Uncle Joe, my mother’s brother, gave me a wonderful gift. He showed me how to love Nature. Many times he’d come visit us, taking my sister and me out into the woods. He taught us how to identify local plants, animal tracks and scat. Joe Clopton was a biologist who spent a lot of his time in nature. In his spare time, he’d go up to the Mendocino National Forest, to the Yolla Bollys, where he examined his surroundings, counted the population of birds, plants, animals, which he meticulously recorded his findings from year to year. He was a biology teacher at Santa Rosa Junior College for the last 28 years. He lived simply, in the same small apartment for 37 years. He rode his bicycle to work every day; in America, this is unheard of. Most people are interested in “keeping up with the Jones.” But, my uncle wasn’t. Uncle Joe loved his family very much, and often joined us in gatherings, and stayed in contact by writing letters. Some of the letters he wrote in prose or poetry. Uncle Joe was generous with his heart, imparting kindness, good humor, and funny anecdotes. He didn’t boast that he averaged 10 published articles per year. Our Uncle Joe believed in Nature. He believed in “all that was Good,” and spent his time in solitary reflection and contemplation; we didn’t expect him to go home so soon.
On Saturday, we had a family reunion. Almost all of my family members were there, except for Joe, but out of all of us, only one person had a concern when he didn’t show up for my mother’s good food. Although it seemed odd that he hadn’t called, nobody felt anything out of the ordinary. And so, it was a complete shock when we received a call Sunday morning that he was found in the Mendocino National Forest. The courageous man who called waited patiently—even when my mother told him that he had the wrong number—and then he described my uncle’s car. It felt like an avalanche in my heart.
These kinds of trials in life give us many opportunities. For me, I was allowed to lean completely on my own personal spiritual practice—to receive the Divine guidance from my God, my Divine Principle, from the One who makes my life complete. And thankfully, I have many friends who are well-wishers, who believe in the Good, who pray for me, or who take in spiritual power for me. During this time, the six days after receiving the news of my uncle’s passing over to the other world, I slept few hours and had a lot of energy to help with my family’s needs.
The ensuing few days were full. On the next day we drove to the Mendocino National Forest. The most logical reason was to pick up Uncle’s car. And, we wanted some sort of closure—to understand what exactly had happened, and how. Uncle Joe had never taken antibiotics in his life. He was fit, and at the top of health at age 63.
We had to pick up his wallet and keys up from the sheriff’s office in Willits beforehand, and so we were a little late in starting. The drive took four hours; the last two and a half were on steep, curvy dirt roads. We reached the trailhead, (the place where he parked his vehicle and began his hike into the wilderness) in the late afternoon. My uncle’s car was parked next to a trio of Jeffrey Pine trees. We didn’t find much in the car, mostly empty water bottles, and some clothing, his hiking boots, and some food. Some things were missing from the car, like his tent, sleeping bag, and backpack (which were there when the sheriff was there to retrieve my uncle’s body.) There were indicators that Uncle had extreme dehydration—and a note was found on the windshield by the man who called us that read, Extremely dehydrated. Call this number: (my mother’s number) and then, Wallet is in pocket.
Before our drive up into the mountains, I had received the thought to make something—like a memorial—to help cleanse the site. I wanted to make something that was natural, something that could weather and disintegrate with time, something that would go back to the earth like my uncle. Prayer flags. I made prayer flags, and each one of us wrote our blessings to Uncle Joe. We tied this on either side of the trees, along with flowers from my mother’s garden. My mother and I dropped native seeds that my uncle had harvested from the wild, Asclepias, in a circle around the site where he was found—a plant that the monarch butterflies like to feed on.
The general feeling around this area wasn’t so good. We were greeted and pursued by aggressive yellow jackets. 24 hours earlier, the site had been busy with the fire department and rescue teams from both Mendocino and Tehema Counties, as my uncle had passed on the border of both counties, but was just inside the Mendocino County line.
As we were examining the site, I lay down on the dry pine needles, in the place where he passed. Does this sound morbid? In India, we are so close to death all of the time, that it felt natural to wonder what his last view might have looked like. It was beautiful. What was comforting was to know that he could have rested back and looked at the trees and Nature that he loved so much, even if it was only a glimpse. I took a picture.
We were about to leave, and my sister’s car didn’t start. The battery had no charge. There was a camper nearby, who had both a car and jumper cables; we charged the battery for 15 minutes, but after we started down the road, (as I was following my sister in my uncle’s car,) the battery didn’t hold the charge. We eventually had to leave her car for a tow truck to retrieve two days later. I couldn’t get down the mountain fast enough. There was something—something inexplicable—that didn’t sit well with me, and I didn’t want to be there anymore. We were all so glad to leave. I’m not writing all of the details, as sometimes too much information can get in the way of the turnaround, a return to complete wellness.
We drove to the nearest town on the Eastern side of the national forest, on the western edge of the California Central Valley, which took two and a half hours. We later heard that someone else who had broken down in the same area took two and a half days to get back to town.
My sister, mother, and I returned to Ukiah to arrange for Uncle Joe’s funeral, while other family members did their part in helping from afar.
My cousin Dave officiated the memorial, and most of our family members participated. A couple of my uncle’s best friends attended, as did some of his colleagues from the college. We were reminded of the Good things that my uncle had accomplished during his life. One of Uncle Joe’s closest friends told us that Joe had truly become happy in the last 10 to 15 years of his life. My cousin Jule and her daughter read his poetry he had written for them, as he often did for his family members; my mother felt that after listening to so many people share different aspects of Uncle Joe’s life, she was given the gift of a more complete picture of who he was.
In the funeral home, an oak woodlands monument was erected in the back of the chapel, and two tall weeping cedars flanked the casket. My mother made the casket arrangement, and my aunt made an arrangement that looked like a whimsical spider. Yes, I think that we gave him a good send-off, for a job well done!
The emotions of grief come and go in waves. I know that this is human, and that this is part of being in a body—that we have the opportunity to feel and sense emotions. I’d prefer to feel joy more than grief, frankly, and if I reframe my uncle’s passing in my mind—death is a happy occasion for the person who is passing to the next world—then I don’t feel so sad. I’ve heard that the purpose of being in a physical body is to learn and teach the soul, and that we can make more progress while incarnate than in spirit.
I feel grateful that I was allowed to officiate my uncle’s burial, which took place the day after the memorial. The following poem I read as his closing prayer:
I pray to the birds
I pray to the birds because I believe they will carry the messages of my heart upwards.
I pray to them because I believe in their existence,
the way their songs begin and
end each day—the invocations and benedictions of earth.
I pray to the birds because they remind me of what I love rather than what I fear.
And at the end of my prayers,
they teach me how to listen.
Terry Tempest Williams
In : The Spiritual Life
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