A little over a year ago, we gathered family and friends on an island in Muscongus Bay in Maine to celebrate Peter Hoffmann‘s (my father-in-law) life and bury his ashes in the island cemetery. It was a glorious day—sunny and warm—for a picnic, wine, and shared memories.
Sarah, my mother-in-law, asked the kids to craft parachutes with candy payloads and toss them from the treehouse to represent the Berlin airlift of Peter’s childhood.
Later, we lighted a bonfire, dined in the darkness, and listened to some of Peter’s favorite jazz recordings.
Then Sarah passed away around 3am that night, most likely from a heart failure brought on by a severe asthma attack. She had long struggled with diabetes and asthma.
There is no word for the emotion. Shock is far too tame. Disbelief, a limp noodle of a word. Nothing could be said.
So we said little, hugged a lot, and kept the family close because we were going to bury Sarah’s ashes four days later. This is the birch log one of her three sons hollowed out to hold Sarah’s ashes.
Giotto, Sarah and Peter’s dog, kept vigil while we waited to bury her beside Peter.
Throughout the days following her death, Giotto would suddenly stand, look out the window and howl silently.
This past August, family members gathered on the island to honor Sarah’s life. She loved children, always engaging them with stories and activities, like the parachute project for Peter’s memorial. Often times, sparklers were involved.
So we constructed a wooden origami crane. Our son and his cousins designed, nailed, nail-gunned, taped, and wired sparklers, roman candles, and fireworks waterfalls to the structure. Then at dusk, we set it floating on Muscungus Bay before lighting it on fire. We didn’t have a proper camera for the event, so phone shots will have to suffice.
Setting the crane afloat on the old raft, The Rusty Blade:
Waiting for darkness:
Shimmering across the bay:
Sarah also loved poetry. So when we returned, I donated to Tupelo Press’s 30/30 project, where selected poets write and publish a poem a day each month. I sponsored a poem from one of my favorite poets, and gave him only a title as starting point. Here’s Robert Okaji’s stunning and uncanny result:
Setting Fire to the Origami Crane (the one floating on Muscongus Bay) at Sunset / by Robert Okaji
Who is to say which comes first, the flaming crane
or the sunset’s burst just over the horizon
and under the clouds? There are causes and causations,
an illness named bad air and another attributed to wolf
bites, neither accurate. There is the paraffin to melt,
and the folded paper resting comfortably nearby, with
a small, unopened tin of shoe polish and the sound of
tears striking newsprint. You know the myth of the
Viking burial — the burning ship laden with treasure
and the deceased clothed in all his finery. But pyres
are lighted to make ash of bodies, to ease the soul’s
transition to the heavens. Think of how disturbing
it would be to come upon the charred lumps of your
loved one washed ashore. And other myths — various
versions of the afterlife created to bend wills and
foster hope where little exists — to which have you
departed? There are no returns in your future, no more
givings, and your ashes have dispersed among the clouds
and in the water. They’ve been consumed by earth and
sky, inhaled and swallowed, digested, coughed out but
never considered for what they were. So I’ve printed
your name a thousand times on this sheet, and will
fold and launch it, aflame, watching the letters that
comprise you, once again, rise and float, mingle
and interact, forming acquaintances, new words,
other names, partnerships, loves, ascending to the end.
Thank you, Robert. Sarah would have loved the poem you didn’t know you were writing for her.
Find more of Robert Okaji’s poems on his website: O at the Edges
or at the Tupelo Press 30/30 Project website under August poems. These will only be available until the end of September.
35 thoughts on “Setting Fire to the Origami Crane – For Sarah Briggs Hoffmann”
What a beautiful and inspiring celebration of life. Your words have touched my heart.
Thank you, Pam. Life should be celebrated, shouldn’t it? Thank you for stopping by!
Reblogged this on Zenkatwrites's Blog and commented:
I have no words for this amazing post. Left me breathless with emotion.
Jilanne this is an exceptional post. I reposted, walked away, got a second cuppa joe, and am about to make my husband read this. I still feel like I have no words. Very emotional post, for me.
