For three years, the ashes sat in plastic containers at the back of a seldom-used cabinet in my living room. They stayed out of sight, but rarely out of mind, while I waited for the right time to carry out the instructions I knew by heart.
When I finally opened the containers, I breathed deeply and whispered “Hello again, Kathleen.” It felt like a solemn act, as if peering inside my friend’s soul. Her cremated ashes were fine, like flour or sugar, with white specks sprinkled throughout. Bone. Blessed bone of a beloved friend.
Carefully, I poured the special dust into six Ziploc bags to carry in my luggage. They were going to one of Kathleen’s favorite places – Tuscany.
Many times before she died, Kathleen had talked about wanting a group of friends to travel to Italy to spread her ashes. I didn’t know if she truly meant it until I opened the mail, six months after her death, and saw a check from “the estate of Kathleen McClain.” Here was proof that her idea was not just a whim. She had put it in her will.
Traveling was Kathleen’s passion, and Italy was her favorite destination. Over 16 trips, she had learned the language and fallen in love with the country – and at least two of its handsome men.
Holding the check, I started to cry. She had died on June 13, 2013, just 60 years old, after struggling with heart disease and cancer for 10 years. I had driven her to the ER many times, spent hours visiting her in a hospice house, and stood beside her as she died. Since then, I had propped Kathleen’s picture on my fireplace where I could see it often — her dark eyes and beautiful smile, almost life size, in a moment of pure delight. Now, holding this check, I felt as if she were watching me, thrilled at my reaction to the posthumous unfolding of her plan.
In a typed note, she had instructed us to visit two sites in Tuscany, the lush green central region of Italy. The first was Sant’Anna in Camprena, an agriturismo (a working farm that hosts tourists) near the medieval cities of Pienza, Montalcino and Montepulciano. Its central attraction is a 15th-century monastery-turned-bed-and-breakfast that had been featured in the 1996 film “The English Patient.”
The second spot was another agriturismo on the remote island of Giglio. Kathleen included the phonetic spelling – “gee-lee-o” – to make sure we pronounced the island’s name correctly.
She had visited these places often and become friends with the proprietors. The attraction was, in part, spectacular views – rolling hills and tall, thin cypress trees around the monastery; steep rocky slopes on the island, surrounded by turquoise sea.
But she probably loved them most because they hadn’t yet been spoiled by tourists. Kathleen was passionate about this. She believed Cortona had been ruined by Frances Mayes, whose book “Under the Tuscan Sun” remains so popular that tour buses regularly stop to let visitors see Bramasole, the author’s refurbished villa. Just the mention of Rick Steves, whose travel books and TV shows have a huge following, would provoke a sneer. She wanted no part of tour groups.
So, the six of us, friends from five different cities, planned our memorial trip in Kathleen’s tradition: No outside help – just us, exchanging emails and dividing duties. This was no easy assignment. It took three years to arrange our trip, in June 2016, in part because it was so hard to find dates that worked for everyone. Also, Kathleen’s chosen destinations weren’t on rail lines or close to big cities. We briefly consulted a travel agent, who wondered why we would choose such remote locations. So, on our own, we arranged every detail. One of our first and best decisions was to splurge on a rental van with a driver.
Most of us were already friends, having worked with Kathleen as reporters at the Observer. Pam Kelley and I still live in Charlotte. Liz Clarke had moved to Washington, D.C., Diane Suchetka to Cleveland and Ricki Morell to Boston. Peggy Burch, who had known Kathleen the longest, still lives in Memphis, where they had been newspaper reporters in the 1980s. Peggy had met the rest of us only once, at the memorial service, but she didn’t balk at the idea of spending two weeks overseas with near strangers.
In the security line at the Charlotte airport, I watched anxiously as the TSA agent took extra time reviewing my carry-on bag under the scanner.
With a puzzled look on his face, he asked: Is this sand?
No, I said. It’s ashes.
The agent did a quick test that confirmed I wasn’t carrying explosives. After that, no one asked again.
Kathleen, who knew Italian bureaucracy all too well, had warned us to be careful. In her directions, she wrote that scattering ashes “in no way counts as a ‘burial,’ the mere mention of which would trigger 6,000 miles and 75 years worth of Italian red tape.”
