The Pil­grim­age

A bridge span­ning the Ver­mil­lion River helps sym­bol­ize the eter­nal bond of love

Our Canada - - Features | Departments - by Reg Couldridge,

A bit­ter­sweet tale of a lov­ing hus­band who, on their an­niver­sary, heads to the spe­cial spot where he’d scat­tered his beloved wife’s ashes.

It was a long trip. Some might say that it was not re­ally worth it. How­ever, when I con­sider the thou­sands of miles fol­low­ers of the Is­lamic faith travel en route to Mecca, and the hard­ships that thou­sands of Chris­tians en­dure dur­ing pil­grim­ages to Chris­tian sa­cred sites, a few hun­dred miles is not very far.

It was nec­es­sary for me, on that spe­cial day, to visit the place where I scat­tered the re­mains of my late wife. June 17 was our wed­ding an­niver­sary. In all the years we were mar­ried, I never missed our an­niver­sary. I used to pre­tend that I had for­got­ten the date, that I thought it was on June 15 or 16. Meryl learned to ex­pect me to deny that I re­mem- bered it, and it turned into an an­nual joke between us.

When Meryl passed away on Oc­to­ber 17, 2009, she was cre­mated as she had re­quested. Fol­low­ing the well-at­tended ser­vice to cel­e­brate her life, the im­me­di­ate fam­ily ac­com­pa­nied me to the Ver­mil­ion River, which winds its way through Capreol in north­ern On­tario. My dis­abled wife and I had owned a home there, and she got great plea­sure in our fre­quent drives along the banks of this beau­ti­ful river. We al­ways used to stop by a bridge that crossed the river and watch its cur­rent swirl south­ward.

When she was alive, I would take a fold­ing chair and place it as close to the wa­ter’s edge as pos­si­ble. Meryl would sit qui­etly, read­ing a book or watch­ing my at­tempts to catch fish. She sat there, soak­ing in the beauty of the scenery, un­til I was will­ing to con­cede that once again the fish had out­smarted me.

I chose that par­tic­u­lar spot to scat­ter Meryl’s re­mains be­cause of Meryl’s love of trav­el­ling and all the places we had en­joyed to­gether over the years. The Ver­mil­ion River winds its way through serene farm­lands to the mu­nic­i­pal­ity of Chelmsford. It joins up with the Span­ish River, which con­tin­ues through Es­panola and Webb­wood. The

Above: Photos of Reg and Meryl through the years, from their wed­ding day to just one year be­fore Meryl passed away.

wa­ters then flow into Lake Huron, past Lac Sainte-claire and Lake Erie and over Ni­a­gara Falls into Lake On­tario. They quickly move past Stoney Creek, Hamil­ton, Mis­sis­sauga, Toronto and Scar­bor­ough, and pro­ceed down the St. Lawrence River into the At­lantic Ocean. The Gulf Stream of the At­lantic moves north­ward, pick­ing up the wa­ters and car­ry­ing them across the At­lantic Ocean, where they brush the coast of south Wales and south­ern Eng­land. I had not only given Meryl the op­por­tu­nity to visit all of the places we had lived in Canada one fi­nal time but also sent her home to the land of her birth and the her­itage she was so proud of.

My drive north took longer than usual due to high­way con­struc­tion. I did not mind, be­cause my mind was oc­cu­pied with the many mem­o­ries of when Meryl and I trav­elled this route. Sev­eral times, I found my­self talk­ing out loud, as though my wife were alive and with me in the car. It was for­tu­nate that the road was al­most clear of other traf­fic. Any­one who ob­served that old man driv­ing alone and talk­ing to an empty car would have be­lieved him to be crazy, but I was not alone. I knew that Meryl’s im­mor­tal spirit was trav­el­ling with me that day.

As I ap­proached the roads that led to Capreol, I had a strong de­sire to take a back route that I knew al­ways gave Meryl great plea­sure. At one point, the road is nar­row and rises so sud­denly that the road ahead is no longer vis­i­ble. Then, it de­scends sud­denly on the other side of the hill. It does this not once but four times; af­ter the fourth time, it nar­rows into one lane to cross a wooden Bai­ley bridge. Meryl used to scream out, “Weee!” as the car de­scended from each of these hills. I would also drive faster than safety would sug­gest, en­sur­ing she got the full ef­fect. As we both screamed out our “Weee!” we would burst out laugh­ing like a cou­ple of teenagers. Our ac­tions were very im­ma­ture, but if two adults can­not en­gage in child­like be­hav­ior when they are on their own, when can they? Be­sides, it hurt no one and gave us great amuse­ment and plea­sure.

As I reached the top of the first rise, I felt the pres­ence of my late wife Meryl stronger than I have felt it since she passed away. The feel­ing was so strong that I could not re­sist the urge to glance to­wards the pas­sen­ger seat be­side me. For a split sec- ond, I could see her just as I re­mem­ber her. Her image was look­ing to­wards the road ahead and sud­denly turned to­wards me and smiled in an­tic­i­pa­tion of the ap­proach­ing hill. The image ap­peared to be­gin the cus­tom­ary “Weee!” and I started to join in. Sud­denly, the image was gone. I screamed out our cry even louder as my car went over each rise and kept scream­ing un­til it reached the bridge. I knew from that point on that Meryl was in­deed with me and that we would be to­gether on our an­niver­sary as we had al­ways been.

