Alive, my brother was a big guy. Around 6'3", maybe 200 pounds. He'd lost weight before he died. He wasn't sick, not physically anyway. He was in great shape, had been working out with a desperation, hoping to replace the taste for heroin he'd secretly developed with an addiction to exercise. It didn't work, not in the long run. But I remember thinking when I accepted the package containing Gunnar's remains that it was surprisingly heavy. Recent weight loss or not, there was a lot of my brother left after the Boulder mortuary that had been caring for his body cremated him. Enough to fill a tall, matte black box — I'd call it a tin, really. It came with a sticker on top, noting his name, the day he died (May 19, 2014), and the day he was cremated (May 24, 2014).
It's a strange and terrible thing signing for a delivery containing the leftovers of one of the few people you love most in the world. It took a while that afternoon before I was ready to slice open the cardboard box and pull out the urn. Once I did, I sat it on the coffee table in front of my parents and we all stared at it, numbly, still in shock, I suppose. We were in the process of planning a backyard memorial for Gunnar, what's typically called a life celebration. But I think even then I had in the back of my mind returning some of my brother to , where he had lived for two decades. We'd grown up in central Pennsylvania, blessed with a pleasantly middle-class, carefree childhood, but Colorado was his home.
Gunnar's memorial was beautiful. It really was a celebration, fitting for a guy who lived his life like it was an eternal, endless party, filled with friends and music and laughter. Drugs, too. In the end, darkness. But that day was full of light, with more than 100 people remembering my brother, smiling mostly, crying sometimes, under a big yellow sun. Some spoke about Gunnar, at a podium on loan from a friend, in front of a microphone: this was pretty much the only structure to the afternoon. Mostly we drank champagne and ate sandwiches, mingling, as one of my brother's iPods, hooked up to a booming audio system, played his favorite songs.
There was little religious about the event, because my brother was an atheist and it was important we be true to who he was, not who we—my mother, anyway—wished him to be. I remember I kept thinking, Gunnar would have loved this...I wish he were here, feeling at the same time that he was. It was confusing, but I don't think I would have sensed him at all at a dour ceremony in some bleak funeral parlor reeking of lilies, organ music droning on in the background. I've always loathed standing in a room, making forced, murmured small talk over a body. It feels so grim. And like it doesn't have much to do with the person who died, unless they were pretty forced and grim themselves.
Apparently more and more people are feeling this way, because there are a ton of new alternatives to traditional services available now. You can have someone's ashes made into ceramics, or a glass sculpture, or plant them with a tree. , not surprisingly based in free-spirited Colorado, sells a bio urn and planting system designed to grow a sapling from cremations. Some funeral homes now offer catering, or have bars, to help keep the proceedings more convivial. Some people even choose to have funerals at home, caring for the body with the assistance of a "death midwife," using packs of ice to slow decomposition rather than embalming, which employs toxic chemicals that are harmful to the environment. I think the point is to fit the ritual to the person, not the other way around, making it more about life than death.
It was three years before I could convince my father to let me take a little bit of my brother to Colorado, to spread his ashes on the wind with his other family, the one he wasn't born into, but made. My intent was to gather as many people as I could at , the place he loved more than any other, and let them sprinkle him like confetti, or sparkle dust, over the stands. I was going out west for another reason, though: to train to climb Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain on the African continent. I wanted to try to ascend at least one of the 53 "fourteeners" in Colorado—the state's legendary peaks that are 14,000 feet or higher. I figured it would be a good dress rehearsal for Kili.
It wasn't easy landing at the Denver airport, or walking through the terminal. Less difficult, though, than opening my brother's urn, scooping out some of his ashes, and slipping them into a plastic baggy. I used a spoon to do it, rinsed it and put it in the dishwasher, feeling this sort of weightless sense of non-reality, like I was walking through a terrible reverie, the entire time. But I had the baggie in my backpack and even if Gunnar wasn't at the airport to greet me, like he had been all the times I'd visited him before he died, at least my friend Angela was. She was going with me to , a little ski town about a 90-minute drive from Denver and the best place to bunk if you're going to hike the fourteener Quandary Peak, which we planned to do the following day.
Breckenridge, or "Breck" to locals, sits at 9,600 feet, so just being within its deeply charming borders was going to help me prepare for Kili's 19,341-foot elevation. I hadn't done much research about it though—I didn't know until I got there that it's got a Gold Rush past and a ridiculously picturesque National Historic District filled with Victorian buildings painted sherbet colors with smart shops and restaurants tucked inside. Breck is the kind of town you fall for immediately, fantasizing, if you're a writer, that maybe you'll rent out one of those sweet little bungalows sometime and get to work on that memoir you've been planning. It also butts up against the Rocky Mountains' Tenmile Range, giving it almost unworldly beauty, incredible skiing, and easy access to Quandary Peak. Breckenridge is less than 10 miles away from Quandary. It's also where my brother spent a lot of time snowboarding in his younger years.
