A New Cairn for the Girls

The photo memories dished up by Amazon – via my Kindle Fire – and Facebook in my newsfeed are often bittersweet. Every June I’m reminded of the passing of my Alaskan Malamute Maia at age 14 in 2013, and then six weeks later in July, my Alaskan Malamute Meadow, age twelve.

Oh, the girls. So important to me and my growth as a human, giving me the courage and ability to explore wilderness, just the three of us. Teaching me to see, listen, and be in nature.

First, starting in May, I see the photos taken of Maia, whose old age was finally catching up to her. Shortly after she passed in June, I learned Meadow had bone cancer and realized my time with her was short. Those photos especially, showing up on my Kindle as I read in bed at night, used to make me cry because Meadow was gone long before I expected.

Then, July and August bring photos of the cairns I built in the forest later that summer of 2013, remote Idaho locations the girls and I visited frequently where I could discretely leave some of their ashes. I built a few additional cairns in subsequent years. They’re all in places where I took photos of the girls as we explored new trails and where, later, I took photos of Finn and Conall as we visited the girls in spirit.

That summer of 2013 was incredibly difficult. I never imagined I’d lose both girls in the same year, let alone the same summer. I was grateful for Finn, helping me cope. Building the cairns, with Finn by my side, was cathartic.

Visiting the cairns every subsequent year – waiting for winter’s deep snows to melt and grant access, wondering if the cairns had survived winter intact and rebuilding as necessary, watching wildflowers bloom nearby in summer, followed by autumn colors and the next winter’s early snows – became an ongoing healing ritual. Painful grief eventually morphed into celebrations of our time together.

Last summer, one of the most challenging parts of leaving Idaho for Vermont, emotionally, was no longer being able to visit those cairns on a regular basis. I felt my heart thump hard in my chest the first time that realization hit me. How could I leave the girls behind? I knew I’d probably never see the cairns again, and that broke my heart.

My only consolation? Bringing a box of Idaho forest rocks with me to Vermont, along with what I had left of the girls’ ashes. I resolved to build them a new cairn in my new home.

I’d been collecting the rocks over several years, one by one when the mood struck or one caught my eye, while in the forest in places that made me think of the girls. I stowed them in my running pack, then stacked them on a workbench in my garage as the collection grew.

My original idea was to build a cairn for the girls in the wildflower garden at my Idaho house. I never did. I don’t know why.

My Facebook memories feed reminded me that July 22nd was the ninth anniversary of Meadow’s passing, just as June 6th was the ninth anniversary of Maia’s passing. I thought about the cairns in Idaho’s forest. I thought about how much I miss running to the cairns, tending them, saying hello to the girls.

That bit of grief and nostalgia motivated me.

As the sun was peacefully dropping toward the horizon in a clear blue Vermont sky the evening of July 22nd, I found the box of rocks I brought with me a year ago.

I laid the rocks next to a large boulder in my yard, one with a flat surface showing above the lawn. Some hostas, spiraea and bedstraw grow along its edges. Since moving here, I’ve admired that boulder. It’s so… Vermont.

large flat-topped boulder in a yard, photographer's shadow cast across boulder, several small stones nearby in grass
The setting sun casts my shadow across the yard boulder, my Idaho rocks waiting in the grass. July 22, 2022.

I built the girls a new cairn, the boulder its strong base.

Conall and Finn watched from the fenced-in area of the yard.

In addition to Idaho forest rocks, the new cairn includes two bits of road concrete with pebbles embedded. They’re from my childhood home on Lake Sammamish, in Washington state. A friend, who grew up next door to me, retrieved them when the 1950s roadbed was removed and replaced with new pavement. Those pieces anchor each side of the cairn, giving it physical and emotional stability.

I’m pleased with the results.

As the sun set, painting the horizon orange, I placed some of the girls’ ashes on the rocks.

I added a bloom from my father’s day lilies, the other sentimental “bit of home” brought from Idaho to Vermont. The lilies began to bloom just days earlier, a relief after planting the bulbs last fall with fingers crossed. My father loved dogs, including the girls.

cairn on boulder in yard, ashes and day lily added, dogs in fenced yard in background
The girls’ Vermont cairn, graced with a day lily bloom.

Finally, I offered the girls the same mantra I did every time I built one of their cairns in Idaho’s forest or later, ran by one: “I love you. I miss you. Thank you.”

I hadn’t said that to the girls for a year.

Inside the box containing what remains of the girls’ ashes, I found this bonus I had packed safely away: a wall hanging I created from their collars and tags, leash coupler, and paw prints in plaster made just days before they passed. I’d forgotten about it. It’s now hanging on my bedroom wall.

two dog collars with tags hanging from a coupler, paw print in plaster hanging inside each collar

Summer breezes have already spread the girls’ ashes around the boulder into the lawn, as I expected. Winter’s strong winds may topple this new cairn, especially the smaller stones at its apex. If so, I have a backup location in the back yard that’s more protected. But I hope the cairn thrives in this spot. I can see it easily from inside the house, and the boys and I pass by every time we leave and return home for our walks. It feels right.

These rocks, now comprising a cairn, and my father’s day lilies growing and blooming in my yard, are simple yet powerful symbols and warm reminders of amazing beings in my life and my relationships with them.

They’re my family, joining me in my journeys, wherever I go.

Feature image: Conall peeks through the girls’ new cairn, July 22, 2022.

12 thoughts on “A New Cairn for the Girls”

  1. What wonderful ways to honor your beloved girls, Rebecca! I’ve never built a cairn nor do I know much about them. Are they always built with passed loved ones in mind? I wonder what people think when they come across the ones you built in Idaho? So glad you’re able to do this. Lovely photos and you have a lovely smile as well! Mona

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Historically, cairns were used for wayfinding as well as memorials. I chose the latter for mine. In recent years, they’ve become controversial in public places among the “leave no trace” crowd, with some destroying any they come across (even though they’re leaving traces with their mountain bike tires), so I learned to build my small memorial cairns far away from trails while in Idaho.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I had no idea that a grouping of rocks would upset some. I guess I don’t understand that mindset. Litter is one thing, tearing up the land with tire tracks, too, but a small gathering of rocks? I’m glad you’ve found places off the beaten path for your memorials. 🙂 M

    Liked by 1 person

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