduced Stu to the mountains, a passion that stayed with Stu ever since. At Dad's funeral service friends and relatives were encouraged to speak remembrances. Stu said that whatever he was today, he owed to Dad. Stu wanted to make this last trip in tribute and in gratitude.

The trip was symbolic of the trips that Dad loved so much. We hiked up a trail to the pass above a high mountain lake. At the high point of the trail, as I had done with Dad so many times, we took off wandering cross-country through high meadows to explore new country. We wandered through elk country, with lots of elk signs. It reminded me of Dad's favorite trips in the last few years of his life, when he would wander through the elk country on the east side of Mount Rainier. Then we headed for the high point on a distant ridge.

It brought back memories of so many trips with my Dad over the years. Like my first and only Trail Blazers trip, to Lake Williams in what is now the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area. While the rest of the crew stayed and fished, restless Hank and I headed up as high as we could go, to La Bohn Gap and the absolutely stunning panoramas of cliffs and glaciers.

The hike in was pleasant and beautiful. Except for the pack. I was using Dad's old aluminum-frame pack. I didn't realize until too late that the waist band just wasn't designed to be load-bearing. By the time I was half way up to the pass my shoulders were great but I had two big, beautiful bruises - - one atop each pelvic bone. We made great time to start out, but by the end I was dragging along in pain and agony. At this point, on the last grind up to camp, Bernetta was hiking a lot better than I was.

We found an ideal spot and set up camp. Bernetta and I ran up a nearby hummock to get a great view of the surrounding mountains. We had a pleasant meal and relaxing evening. The sunset was gorgeous.

We reminisced about Dad and talked about the next day's ceremony. Stu said he enjoyed Cowboy Poetry, and had thought of one poem/story, although he didn't know it would fit.

The cowboy sadly buried his partner on the prairie. They had spent many happy years together. The next year he rode on by to pay tribute. "Well, old partner, I buried you last year. Your body returned back to the earth, and nourished all this green, green grass. The cattle came by and ate the grass. You became part of the prairie and part of the cows you cared for." Then, gazing down at the grass and the cow pies, he added, "And, old buddy, you haven't changed one bit!"

That night, as I fell asleep in the mountains Dad and I loved so much, under a carpet of stars, I thought about my Dad. My Dad embodied the John Wayne myth for me. As a pioneer member of the Trail Blazer club he packed fingerling trout into barren, remote high alpine lakes in what is now the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area. They charted the wilderness as they discovered and named the lakes. Lake Marlene is named after my sister, and Lake Moira after my godfather's daughter. A couple of weeks before this trip, my sister took her family into Lake Marlene for a final remembrance, and to refurbish the sign Dad and Mom posted on the lake shore oh, so many years ago.

One of my regrets is that they ran out of lakes before they could name one after me. He proposed the name Lake Glebert for one lake he had found, after my brother Glen and me. But the Trail Blazers who stocked it spent 22 hours bushwhacking through slide alder and devil's club to get there said "Nothing doing, we'll call it Lake 22." Lake 22 is a short trail hike now.

At 79, Dad was still making days-long wilderness trips to explore remote and little-known elk ranges in Mount Rainier National Park and "bombing" the Downhill Race Course run with me at Crystal Mountain. His strong and forceful energy protected my wife Bernetta from the "hot shots" as she picked her way cautiously down the intermediate slopes.

He was a man of the highest integrity. When he gave his word, he kept it. He was a man of strength. When he set out to do something, he did it, no matter how much pain and sacrifice it might involve. Once a chain smoker, one day he just quit. He was sitting at the campfire by a high mountain lake one morning, coughing and hacking. He said to himself, "This is killing me! I quit." He crumpled up the pack and hurled it into the fire.

He was hard on us, but he was harder on himself because he could never meet his own, internal standard of perfection.

I only saw him cry once when I was a child, when his best friend died. He went into the bedroom first, so none of us would see him. He told me he used to hug and cuddle me a lot when I was a baby, but I have no recollection of warm touching. He taught me the ways of the wilderness and gave me my love for the mountains, but he did not teach me the ways of love. When I won awards in high school and was admitted to Yale on scholarship he didn't say a word. My Mom told me how much he bragged about me to his friends, and told me "You know he's proud of you." He gave me a postcard for my room, to hang among my certificates and awards. "It's nice to be important, but it's more important to be humble." When I had hard times with my Dad, my Mom would tell me, "You know he loves you."

