COLORADO to CALIFORNIA – rituals with ashes and photographs

The Grand Canyon, Arizona. Jane casts some of Josh’s ashes into the void.

We are both exhausted.   Our schedule has turned out to be more punishing then we had anticipated.   We seem to be either on the road desperately trying to get somewhere by nightfall or soaking up more stories than we can really handle. In the midst of it all Josh and our own grief seems to have got a bit lost.   In the back of my mind there is the thought that while this is going to be a really good film, (on account mainly of the extraordinary access we have achieved as all of our new friends have opened up to us and spoken so honestly about their grief – which should make for a remarkably revealing film, not just about grief and loss, but generally about the human ability for survival and creativity) – there are now some huge doubts as to whether we can actually pull it off.

The emotional toll is quite heavy, and practically and physically it doesn’t feel like there are enough hours in the day to relax and just enjoy the moment.   We have barely stopped in the one place before we are off again trying to catch up with ourselves.     And then there’s the nagging question whether anyone out side of bereaved parents are going to want to watch a feature length documentary about deep deep sadness.   There are many lessons here to be sure, about the strength and the courage, the resolve and the love shown by those who have suffered the worst loss of all, all of which add up to an astonishing portrait of human endeavor, yet none of these parents or their families would have chosen this path.   And why would an audience submit to 90 minutes of tears and heartache if they didn’t have to.

These are my constant thoughts as we continue our road trip across the western states and as we try an honour all those who have shared their stories with us. But it is difficult to grieve for Josh. I have found that as we try and understand, and to record the interviews and the experiences of those we have met, he cannot really be with us. Off camera he may creep into the conversation but it’s a fleeting appearance and so the idea that we will try and make our ‘journey with Josh’ part of the overall narrative for our project doesn’t seem to be working out. One of the problems of course is how to film me and my own reflections as I need always to be behind the camera so I can’t be in front of it.   We have brought a GoPro camera which is mounted on the windscreen so that will produce some footage of Jane and my own conversations that may or may not be useful – we shall see.

One of the very first things that I observed after we landed in New York, and to which I am not all familiar or in a sense comfortable with was the small ritual or holding hands before the start of a meal at my nephew Jonny’s house. The mere physicality of touch, of gently and silently joining together in a common shared moment and with it the attempt to bring a greater meaning to that moment is something that I am not used to.   It somehow has felt a false even contrived act that is a substitute for real desire. As a child I remember my father making us stand during the Queens Christmas message on the TV, to be especially still for the National Anthem and all the while thinking how pointless it was – I was never able to grasp the bigger idea this was supposed to connect me to. The opposite really, it serve more to alienate me from the sense of society it was intended to foster.   I could see this as a healthy rebellion against flags and all things patriotic but it may well have produced a disaffection with all things ritualistic.

But of all the things I have learnt on this trip so far, two things emerge. The one, the power of ritual, the second, the need for and the consequence of tears.

Utah – landscape with JoshGG150038

Near Four Corners (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona)GG159918

Dancing children – Maroon Bells  near Aspen Colorado.

We are in Colorado and have risen early in the morning to drive up to Maroon Lake, a small lake with stupendous views of the mountains that surround it.   We have arrived a bit late and already the valley is stuffed full of photographers waiting for that special moment as the first rays of sun hit the peaks.   We don’t bother to count but there are probably 600 or more and still it is only 6.30 am. Our purpose is to find a quiet but scenic spot in which we can perform a small ritual to remember many of the children and their parents for who we hope this project has some value.   Before we left Jane wondered if other parents we knew would like us to take a photo of their dead child with us to celebrate the Day of the Dead in Mexico.   The response was massive and so with us we have around thirty photos all representing a grief that is indeed individually acute, yet collectively has a sense of purpose and a strength in numbers.   We have tied the pictures to two lines and hung them between the aspen trees that are such a part of this landscape.   The wind gets up and we film them fluttering in the high mountain air – they remind us of Nepalese prayer flags.

For us the ritual is significant – we have brought Josh’s business card with us which I photograph in various landscapes. Our constant and continuing attempt to make his presence real as we travel.   Wherever we go his card comes with us, to Scotland, the south of France, to Italy and to Vietnam – proof that we remember him and a small ritual to ease the pain or at least to acknowledge it.

But now his image is joined with others, a collective hand holding on a washing line of sorrow.   But they dance these children, spinning round and round for our camera, showing off but enjoying the early morning breeze, and reminding us that their lives were fun and that we should be glad for them.

We will perform this ritual again – the string that unites them wedged between rocks and strung precipitously over the edge of the Horseshoe Bend in Arizona. On the west coast they will feel the breathe of the Pacific Ocean and in Mexico they will commune with a host of other brothers and sisters – angelitos as the young dead are known.GG150166

Horseshoe Bend, Colorado River near Page Arizona


And the tears?   We have witnessed many.  And many (including fathers and brothers) have spoken openly about the release they provide.   At the Grand Canyon in Arizona we have three sets of ashes to cast into the void, two Josh’s and a George. We camp overnight and return to the spot the next day – and in order to test my own feelings as much as to recall his presence, I shout out Joshua’s name – quietly a first and then long and hard and for a moment I am broken – it is impossible not to weep.GG150377

Late evening – Grand CanyonGG150345

Josh O’Hara’s mum Lorraine asked us to take some of his ashes to the Grand Canyon.GG150350

George Ford’s ashes – with love from his parents Bill and HelenGG150384

Our Josh’s ashes – with love from us

California is our last stop in the USA, and we have a week to consolidate and to recharge our batteries before flying to Mexico for the last leg of our journey.  Dr Carol Kearns and Bob Bingham are our hosts and we stay in their wonderful apartment in San Francisco.   Carol is a psychologist and the author of Sugar Cookies and a Nightmare, a memoir she has written following the death of her daughter Kristen who drowned in 1976 and her 24 years as a grief specialist, and in which she corrects a misguided radio host she calls “Dr. Expert”.   In many ways Carol’s long experience of grief,  her learning and her work as a ‘grief counsellor’ since then would be excellent subject matter for our project and we debate long and hard about the possibilities of including her in the film – but the fact that we already have so many extraordinary stories and so little energy to pull the camera from its nest and set up for what would be long long session is enough to dissuade us all from the task.  Instead we decide to rest up, walk by the sea and eat fresh oysters  together.  But Carol, thank you for your very special hospitality, for your support and we look forward to collaborating as we promote the film next year.

Dr Carol Kearns, Bob Bingham and Jimmy atop their apartment building in San Francisco

Sand Dunes – California

Morro Bay California

Thanks for reading

Jimmy (Oct 2105)

Stories and contributors we have filmed during this part of our journey

 Beth’s Story – Denver Colorado

 Dan and Kelly’s Story – Farmington, New Mexico

 Denise’s Story – Palmdale, California


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