So, we didn’t talk much to other people about the purpose of our trip, only that we were traveling in Kathleen’s memory. I’d followed online directions about how to travel with cremated remains.
My eyes welled as I spoke to her in spirit, remembering moments over 25 years. There was the time she called me from a bathroom in Germany, where she was reporting on Billy Graham’s 1990 visit to the crumbling Berlin Wall, and I took dictation of her front-page story on deadline. On less hectic days, we’d often walk to a private spot in the newspaper building where we could talk without being overheard. After she went on medical disability, we’d visit for hours on her couch or in her hospital room.
Kathleen’s decline was caused by the very treatment that once saved her life. In the 1970s, radiation therapy had cured her of Hodgkin’s disease. But 30 years later, when she began having trouble breathing, she learned the radiation had irreparably damaged her heart and left her susceptible to cancer – a phenomenon now well recognized by the medical community.
In 2009, when doctors said they had nothing more to offer, they referred her to hospice with the expectation she would die soon. But after 10 months of terrific care in a Huntersville hospice house, she actually improved. They discharged her, and she lived four more years.
At our first Tuscan stop, the Sant’Anna monastery, proprietors Ornella and Stefano welcomed us warmly and showed us pictures of Kathleen from past visits. We walked the grounds looking for the right place.
I searched for a special tree that I’d seen in one of Kathleen’s pictures. On the back, she had written “My spot.”
We found the tree, just off the gravel driveway lined with cypress trees, overlooking the valley, Val d’Orcia. The six of us stood in a circle, plastic bags in hand, with no real plan, just a wish to honor Kathleen. It happened to be June 13, the anniversary of her death.
Ricki read a poem she had written in 2009, when everyone thought Kathleen’s death was imminent. We told stories, shed tears and shared a group hug. Then we separated to spread ashes in our chosen spots. Afterwards, we gathered in the dining hall for homemade pici, a thick spaghetti-like pasta special to the region. We happily followed the rest of Kathleen’s written directions – that the ritual should be “light-hearted and fun, eased along before, during and after with local wine and lots of laughter.”
For the second leg of our trip, we drove to the coast and took a ferry to the island of Giglio. From the main port, we caught a water taxi for a hang-on-to-your-hats ride to the landing for Pardini’s Hermitage, the B&B Kathleen had specified.
As we disembarked, we stared up in amazement. The only way to the hotel was to climb dozens of steep stone steps. As we tackled the zigzag steps like a line of ants on a mound of dirt, we marveled at how Kathleen had managed with her ailing heart. We envisioned her stopping frequently to catch her breath and absorb the view of the Tyrrhenian Sea and its remarkable blue hues.
That night, we held our second ceremony on a landing overlooking the water. Again in a circle, we shared memories and a poem before spreading the remaining ashes. After the rest of us had finished, Peggy was still at it, bent over and descending stone steps, leaving bits of Kathleen all the way down to the sea.
Finally, Ricki suggested that we each describe Kathleen in just one word.
“Enchanting,” I said. And the others followed.
“Generous,” said Pam, adding that “Stubborn” would have been her second choice.
We smiled. We’d all seen that stubbornness. It may have been what helped Kathleen live so long after doctors gave up. She had insisted on remaining in her Dilworth bungalow long after it seemed – to some of us, anyway – dangerous for her to live alone. She resisted our efforts to declutter her “junk room” – an appropriate name for the spare room piled with old clothes, books and yellowed newspaper clippings. After Kathleen died, I especially enjoyed tossing out a drawer full of 1960s-style tube socks.
But it was, in part, Kathleen’s frugal nature that allowed her to save money for her travels – and to have enough left to pay for ours. She didn’t have a husband or children. But she knew she was loved and would be missed by family and friends. She knew that during our trip to Italy, she’d live with us again. We would think of her and wish she were along to show us around and correct our pronunciation.
Kathleen’s lasting gift was to leave us this final, sacred task. When I bent to scatter her gray ashes, they didn’t float in the breeze the way I’d expected, the way I’d seen in movies. Instead they settled softly on the grass, the plants, the earth. It all felt right. We had finished our job. She was where she belonged.
This story first ran at CharlotteObserver.com.