This time of year is strange, the beginning of a long exhale. Much needed, but still so different from the short pants of summer’s sprint/marathon. When you’ve been busy, slowing down feels clumsy, and at the top of such breaths, the one you were at first grasping to take and now fumbling into, you don’t always remember how it goes. You don’t fully let go into it until all the leaves have fallen and some of the litter on the ground begins to turn back into the very stuff it first came from. It is as slow a process as the season that beckons it.
But in the midst of this awkward stumble, the start of the celebrating of the dark cycle of the year starts up and helps things along. Right away, with the perfectly wild, silly, and fun night that is Halloween, there is some loosening. For me, the line up of celebrations from now through epiphany– celebrations rooted in ancient cultures, deepened and strengthened liturgically through time–even though they are now nearly devoid of meaning, these celebrations, for me, are placed in our calender for a reason, and I always try to really let the joy, warmth, and light they were meant to bring our homes and our hearts flood the waters just as the waters outdoors do the same. On All Hallows’ Eve, I find that sweetness is a genuine impulse, that our community takes kindly to opening its doors to strangers, that we smile and laugh and share with each other freely under the guise of this, in my book, hallowed evening. I take it, gobble it up, that shared frivolity, the calling of the night to revel, together. The candy, and candy companies, kind of make me want to chuck the baby out with the bathwater, but I don’t. I find a way to celebrate despite our modern day conundrum.
And I like to keep the momentum going over the next few days for el dia de los muertos. Calling together my mother and father, whose deaths were a hard four days apart and left me breathless in grief only to really teach me how to hold on to this life more properly, we share memories of them and my husband’s family, people my children have never really known, but whom he and I have, and whom we love dearly. It is a wonderful tradition.
And although I don’t know whether the veils really are thin between the worlds of the departed and this fully beating one at this time of year, I do know that the world around us is dying unto itself like it does every autumn and winter, and that it as natural a time as any to really give this beautiful part of the life cycle some of our loving attention. If we look around us to a world gone quieter knowing that it is just one part of a circular pattern, we can celebrate how proper and right the design is. We long for winter when it comes. It was first celebrating this holiday the November after my folks passed away that brought a blanket of peace to my heavy heart. It is a celebration that removes the fear we have of death, such a good thing to learn early on. I don’t want to be afraid to die, and I really don’t want my children to be afraid of it either, of losing their loved ones or themselves. It seems such a pity. My mother was so afraid to go, it broke my heart. And so, we talk about it lightly and matter of factly and sweetly, because it is just as true and good as the birth of a new soul. And it is sweet, the remembering, even if it is bitter-sweet.
So even though we don’t really expect our dead to join us in the evening, and we don’t really put out treats to literally feed their wandering souls, we do keep at this to feed our own.
But this year was different. I had my moments. Washing vegetables outside, after dark, alone in the wash station, I couldn’t quit the impulse to look behind me. I kept thinking about my father, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was standing there, in the shadows. Peeking back, over my shoulder, shuddering, repeat. And then, I would laugh at myself, because I have just started re-watching Lost with my oldest son and I kept thinking that all of that first season suspense was really going to my head.
On the night my father passed away, as I laid down in the dark to sleep, I prayed so hard that I would not be visited by him in any way, shape, or form. I don’t know why I felt the need, I just did. And I had the same feeling those few nights when I had that sensation to look over my shoulder. No, no, no. I don’t want a visit.
Some ghosts are better left buried.
And yet, I can’t bury him. I decided sometime last winter that I was going to write a book, part childhood memoir, part philosophy of living. I love writing, will always write, want to write more, write for a living, write, and write, and write some more–it is an important part of my journey here in this life. But, I have always sworn that I would never write a book. The commitment– sheesh! I always felt too lazy to write anything that length. The poignant creative non-fiction essay was my sweet spot. But laying in bed one night, it came to me, clear as day, the whole thing. And even though the work on it has been slow, it is there, and it will happen, and morph and change and one day see the light, even if that light is just the shine of my own two eyes. I believe that.
But to write about your childhood means to write about your parents, and as I work on this, as I start to bring life to these stories, my father, much as he did for so much of my life, takes up all the space. And I find myself wondering, why? Why would I only consider that my father would be standing there, behind me, when the two worlds we share might be mingling? Why isn’t my mother’s the name on my lips? Why not her, so sweet, so angelic? Why am I not begging for a visit from her?
I keep hearing myself tell stories about my life centered around my dad, and I keep finding myself wanting to find a way to tell the story of my mother, too. I hate that I have to go back and find that story, that it isn’t the one that stuck. I may have been better off if it had. But that story is its own mess of misfortune, so it is just as complicated to get a hold of as it is hard loosening the grip of my father’s story from my fingers. I’m not sure if I can.
They say the dead like orange.
So, after putting away our costumes this year, we picked some calendula blossoms and put them on the table in honor of our dearly departed. But this year, I didn’t get out the many pictures of my father. This year, I didn’t reminisce with my children about their wild and wonderful Grandpa Roger. I didn’t do much, at all, raising of the dead. Instead, I let the kids–well, mostly my daughter–ask questions and draw portraits and tell the stories they knew and kept it at that. My daughter, she feels her ties to all her family, here and there, so deeply, and her boundless love felt more pure and even for this year’s celebration. I was too in the thick of my mind to do things properly.
I had just one thing I needed to do, alone, to ease those thoughts running through the roads of my mind, one thing to quiet down the noise, to move forward this year into the dark.
I went out into the cold, November night and knelt by the fig tree where we spread my mother’s ashes, the tree that just won’t produce any fruit, and I secretly whispered into the chill, thin air, “I’m so sorry, Mom. I hope you like the flowers.”