In 2019, Deb and Gary lost their son, Andre, in a tragic accident. A young man who always sought to live life to the fullest, Andre had an adventurous spirit and a strong connection to nature. While his parents grieved, they sought out a way to memorialize him and create a legacy that would reflect that spirit.
“Andre had a presence about himself,” says his father, Gary. “He just had a way of relating to people that brought the best out of them,” adds Deb, his mother. “The words that come up to describe him are adventure and sunshine, and it’s because of that light that he would bring into the room. He just loved loving people, he really did.”
For the family, traveling and being outdoors were a large part of life together. As a fifth-generation Arizonan, the northern part of the state was a frequent destination for Andre — hiking, camping, and kayaking. Deb and Gary learned that they could spread his ashes at the base of a memorial tree in Better Place Forests Flagstaff, a 160-acre forest within the larger Hart Prairie ecosystem that’s being protected. They had fond memories of spending time in this area and knew that this option would reflect who Andre was. “A traditional cemetery wasn’t Andre,” says Gary. “The beauty of the forest, the beauty of the sky, the smell of the air, it’s just such the perfect place for him to have a final resting place.”
The tree they selected is a large ponderosa pine that looks out onto a meadow and towards Arizona’s tallest peaks. On a bright fall day, family and close friends gathered for Andre’s forest memorial. Some of Andre’s ashes were mixed with local soil and his loved ones took turns spreading them at the base of the tree. They were assisted by a memorial specialist, Natalie. “She was very gracious, very, very helpful. She has such a calming, beautiful voice when she read the readings that we had chosen. We couldn't have asked for better. They were terrific, sympathetic, compassionate people,” the family shared.
As part of the memorial, the family chose to release a rehabilitated red-tailed hawk in Andre’s honor. The hawk had been rescued and cared for by Liberty Wildlife in Phoenix, AZ, and was now ready to be reintroduced to its natural habitat. The release of this bird echoed an important event earlier in Andre’s life. “When he was departing for college, Andre released a barn owl back into the wild,” says Gary. “It seemed very appropriate for us, similar to what we had done when he was leaving our nest.”
Released back into the forest, the hawk flew to a nearby tree and watched over the group as they sat together, sharing stories and memories of Andre. For his parents, the decision was affirmed more and more by the reaction of Andre’s close friends. “One of his best friends probably summarized it best. He goes, ‘I am so, so happy you guys made the decision you made because I would not hesitate to go see him and have a picnic under the tree.’”
“It's very hard for people to sit next to someone who’s grieving. Anybody, but grieving parents especially. It’s probably the most profound loss you can go through,” says Deb. Sharing a beautiful day in the forest with those who loved Andre was an important part of the support this community shows for one another. “For them to stay with us all this time and to embrace us so kindly and wonderfully and with laughter and as well as tears. It wasn't and hasn’t been maudlin and sad. It's one more step in our healing to be surrounded by that love. It’s a journey.”
And that journey continues. Andre’s forest memorial was only one part of his family’s plan. They traveled frequently together, and Andre credited his parents for inspiring a love of adventure in his life. “When he was maybe four, we got him his own luggage, and he just thought that was the best thing ever. As he grew older and was starting to plan his own adventures, he told me, ‘I've learned from the best.’” With some of his ashes resting in the forest, Deb and Gary also plan to spread some on each continent — another way of honoring his legacy and the way he lived a life full of love and adventure.