Grief is like a gaudy hat, in that everyone will wear it a little differently. Wailing was never my style. Moping? Waste of time. Same with self-medication. My war-hero older brother attends Mass daily and lights candles for the lost. I respect his faith, but despite my Catholic upbringing, I never really embraced the afterlife thing. It always struck me as a hedge for people uncomfortable with the here and now.

Unfortunately, because of unwelcome repetition, I’ve gotten a chance to refine my grieving style over the past two years. That set me off in search of more creative ideas for remembering the people I’ve loved and lost. Might there be ways to keep them alive not only in my memory, but also more tangibly?

A few years back, I started using my iPhone to keep in touch with the departed. I’d scroll through the nearly 2,000 names in my contacts, pausing to remember whenever I’d run across the listing for someone now gone, like a melancholy elephant sifting and swaying as it sorts the bones of the fallen.

IPhone grief is a surprisingly effective way to remember the dead. For example, under the B’s: Mark Bowling, my cousin’s son, his body battered by diabetes since childhood, dead at 39 while awaiting a liver transplant. Seeing his name reminds me that diabetes runs in our family; my grandfather, father, and both brothers suffered its ravages, though I’m as yet unaffected. Mark reminds me to keep fit, eat sensibly, and nag my kids to live smart in the long shadow of that condition.

I scroll into the D’s, past Jay Dantry, a supportive bookstore owner in my hometown; on to the H’s and Oakley Hall, who founded a writing workshop that was influential for me; past Jason Samani, a longtime soccer buddy in his early 50s who died by suicide not long after sending his only son off to college. He left behind an angry young man, a lightning-struck wife, and a lesson in how some people hide despair behind their smiles.

But while smartphone sorrow is effective, it’s also ephemeral. A few minutes of screen time just doesn’t seem like enough of a tribute, considering how much some of those people meant to me. So, in 2020—a particularly rough year for me, mortalitywise—I started thinking about more productive ways to grieve. I arrived, eventually, at the idea of converting memories into kilowatts.

I understand if you have questions.

The idea began with my late sister. Lisa died in 2015, after spending the final 18 years of her life on a four-acre patch of paradise along the Colorado River in Granby. I adored her, and our regular visits to see her convinced my wife and me, in 2016, to abandon our California home and move into the house she left behind.

The thing is, in a way, she still lives here. During her nearly two decades on this particular piece of land, Lisa planted a lot of trees and created a few gardens. She designated each tree she planted or garden she tilled for one of her six children or 12 grandchildren. She called them by name. “Henry had a tough winter,” she might say of the red osier dogwood named after her daughter Allison’s youngest son. Or, “I wonder if Garrett will ever straighten out?” she might lament about the hunched blue spruce named for her daughter Beth’s only child. She named the lilac hedge along the front fence for our then elderly parents and often worried about them, as in, “I don’t think Mom and Dad get enough sun.”

When my sister got a devastating medical diagnosis in spring 2015, she immediately directed me, her executor, to a small box in her living room. It contained a hand-drawn map listing the location of every named tree on her property. Her instructions were very specific: When I’m gone, she said, have me cremated. Then invite my kids and grandkids to Granby for a few days together. While they’re here, I want each of them to take a scoop of my ashes and spread them at the bases of their trees. She never said as much, but her idea was clear: Let me, in death, nourish each tree and help it grow.

We did what she asked. It was a circus, of course, and I suspect she knew it would be. There were a few tears, inappropriate jokes, and some whining by those who had to crawl among scratchy, low pine branches to make their deposits. At one point, our dog lifted his leg on a spot where she now lay. We even sprinkled some of her along what we called her “rage wall,” a long barrier she built by hand from river rock during her divorce from a man she had loved deeply.

What ashes we had left went into the nearby river-fed pond, where a shoreline bench bears a brass memorial plaque that includes a short quote chosen by her children. It’s the final line of Shel Silverstein’s classic The Giving Tree: “And the tree was happy.”

Improbably, my parents outlived my sister, their oldest. Lisa was 72 when she died, and it was my parents’ curse to survive her by five years. But then came 2020, the same year I lost my brother Dave and sister-in-law Sue. Dad passed that year at nearly 102; Mom went two months later at 98.

My parents’ burial instructions were more conventional than my sister’s. They were to be cremated, and their ashes were to be lodged in a single urn, then buried on a family plot in their hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. After a yearlong COVID-19 delay, I joined my brother Bill, my only surviving sibling, and drove them home on a madcap road trip from Granby across the Midwest and into the Deep South. Along the way we did a little sightseeing, taking Mom and Dad to Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas, and Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee. I like to think they enjoyed it.

Still, it all felt unfinished. They are buried in Alabama, and I am in Colorado, and driving more than 1,400 miles to visit their gravesite seems like it will be a rare occasion. I wanted to follow Lisa’s lead and find a way to make my late parents a constant presence in my life, as my sister has become.

I struggled to come up with a gesture to memorialize them that would be just as meaningful as what Lisa had done. For a year, the modest inheritance they left me sat in a bank account untouched. What could I do with it that might endure?

My breakthrough came this past spring, after a particularly long and difficult winter. I contacted a local solar panel installation company and arranged for an estimate. We struck a deal, I spent some of that money, and since May 15 solar panels have been generating power from the strong high-country sun that bakes the south-facing roof of our garage. My parents pay our electric bill every month by converting photons into kilowatts, and I sense their presence every time I check the phone app that monitors their productivity.

Installing Mom and Dad on the roof of the garage. Photo courtesy of Martin J. Smith

That’s how I’m choosing to wear the gaudy hat of grief. Those odd memorials are a daily reminder that life is unpredictable in ways both good and bad. Families survive the unthinkable. Tragedies befall honorable people. The good sometimes die young.

So, plant a garlic bed for your mom, whose puttanesca you loved. Fertilize your spruce with Uncle Bruce. Spend your inheritance on something renewable. Surround yourself with tangible memories of the people you’ve loved, so they can remind you daily that the here and now is all we’re guaranteed.

As of this writing, my parents have prevented about 4,800 pounds of CO2 from entering the atmosphere—the equivalent of planting 36 trees.

This article was originally published in 5280 November 2022.
Martin J. Smith
Martin J. Smith
Martin lives in Granby. He’s the author of five novels and five nonfiction books, including "Going to Trinidad: A Doctor, a Colorado Town, and Stories from an Unlikely Gender Crossroads," which this year was a finalist for a Colorado Book Award.