My mother, thank goodness, was a storyteller. Here are some of her best.
My great-grandpa Rosie met Pancho Villa once when he was a boy, growing up in (or near?) Chihuahua, Mexico. The hero-outlaw was on horseback when my great-grandfather met him and he tossed the boy a coin, so the story goes.
Another story was about my grandmother Anita – who died when I was only two – but asked my mother to let her keep me when I was born. My mother already had 5 children, my grandmother argued, she didn’t need another.
Another was about my grandpa Bud singing torch songs to my mother at night to put her to sleep. This is how she knew so many by heart and could sing them all so beautifully.
Another story is about how grandma ‘Nita would, from time-to-time, take a chair or other household item that was annoying her out back to the dumpster, pour gasoline on it and set it on fire.
Or, about how grandma ‘Nita would wake up earlier than everyone else in the house to make fried corn so she could have it all to herself.
Or, about how angry grandma ‘Nita was when my mother cut her own hair to look like Audrey Hepburn.
There were many stories about a road trip that she took with her grandparents – during the 1940s when my mother was still quite young – all the way back to Mexico from Michigan.
These stories – though some of them sound sad or strange – were told in a light-hearted way, through smiles and laughter.
My father told stories too. His were usually about his own glory days. The white-wall tire business he started when he was nine years old (or some crazy young age like that); the little acapella group he sang in during high school outside of the soda-shop; his ’57 chevy; his captain-of-the-swim team days; the dollar he bet his friend the very first time he ever saw my mother that someday he would marry her. These were happy stories that made my father grin from ear-to-ear and filled him with a sense of sweet nostalgia that the listener felt right along with him.
I have incredibly fond memories of playing with my cousins in the living room of my aunt Di’s house while my mother and her two sisters told stories like these around the table in the kitchen. I don’t remember all of these stories. I don’t remember what I was doing with my cousins. I just remember their voices, the incantations of familiar names, and so much laughter that from time-to-time it would pierce our ears and seem to shake the walls. Outrageous laughter. My mother and her sisters were telling stories of their mother, of their cousins, of their grandparents and aunts and uncles and everyone who came before them. Sometimes their voices would go so low you would know they were talking about someone’s death, someone’s illness, some horrible thing the person did or some horrible thing that was done to them but then the laughter again – always, inevitably, the laughter.
Laughter and the importance of celebration is not something my parents ever told me about but it was something they showed me. My father laughed most raucously during funny movies. His most outrageous laughter, just like my mother’s, was a wild and loud cackle that anyone in the whole house could hear. It was impossible not to laugh and smile along with their laughter.
Though my mother and father did not tell their stories in any kind of formal way or on any kind of special day, they definitely instilled in me a stronger understanding of the identity of my family, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, my aunts and uncles. I got to know them through these stories. Stories I might have been told in a more formal way, in a more sacred way had they been told around the graves of these deceased relatives on a special night when we believed the spirits of these ancestors could be drawn nearer to us.
Another of my mother’s stories was about the parties her parents would throw on Friday nights. This would have been the early 1950s. In their little living room in their little house in Detroit where my mother lived with her two sisters and her parents, their entire family would gather to dance, to sing, to drink and to eat. My grandfather’s kin mixed with my grandmother’s kin. Cousins galore. Aunts and uncles. Family friends. An uncle who would play the piano. My mother remembered dancing and singing in clean, pressed party dresses. The parties would last all night long, into the next day. She would have to learn to fall asleep while they continued to rage and in the morning, she would be responsible for cleaning up after the adults; a task she did not remember fondly. Still, my mother’s belief in the “party” as a sacred place for people to commune was well set by a young age.
This belief in the importance of parties was another tool that my mother passed down to her children. Though we all tend to prioritize gatherings, I am perhaps more afflicted with the need to party than some of my other siblings. My brother Mitch was the same way. Every truly major milestone in my life has required some form of gathering. I don’t like letting any birthday or holiday or even just a special day pass by without a party of some kind.
It was also enormously important to my mother that we have, what she called, “a close family.” She wanted our nuclear family – her 6 children – to feel well-loved and well-protected by one another. But it was also imperative that we feel connected to our larger, extended family. She did, what she could – everything she could – to make this connectedness happen – at a time in our culture (since the early 1980’s) when everyone was moving away from their extended family, and nuclear families unraveled far more quickly than they were made.
About a month after my brother Robert died from a pulmonary embolism in the summer of 2013, my brother Mitchell began dying in earnest from a disease he had been fighting hard for ten years. We had already lost my mother and Mitchell’s wife, Beth, in 2009. We had lost my father in 2011. In the last three weeks of my brother Mitchell’s life, a couple of rather large handfuls of our family came together to care for him. The first three nights Mitch was home from the hospital, accepting the fact that he was actively dying and allowing that inevitability to run its course – he hosted parties. He insisted on them. He wanted to see the people he loved gathered together having a good time. After those first three nights, things settled down but those of us who had come together to care for Mitchell, remained at his request. This group of constant caregivers along with the steady stream of visitors who came from all areas of the country to say goodbye quietly to Mitchell in his final days would’ve made my mother very proud. Several times, in those weeks, I thought about how happy it would have made her to see us all come together in this way; to be there for each other. I know that it was her spirit – the essence of the kind of family she tried so hard to create – that, in large part, drew us to help where we could and be with one another during that scary and difficult time.
