When I visited the Sonoran Desert for the first time in September 2006, the landscape left me speechless. I felt like I was underwater, experiencing an ecosystem that was entirely “other” to what I always knew growing up on the East Coast.
Carl took this photo of me on our first hike in the Sonoran, a month before he asked me to marry him.
This was our first hike together, and I was not prepared. But my smile is genuine, even though I’m wearing fashion sneakers that slid all over the pebbly sand. I did not become athletic or even outdoorsy until a few years into our marriage. This trip was a turning point because it showed me what I could do.
Now I am drawn to the Sonoran Desert because of the constant interplay between life and death. While this interplay exists in all ecosystems, it’s most apparent to me here.
We live in a culture that tries to erase death at every turn. Instead of died, we say passed away. Instead of funeral, we say Celebration of Life. But death cannot be erased in the desert. Death defies erasure. The desert is the most necessary memento mori that exists.
Leaving always breaks my heart.
From what I’m told, my paternal grandmother loved the desert too. She’s buried there now, in the shade of a Creosote.
She lived in a neighborhood studded by prickly pears and Palo Verdes. But she planted shamrocks in her backyard, made them bloom beneath her kitchen window.
The first time I stood in what was once my grandmother’s backyard, my aunt pointed out her shamrocks. I tried to photograph them, but it was too dark. I couldn’t capture their essence. As I stood in the spot where her hands once plunged into rocky earth, I could feel my grandmother’s faith. Her spunk. I could sense her capacity for imagination.
The great sadness of my life is that I didn’t know this grandmother. She moved to Phoenix before I was born. My parents separated a year after my birth. Their divorce was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf messy. But the aftermath is what I remember, and I think it was worse. With the exception of my father’s father, I was cut off from the rest of the family.
Until the day she died, my grandmother carried my photo in her wallet. She wore my name on a charm around her wrist. She never stopped loving me. But I have no memory of her.
Still, I always think of her when I walk the desert. I conjure the story of who she was, and who we could have been together.
Last weekend, when I hiked Saguaro National Park with Carl, tears pooled in my eyes. “I should have seen this with my grandmother,” I told him, then blew my nose.
Grief is not linear. It’s more like a wave that rolls right back out to sea once it hits the shore. There’s no end point. No exit.
The first time I visited my grandmother’s grave, I wept as I wept when my own mother died. I did not expect the crush of sadness I felt. I placed my hand on her grave, as if I could touch her. This motion staunched my tears. I resolved to know her as best I could.
This year, when I touched her grave, I breathed Creosote and said the metta prayer: May you be happy. May you be well. May you be at ease.
My grandmother died not knowing that I loved her. There is nothing I can do to rectify that fact. On Sunday, I placed a rock I collected from the Chesapeake Bay on her grave. This rock came from the same beach where I scattered my mother’s ashes five years ago. Before I left the gravesite, I picked up a pink pebble and tucked it into my purse.
I wanted to carry a small part of this place away with me, as if I could merge with the desert, with my grandmother, as if such a thing could be.