Earlier this year, a young mother drove her small Subaru from the larger city down below, through the canyon and up the mountain to the little town where I work. She parked her car in a dirt lot and climbed out into a night that was cold and dark. The spring thaw had come astoundingly early, sending the snow from the mountainsides melting into the creeks and lakes, swelling them to unusually high levels, but the nights were still freezing. The mother sat at edge of the creek for some time. Then she filled her pockets with the heavy river rocks that line the creek bed and banks, and waded into the icy water. Fed by the melting glaciers of the Continental Divide and rushing toward the reservoir 100 yards downstream, the creek water was cold enough to induce hypothermia in a submerged body within a minute. The rocks did their job, and the young woman was dragged down, but not before she’d had a change of heart. Clawing desperately at the steep embankment, she struggled to pull herself from the rushing water. But ultimately she succumbed. And in the early light of dawn, her body was discovered nearby, facedown in the water, by hikers who alerted town officials.
When the police chief informed my office later that morning, we all stood and stared at each other. We are a very small group, working in a very small town, and no tragedy passes unnoticed. This was particularly painful to absorb: a young mother in her twenties, going through a divorce, leaving two small children behind in her death, so desperately sad that she chose a terrifying and permanent solution to her pain.
Perhaps the next day, perhaps the day after, a young man appeared at the site along the creek where the mother’s body had been recovered. He sat on the shore, in the bitter cold, and cried. Then he came back the next day, and the next, and the next after that. Until we all in town came to expect his daily vigil. Sometimes he was alone, other times he was with his parents or just his father. Occasionally a friend accompanied him. His grief was public and overwhelming. Residents reported that he often seemed to sit there all day long, crying. The police were dispatched to help. They determined that the young man was her estranged husband, father to her children, grieving a loss he could neither understand nor accept.
As the days passed, the young man continued his vigil, but also brought with him his wading boots. Despite the chill, he waded into the creek and created a large heart — approximately 5′ tall x 4′ wide — in the creekbed where his wife’s body had last rested, using the same kind of stones that had sealed her fate. He stacked the stones five or six high in order that they be seen above the top of the water. The task and its completion seemed to offer him some solace, and his grief resolved itself into a quiet sadness. But still he came.
In the weeks that followed, a small makeshift memorial grew on the edge of the creek, with a cross, laminated letters, photos, and personal touches. Some locals added to it, others merely stopped by to offer a prayer or meditation in front of the heart of stones memorial. A few residents complained to me that the memorial was “in poor taste” or “unseemly” or that it “made people uncomfortable.” I listened to their complaints, then told the police chief and town manager that I did not plan to remove the memorial. Death makes people uncomfortable, for sure, but I’m not sure how making that discomfort go away is my responsibility.
So, on my order, the memorial stands. I have proposed a memorial policy that will allow the family to install a commemorative bench on the site. I visited it today, for the first time, to document in photographs its existence for town records. We are now in the waning days of summer in the mountains, with sunny, warm days surrendering to chilly nights. The creek is at nearly its lowest ebb, and the heart of stones stands in strong relief to the shallow waters around it.
While I was standing there, a young man turned the corner from the parking lot and approached me, smiling tentatively. I could tell by his attire that he had come a long ways to reach this spot. I stepped aside and he walked to the edge of the creek, where he squatted. His lips moved silently, as if in prayer, as he gazed at the heart of stones. I turned away, offering him some privacy. Then he stood, and I turned around. He smiled at me, and his somber eyes said thank you. He walked away and I was left alone again.
I did not know this woman, nor did I know anyone who knew her. I don’t think I ever saw her husband or his family or their friends. But her death affected me this spring. It reminded me how much each life — and sometimes its end — touches so many people. How can we possibly fully appreciate the ripple effect of our choices? How do those choices permanently alter the direction of someone else’s life? It’s impossible to know, isn’t it?
Everytime this spring that someone came into town hall to tell me that the man and his family were still there, I wondered about him. Why did he keep coming? Had he still loved her so much? Was his grief based on regret… remorse… guilt? What story had they shared? What will he tell his two small daughters?
And what of that young mother, who made a choice she could not repeal — From wherever she was, could she see the pain her death had caused? Was her soul at peace or was it anguished? Had she had any idea how many people loved her — those ones who traveled so far to create a personal monument on a creekbed in a strange town? What does she think of the beautifully poetic memorial crafted in her honor on the site of her last breath? And what will become of her memory when, next year at the thaw, the force of the creek scatters her stone heart?
The answers to those questions don’t really matter, but they are the things I pondered occasionally as the winter gave way to spring and then spring to summer here in the Rocky Mountains. I hope that her family finds peace soon, and that her soul does likewise. I will not likely forget her anytime soon, this young woman I never met. I wish so much that she had made different choices that cold March night, but I understand the world is unfolding around me just as it should, and that my lack of understanding does not make that any less true.
And I hope that someday, when I die in my comfy bed of natural causes as a very elderly woman, someone who loves me builds me a heart of stones in a beautiful creek somewhere.