I was to stay at my brother’s house in Capreol, but be­fore I ar­rived there, I had to drive along the river­bank. It was just as I re­mem­bered it, still flow­ing strong and un­changed. I crossed over the bridge, turned around and then pro­ceeded to my brother’s home, stop­ping for a se­cond to wipe my eyes and re­gain my pos­ture. When I ar­rived, my brother Mick was wait­ing for me with a hot meal.

On June 16, I pur­chased flow­ers at the lo­cal store. I drove down the river in the pour­ing rain, crossed the bridge and parked. Af­ter walk­ing to the cen­tre of the bridge, I dropped the flow­ers one by one into the crys­tal-clear, fast-flow­ing river. Each time I dropped a flower, I re­mem­bered some­thing Meryl and I had done to­gether. I spoke the words of re­mem­brance out loud, although I know that what­ever di­men­sion Meryl now re­sides in she can read my thoughts. I be­lieve she could do that when she was alive. I left the bridge that Wed­nes­day, vow­ing to re­turn the next day.

The Thurs­day was a beau­ti­ful day, and the sun was shin­ing. As I parked my car along­side the bridge, I stopped to pick

As I reached the top of the first rise, I felt the pres­ence of my late wife Meryl stronger than I have felt it since she passed away.

some wild­flow­ers. I took the col­lec­tion of white, yel­low, blue and pur­ple flow­ers with me to the mid­dle of the bridge. I spoke to Meryl as if she was stand­ing be­side me. Like the pre­vi­ous day, I threw the flow­ers into the wa­ters one by one to make the mo­ment last. I stood on the bridge as the cur­rent car­ried the flow­ers down its wind­ing path, watch­ing un­til the last flower was al­most out of sight.

Be­fore I left the bridge that day, I felt the need to stretch my hand out across the wa­ter. On my pinky fin­ger was the wed­ding ring I had placed on Meryl’s hand the day we were mar­ried. I wanted Meryl and the spir­its of the river to see it and know that the love it sym­bol­ized did not die. She had worn the ring every day of our mar­riage; the only time she re­moved it was dur­ing hos­pi­tal­iza­tions. Even on those oc­ca­sions, she en­sured that she had it close to her. But on the night she died, she had taken the ring off her hand and placed it in a tray in our din­ing room. We had of­ten joked that if she ever gave me the ring back, our mar­riage vows would be de­clared void. I of­ten made out that I was try­ing to take the ring from her and she would re­sist and say, “Off of my dead body.” It was as if her fi­nal ges­ture with the ring was an in­di­ca­tion that she knew her time was im­mi­nent and wanted to save me the dis­agree­able task of re­mov­ing it. She had given it back to me and re­leased me from my vows.

I ad­mit that I wiped tears from my eyes as I re­turned to the car and drove away from the bridge. Sim­i­lar tears are mak­ing it dif­fi­cult for me to write this ac­count of my pil­grim­age. I am not one who is prone to weep- ing. I have seen a lot of sorrow dur­ing my life, but I never re­ally knew the pain of lone­li­ness un­til Meryl had to leave me. Ours was not a phys­i­cal re­la­tion­ship be­cause of Meryl’s health over her last few years, but it was one of pure love, sup­port and fond com­pan­ion­ship that peo­ple of ad­vanced age need to en­rich their fi­nal days.

Be­fore I left Capreol, I paid one last visit to the bridge. At my age, I did not know how many times I could make the trip. I do not re­ally be­lieve it mat­ters if I can­not re­turn to that spe­cial bridge again. The words from a fa­mous poem that I spoke at Meryl’s me­mo­rial ser­vice came back to me, “Do not stand at my grave and cry, I am not there, I did not die.” Those words now have more sig­nif­i­cance for me than ever be­fore. Meryl lives on in my mem­o­ries.

On my re­turn drive to south­ern On­tario, I felt Meryl’s pres­ence with me all the way. Large dis­tances, and even death, do not cre­ate a bar­rier when a bond has been es­tab­lished. I have al­ways be­lieved that death is only a stop on a per­son’s life jour­ney. It is not the end but merely a new be­gin­ning.

Since that first pil­grim­age to the banks of the Ver­mil­ion River, I have made sev­eral more trips to pay my ev­er­last­ing re­spect and ex­press my thanks to my late wife. Each time, I am filled with a host of mixed and con­flict­ing emo­tions. There is joy in re­liv­ing the mem­o­ries of our life to­gether and sad­ness that she is no longer here to in­spire me. There is pride in all that we achieved to­gether, as well as re­gret for things I should have said and done when I had the chance.

That par­tic­u­lar spot on that beau­ti­ful river has come to sym­bol­ize my love and de­vo­tion to all those things that mean so much to me. My love for a loyal and beau­ti­ful woman, my love of na­ture’s beauty and all of God’s cre­ations, my de­vo­tion to my fam­ily and friends, and my de­sire to con­tinue to live my life as Meryl would have wanted me to. The con­stant flow of the river has come to sym­bol­ize that life also must con­tinue to flow un­til it reaches the place it is des­tined for.

To the many peo­ple, young and old, who fre­quent the banks of the Ver­mil­ion River, I say, “En­joy its beauty and take plea­sure in its splendour. Let it help you cre­ate your own per­sonal mem­o­ries as it has for me.” It is a phys­i­cal sym­bol of God’s ev­er­last­ing love, which will flow long af­ter most of us have passed on to our fi­nal re­ward. n

Reg drops flow­ers off the bridge over the Ver­mil­lion River in hon­our of his late wife.

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