Death sucks. It’s a raw deal. We humans are called to love one another – deeply. We are created to love one another hard and strong. The love we feel for our parents, our siblings, our partners, our children – this love is everything. We make our life’s decisions based around these loves. We choose jobs, homes, experiences, in part, because of how close it keeps us to those we love. Then, in the end, everyone we have loved – so deeply, so dearly – we lose. It’s bullshit really. And, it’s terrifying.
And yet, being born and knowing that we will die – are the only two things that every single human being on this planet has in common. These two events are the two basic facts of our humanity. We are born. And, we die. It is our inevitable ending.
In her short story, “Happy Endings,” Margaret Atwood attempts to offer several different possible endings to the story of a couple’s life together and winds up with this:
She writes.. “You'll have to face it, the endings are the same however you slice it…
The only authentic ending is the one provided here:
John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.”
“So much for endings” Atwood writes. “Beginnings are always more fun. True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it's the hardest to do anything with.”
The “True connoisseurs” Atwood is talking about are connoisseurs of life, they embrace their humanity. They accept the fun beginning. They accept the inevitable ending. They play with the “stretch in between.” THIS “stretch in between” is where they make their lives, their families, their loves.
In his sermon at my brother’s funeral, his good friend and pastor Rick, made the point that my brother Mitchell’s life was full of love precisely because of the illness that had forced my brother to accept his inevitable ending. Rick explained that after the diagnosis, Mitchell’s life became more intentional, more purposely loving – because when you are forced to accept your inevitable ending, what else is there to do?
And so it goes in our American culture, for the most part. Most of us do not spend time considering our inevitable ending until a diagnosis forces our hearts and minds in that direction. Most of us do not live intentionally enough, with the always clear understanding that, like every other human being on this planet, our time is limited and we do not decide when it runs out.
This is because that with the exception of the funeral, our American culture has no ritual or tradition built in to its core that allows us to grieve the deceased or even remember them in a way that doesn’t feel morbid and depressing. No. I can tell you from a great deal of experience, that what our culture does have are “sympathy cards” and roughly six to eight months of pats on the back and “it’ll all be alrights” and then a firm message that you better “get over it.” But those of us who have lost those we have loved deeply and dearly know that none of that amounts to any kind of solace, and no, it’s never going to be alright, and you will never – NEVER, NEVER NEVER NEVER NEVER NEVER get over it. Just because your mother is no longer physically here does not mean she is no longer your mother or that you no longer need her – and her stories. Just because you cannot touch the face of your child, doesn’t mean he is no longer yours or you don’t long to hold him every single day. Just because you can no longer sit around a card table playing euchre, drinking bud light and shit-talking with your older brother all night doesn’t mean you wouldn’t love to. You won’t “get over it.” And it won’t ever be alright.
A few weeks after we lost Mitchell, I saw a grief counselor one time. Despite the fact that I asked her not to give me books because I would feel too overwhelmed by them, I left her office with five books. I also left with a strange idea she offered to make dates with my departed loved ones. She said that I should plan a short period of time to spend with each of my deceased family members, mentally; actually write these down in my planner. And when the date took place, I should enter into meditation or prayer or just quietly converse with my loved one. I was intrigued by this idea. It took me months to even come remotely close to trying it. I still do not make it a habitual practice and I’ve never felt entirely like I’m doing it “right.”
I have always been curious about Dia de Los Muertos though. Even before facing any of my own significant losses, I wanted to understand what the celebration was about, how such a joyous and raucous spectacle could be made over something as macabre and terrifying as death. The contradiction in these approaches to death lies in the cultural divide between the United States and Mexico; and, frankly, the United States and most of the rest of the world. We are, as it turns out, pretty singularly shallow when it comes to the subject of death. Perhaps this is because most of our “traditions” have either been handed down by the sparse Christian practices of our European ancestors or are a commercialized mish-mash of the practices of our non-Christian, non-European ancestors. Perhaps our refusal to accept and even embrace death as part of our humanity has to do with the fact that we fear the unknown and we tend, as a nation, to shun the discomfort of spiritual (which is far different than “religious”) inquiry. For whatever reason, we are almost alone in having no ritual or tradition that allows us to grieve and remember our dead.
For three days every year (and some traditions last even longer than this), nations that practice a festival of the dead like Dia de Los Muertos have a culturally-embedded excuse to “date” their dead the way my grief counselor suggested I should. But even better than the suggestion of these “dates,” you get to take your deceased loved ones to a “party” where everyone you know is also grieving and remembering their deceased. For those few days, you can feel your beloved family and friends close to you. You can hold them close. Remember all the fun times you shared. Laugh at silly memories. Cry in your longing to embrace them again. Feel that they are still a part of your experience. Take solace in the fact that all of these deceased loved ones who “crossed over” before you have taken the journey you will find yourself on some day. Allow yourself to feel a part of a vast interconnected web of existence, of family, of love.