Oh, Kate, thank you! I am struggling to find more words to say in response to your comment, as well. I do think that we should celebrate life, and life includes death.
Beautiful post, Jilanne, and what an amazingly relevant and moving poem he has created. Sometimes it’s easier to give a life the celebration it deserves after enough time has passed for the grief to have lost its rawness.
Thank you, FF. Yes, time provides a much broader perspective. Robert’s poem stuns me. The world is an uncanny place.
What a difficult time this must have been for you all, but as another commenter said, what a beautiful way to celebrate their life and pay tribute to them. Lovely poem as well.
Thanks, Carrie. Yes, it was difficult, but the memorial celebration was beautiful and something that would have pleased Sarah immensely. Robert’s poem, well, he’s binding it along with a handful of other poems he wrote last month to send to me. Can’t wait to get it!
By your description of Sarah, I would have enjoyed her company. What a beautiful send off…one that seems to capture her spirit well.
Yes, she would have loved the entire process. She was a very creative person, always inspiring kids to build things and explore.
What a lovely tribute. My brother just recently and unexpectedly passed away. We will have his memorial in the summer. I appreciate your sharing, and I offer my condolences.
Thank you! Yes, it’s a difficult thing to lose someone, even if you have time to prepare. I believe that a piece of our heart is taken by each one we lose. But, thankfully, unlike King Lear, heartbanks are infinite; they do not deal in finite amounts of currency. My sympathy to you and your family.
I’ve just started reading King Lear–how interesting to bring him up. He definitely dealt with loss. What lessons he imparts concerning choices and consequences.
The discourse among Lear and his daughters monetizes love and makes it seem like one has only so much love to give, so when you parcel out the finite stuff, someone is going to come up short. We did an analysis of this topic in one of my Shakes classes when I was getting my MFA. Fascinating stuff!
Indeed! Would have been interesting to hear.
This post made me tear up but also smile. I love that you gathered a year later for Sarah so that she got her time to be honored. There’s something special about making and taking the time to come back together at a later date and remember someone who lived and mattered so deeply, as we all do. The crane and the poem is an amazing way to do that. Much love to you, my friend.
Thanks, Laurel. The year did give us some much-needed time to figure out how we could best honor her memory. Funny thing is, everyone started talking about how much fun it was, how beautiful, and that they wanted to do something like it again next year. So maybe this is the beginning of a tradition.
That’s such a lovely outcome. It shows you how the heart is resilient and looks forward even as it’s holding onto treasured memories. I love the traditions that can arise from something like this.
A simply beautiful memorial and tribute to both of your in-laws. Thank you for sharing with all of us. Other comments have really perfectly captured all I felt when I read this too, so I will leave it at that and send my condolences to you and your family.
Thank you, Marcy.
Oh, Jilanne, there is a solemnity and a kind of grace in the endings, and we need to let ourselves be touched by each others’ marking of leavings. Celebrating the being here and the pain of leaving can’t exist without the other. And this – your shared event, sharing it with us, that poem which touches something universal, is quite precious. Thank you
So true, LF. Birth and death are universal. And we each hope, I think, to find the celebration in both, as well as within the life that is lived in between. Thank you.
Oh, honey! That is a lot, all at once. What a lovely tribute you guys did for both of them. Much love.
Thanks, Britt. I do prefer some form of celebration of a life. It just feels right.
Very touching. A beautiful tribute.
Thank you, Michelle. Wouldn’t it be lovely to give all of our loved ones some kind of sparkling sendoff, even if it’s just a bit of bioluminescence as the ashes disperse in the ocean?
Wow amazing, both what you wrote, and the poem! Both made me feel emotional and elated at the same time. Hard to find the words really.
Thanks, Vanessa. That’s pretty much how I felt when we did this. And then when I read Robert’s poem, well, I was overcome.
mom Giotto wasnt silent he was just quiet. he would whimper-howl.
I remember him standing and looking like he was howling but our only being able to hear a kind of whooshing of air sound coming from his muzzle. Is that what you mean by whimper-howl?
No, he was whining.