And yet somehow it never crossed my mind that I might want to release some of his ashes from the top of Quandary. I was so intent on the event at Red Rocks that I'd overlooked how much sense it made to leave a little Gunnar on the Tenmile Range. It finally came to me the night before the climb, so as Angela and I walked out the door at 5:30 the next morning, I made sure the rolled baggie containing his ashes was tucked in my pack. It comforted me when the trail to the Quandary turned difficult—scary, even —as it did at the treeline, about a mile into the three-mile ascent. Quandary was an almost blissful trek until then, through a fragrant evergreen forest the still-rising sun lit here and there in a gentle, honeyed glow. But Angela was struggling with the altitude and by the treeline, which was just under a 12,000-foot elevation, she decided to turn back, queasy and lightheaded. She took her hydration bladder with her, which we'd been sharing—my fault, I forgot to ask her for it, an embarrassingly rookie mistake—and I was left with less than a liter of water, the best defense against altitude sickness.
I was still doing well, scrambling up the steep, rocky incline through which the trail curved, trodding carefully along the mountain's spine, dappled even in late June with sodden, extremely slippery snow. I began, to my delight, to see mountain goats, who looked on impassively despite my grins. But by the famously difficult last push to the peak, at the bottom of an even more precipitous and craggy section than the first, exhausted and out of water, I became ill. One minute I was fine—worn out, sure, but ready to push to the summit—and the next I was nauseous and dizzy. If I looked downward, at my boots, my stomach roiled like I was on a tiny boat navigating a storm-tossed sea. If I looked upward, at the peak, I immediately had trouble keeping my feet under me. I sat down, dejected, close to tears.
Every 10 minutes or so, my sheer Irish stubbornness got me up and trekking, but I could only go a few feet before I had to sit again, simply unable to stand anymore, much less walk. I began to talk to my brother under my breath, telling him I needed his strength, his help, the way I'd asked for it before I began my hike that morning. After a while, one of the guys I'd noticed working on the trail just above me called down, giving me a head's up that he was going to push a boulder out of the way, so I'd better be ready to jump clear if it rolled wrong. When I told him that I wasn't able to walk, much less jump, that I had altitude sickness, that I was, humiliatingly, out of water, he filled my canteen from his own hydration bladder. Tall and broom pole-skinny, with dreadlocks bouncing against his non-existent hips, he was gentle with me, telling me if I was sick I should get down the mountain, because an adverse reaction to altitude could kill. I promised him I'd drink a lot of water and rest for a half-hour or so. If I wasn't better then, I'd give up.
The thing was, I got better. Not great, not even as strong as I'd been feeling before, but with just enough juice to drag my body up the final 1,100 feet. The summit was beautiful and terrifying, with a little flat-top, like a men's haircut from the 50s, before the rock began to fall away into thin air. Really thin air. At 14,000 feet, your body only gets about 60 percent of the oxygen it processes at sea level. It was windy and freezing up there, too, so after congratulating my fellow trekkers and getting my picture snapped, I walked as far away as I could from everyone else. I unzipped my pack and pulled out Gunnar's ashes, gave the baggie a little kiss and told him I'd love him forever and ever, that I knew he'd always be with me, but now Colorado would have a little of him, too. And then I threw a handful of the sandy-like substance that used to be my brother into the air, watching the wind carry it over the mountain, away.
If that small ceremony was for me and Gunnar, just us two, Red Rocks and the party that followed was for everyone who cared to come. We met in the amphitheatre's restaurant, relaxed over a few drinks, about 15 of us, everyone getting to know who they didn't. When we headed into the place I know Gunnar had been happiest, hanging with friends, watching his favorite bands in the rarified, open-air concert venue formed by natural rock configurations, I was amazed at how many people were there. There were people jogging up and down the stairs, people lounging in the stands, people hanging out down by the stage and up at the top, watching over the scene.
It wasn't exactly private, but we plunged on anyway, a few people speaking about Gunnar, a few more tossing his ashes into the breeze. At the end of it, a young girl, maybe college-age, came over to me. At first I thought she knew Gunnar, was just late getting there, but it turned out she'd been watching us and wanted to offer her condolences. She gave me a quick hug and walked away, leaving me thinking that this—people like her, and the dreadlocked trail angel who had rescued me with water and kindness—was why my brother loved Colorado so much.
The day continued on in Boulder, where I was now staying and where Gunnar had lived for years. There was a gathering at a local tavern that stretched into the evening, with friends dropping by, friends leaving, friends returning, an ever-evolving group brought together by my brother, who united people in death nearly as much as he did in life. At some point I ended up in Nederland, a funky little mountain town located high above Boulder, in a club, watching one of Gunnar's favorite bands play. I finally made it back to my hotel long after dawn, after fête-ing my brother for nearly 24 hours straight. He deserved no less, and much more.
I can't say I feel any differently after the time I spent in Colorado honoring him. I don't feel relief, or a release, or like I let Gunnar go in some way. Like my grief will suddenly now abate. When you lose someone like my brother, someone who was one of your touchstones, someone who you took for granted would always, always be there, I don't think you ever really heal. There's no closure. You just patch yourself up and go on, as best you can. But I'm thinking of other ways I can memorialize him: by wearing some of his ashes in a little vessel around my neck, perhaps. He'll be close to my heart. I like that, and I love the idea of continuing to celebrate him in ways big and small, whatever I can dream up. He'll always be a part of my life that way, not just my past, but also my future. I plan to sprinkle more of him in Colorado, maybe a bit each time I return. My brother was a big guy, after all. There's enough of him to go around.