A few years back, we were sitting in the camper after a hard day of skiing at Crystal Mountain. My Dad had had one of his rare drinks, to relax. He pulled out some old photographs. One showed his mother at their house in Brainard, Minnesota, shortly before she died and orphaned him as a young boy. He never knew his father - he died before Dad was born. He grew sentimental. His eyes filled with tears as he said how much he loved his mother.

I turned to him and said, "Dad, you've never told me that you love me." He said, shocked, "What do you mean? I've shown it. Look at all the things I've done for you."

"Dad, that only works in John Wayne movies. I need to hear it."

He stood up, took me in his arms for a warm hug, and told me he loved me.

When we got home from the ski trip he rushed in the door, lifted my mother from the couch, and told her he loved her. She was astounded -- although she knew it to the depths of her heart, she couldn't remember the last time he had told her. The next evening he called my brother in Chicago and told him he loved him.

I have found myself the victim of the John Wayne myth of my father. In my two previous marriages, I was strong and determined. I handled adversity well. Over one Christmas break in my college years I worked three jobs at once, to provide for my wife and newborn baby. My wives never experienced love and openness from me. They left.

Since then, I have seen how the John Wayne myth has cut me off from the feeling, caring, loving part of myself. I discovered that an important part of me was missing. Rejecting the John Wayne myth was an important part of preparing myself for my close, intimate relationship with Bernetta.

As I lay there drifting off to sleep, I was happy that I had found the courage to confront my Dad in that camper a long time ago. It allowed me to be close to him in his last years. We had some wonderful trips together. And as he suffered from the side effects of his stroke in his last year, he was open to my helping him. Big, strong Dad, who never would accept help from anyone. I was glad to be doing this one, last thing for him.

At first light the next morning we got up and did a quiet meditation prayer over Hank's and Don's ashes. Just as the sun came up and painted the nearby summits in brilliant hues of pink and purple, I scattered Hank's and Don's ashes. I scattered them to the East, power of rising sun and new beginnings, power of life-energy, power to see and to imagine. To the South, to the earth, power of patience and endurance, power to grow and bring forth flowers and fruit. To the West, grandmother ocean deep matrix, womb of all life, power to dissolve, release, taste and feel. To the North, spirit of the air and the cool winds, power to sweep out the old and bring changes and challenges.

We read a Native American poem that Mom had thought about shortly before Dad died.

Do not stand at my grave and weep.

I am not there. I do not sleep.

I am the thousand winds that blow.

I am the diamond glint in snow.

I am the sunlight on ripened grain.

I am the gentle autumn rain.

When you wake in the morning hush,

I am the swift uplifting rush

of quiet birds in circling flight.

I am the soft starlight at night.

Do not stand at my grave and weep,

I am not there. I do not sleep.

We placed a symbolic handful of ashes under a large rock and closed with a silent prayer.

Robert Bly talks in Iron John about the need to go down deep and sift through the ashes. Spreading Dad's ashes was a very physical act for me. We envision scattering a handful of ashes, with everything in white and beautiful organ music playing in the background. In our sanitized, unfeeling world we anesthetize ourselves from what death really is. The priest stands in the pulpit, physically distanced from the congregation, and intones, "Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust." The concept of death, and thus the concept of life, is meaningless to us. We are out of touch with it.

I found myself in touch with Dad in a sad and beautiful way, and in touch with my own feelings, as I held two or three large handsfull of ashes for each direction. The breeze scattered ashes across our tents and onto our cooking utensils. Holding the ashes of what remained of my Dad's physical body was a very powerful act for me.

After the service Stu and I headed over to climb a nearby peak. Again, it reminded me of trips with Dad. Take a little hike and bag a peak after breakfast, to see more view. In the shallows of a lake far below us we could see a crane or heron having its breakfast.

Bernetta got what she describes as a "gift from Hank" while Stu and I were gone. Unknown to us, Bernetta was following along behind Stu. As Stu started up the peak, Bernetta was on a little knoll on the other side of a low point of the ridge. Just then, a whole herd of elk came up from the elk meadows to cross to the other meadows. They were perhaps some 20 yards behind Stu and about that close to Bernetta. Bernetta feels like the elk were paying a final tribute to Dad, and that that sighting was a special, parting gift from Dad to her.

Whenever I ski or hike in the mountains I will have Dad's mountain wallet with me. Opposite his Game Protector badge is a tablet, with our trip log of his final trip. Upstairs in our meditation space is a rock from this last trip. My Dad will always be with me.

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