Accepting death – embracing death – is a loving act.
Dia De Los Muertos is an opportunity to love big. It is a time to party. It is a time to tell stories about our families. It is a time to remember who we are, who we’ve lost, and what is important to us. I don’t know if my mother inherited this belief from her Mexican grandparents or if it was just part of her own personal, complicated and mysterious, religious doctrine/ mythos BUT… I specifically remember her saying, “I believe heaven is being remembered fondly by those we love.” The flip side of this belief was my mother’s fear that when she was gone, we would hold on to the hurts and the hard times harder than we would hold on to our love for her. But there is nothing quite like death to rush forgiveness and to wipe clean the slate. I miss my mother so much that it is extraordinarily difficult to even remember having ever felt angry with her or disappointed in her. I remember logically that there were times I felt those things but I can no longer feel, in my body, those feelings. They are gone. All that is left is love. And longing.
I am grateful that my parents raised me with stories. I am grateful that my mother raised me with an understanding of the sacredness of gathering and sharing laughter with our people. Perhaps, if in addition to these teachings, I was also raised in a culture where I saw adults remembering and honoring and embracing their dead every single year in the way that people do on Dia De Los Muertos, I would not have made the supremely idiotic choice to not speak to my mother for three years before she died. Perhaps I would’ve known what to expect on the journey of grief. Perhaps I would’ve have been prepared for the fact that all of the disagreements – even when they seem monumental in the world of the living – get squashed to absolute pettiness once a loved one is no longer around to be disagreed with.
Until my mother died, I had never lost anyone I felt close to. I never felt close to any of my grandparents, for a variety of reasons. When my sister lost her child, I was too young, too far away, and too lost in my own drama to understand the magnitude of that loss. When my mother lost her sister, my Aunt Di, I was, again, too embroiled in my own life with a toddler, and, again, far away. After Mitchell died, the strangest thing happened to me one day as I thought about my sister having lost her baby, Jake, 14 years before. I began sobbing for the loss of MY nephew. For the first time, in all of that time, I actually FELT the loss of that child. And it struck me then, that I had never acknowledged well enough or even could begin to understand the sense of loss my sister felt during that time – and forever after. Soon after that I thought about my mother calling me to tell me that my Aunt Di was dying. My mother had vaguely asked, during that phone call, if I would drive back to Michigan from New Hampshire to be with everyone. My mother was not an especially demanding or insistent woman. If she convinced you to do something, it was usually through guilt and she didn’t have the strength to invoke guilt in me at this time. I didn’t go. I never even really seriously considered going. I didn’t get it. I had not yet accepted the finality of death. I did not understand this aspect of my own humanity. I feel a deep sense of regret that I was not with my family members during both of these losses. These were hard losses for my family. My sister lost her baby. My parents lost their grandchild. My niece lost her brother. My cousins lost their mother and their grandmother. My mother lost her sister. I should have gathered with these people during their losses. Had I been raised with a healthy respect and acceptance of death through a festival like Dia de Los Muertos, perhaps I would’ve understood the importance of that gathering.
What is most beautiful, to me, about Dia de Los Muertos, is that all of these losses are counted, acknowledged, accepted, held sacred. There is an inherent compassion and acceptance in this tradition that acknowledges all loss as equally devasting; all loved ones as equally important. My loss of my mother is no different than your loss of your mother. My loss of my brother is no different than your loss of your brother. Your mother and my mother are equally important. Your loss and my loss are equally important. Your grief and my grief are the same. This is what it means to embrace death. This is what it means to accept our humanity. When we can accept our inevitable ending, there is no reason not to fill that “stretch in between” with love and laughter and celebration.
One of my favorite Hank Williams Sr. songs goes, “”No matter how I struggle and strive, I’ll never get out of this world alive.” The joke, of course, is that none of us will. There is no struggle or strife that will change our inevitable ending. So, we might as well relax and go with the flow.
Recently, I was reading an essay by Dr. Dean Ornish about the relationship between a diet of whole foods and living with disease. In it, he says, “even when we can’t be cured, we can be healed, becoming more whole.” Like Pastor Rick, Dr. Ornish is pointing out that it usually takes a diagnosis for people in our cultures to begin to take their diets, or their lives, seriously. Well, I would like to suggest that we all have an incurable illness, friends. It is called being mortal. Not a single one of us is going to get out of this world alive. And yet, despite the fact that our affliction cannot be cured, we can be healed. And a large part of this healing can stem from accepting and surrending completely to the affliction itself. When we surrender to the affliction of being human, of having, at some point, to die, we can embrace life and live intentionally, with love.
Dr. Ornish goes on to say that “becoming active participants in our healing… may bring meaning to our suffering, which makes it more bearable.” Dia de Los Muertos does just this. It makes us active participants in a healing process that allows us to remember well the people we love and have lost. This helps us find meaning in our suffering. It helps to make it more bearable. Year, after year, after year, the celebration of Dia De Los Muertos comes to remind us that we are not now, nor have we ever been, nor will we ever be: alone. We are part of a vast interconnected web of beloved ancestors, each with their own stories to tell, who remain alive in our hearts and minds as long as we remember and celebrate them.