The day of the Dead

My parents. I celebrate them both.

My parents. I celebrate them both.

On the Day of the Dead, we go into the dark knowing we are part of something huge, magnificent, ancient.   ~Anne Lamott

                                                                                           

I have a thing about death.

I think about it a lot, but my thoughts aren’t morbid or ghoulish; they’re about angels and spirits and mystery. 

I wasn’t always like this. At one point in my life, I just went through my very average, very vanilla day-to-day, not giving much thought to anything beyond what was right before my eyes.

That all changed in 2005, when I was given a crash course in Death 101. My fifth baby and my mother died within two weeks of each other. An experience like that forces you to think about things more deeply. It makes you start to ask some weighty questions: “Where do we go when we die?” “Are my loved ones still around me?” or “Is this all there is?”

When I was told at seven months pregnant that the baby I was carrying had a condition “incompatible with life” I had to meet death head on. Every time my little girl moved inside me, I had to confront what I was told was inevitable. My husband and I also had to prepare our children- the oldest of whom was eleven at the time and the youngest, five.  We didn’t have any experience talking about death, so we did the only thing we knew how to do: we told the truth. We presented the facts and then talked about it all freely. And we followed the lead of our children; we talked when they wanted to and let life roll along and sweep us away when they didn’t.  At one point, I remember marveling with my oldest son at how odd it was that the only thing we can absolutely be 100% certain about in life (i.e., death), we typically fear. The ultimate irony!

So we talked about that fear. We put it right out there in the open and like most fears, once we shined some light on it, it didn’t look the same.

We learned many beautiful lessons that November of 2005, but the most incredible was that death was not scary. It was soft and loving and gentle. There was even some relief mixed in there.  Of course there was sadness, but it was coupled with deep, exquisite peace. Our family’s experience that year added a whole new dimension to this person that I call Me, and I am profoundly grateful for the gift of it. I hope that my children feel the same way, or will, when they are old enough to be introspective.

We still talk easily about the baby that came to us and stayed only until her work here on earth was done- ten short days. She is always included in the count of our children (final tally: 7), and I’ve often heard her referred to as “my sister that died” if it comes up in my kid’s conversations with friends (when it does, I try to discreetly check the friend’s reaction to such a blatant descriptor. Most young children easily let the comment float by, while most adults-at the very least- widen their eyes in shock).

We don’t talk about death so much in this culture. It almost seems impolite. But if we don’t talk about it, how are we ever going to dispel the underlying fear?

What would life be like if we had no fear of death? This question is really worth taking a moment or two to ponder. Would we live a little more freely? Would we spend more time in exhilaration and less in worry and despair? It was reported that Apple founder Steve Jobs’ last words were,“Oh, wow. Oh, wow. Oh, wow!”

What would this world be like if we all believed that “Oh, wow!” was where we were headed?

“Oh, Wow” doesn’t sound too scary to me. Of course, we can’t know what Mr. Jobs was actually referring to, but it just feels nice to think that moving onto to the other side is so indescribably amazing that our here-and-now self can only mutter, “Oh, wow!” over and over again.

Similar stories have been recorded since the beginning of history, so I know that I am not alone in my death fascination. This curiosity of mine has led me to some beliefs that I find soothing-and fundamentally essential-if I am going to continue to live this uncertain existence. I like believing that crossing to the other side is so magnificent that our earthly minds cannot begin to comprehend the glory of it. It comforts me to think that those that have passed are still around me somehow or that when we die, everyone that we have ever loved will be there waiting for us, cheering us on as we enter the spectacular space of Oh, Wow. These beliefs help me to loosen my grip and let those that I love go a bit, just a tiny bit, more easily.

For thousands of years, people have believed that on November 1, All Souls Day (or on it’s eve, October 31st), the veil between the living and dead is at its thinnest point. The “Feast of the Dead” was celebrated in Celtic countries by leaving food offerings on altars and doorsteps for the wandering dead. In Mexico, the Day of the Dead celebrations take place on November 1st and 2nd, and the emphasis is on celebrating and honoring the lives of the deceased, rather than fearing evil or dark spirits.

My mother decided to head to the other side of the veil on November 2nd. She struggled for over ten years with dementia, so I was thrilled for her. I love that she chose that day- what a great time to go! I start honoring my Mom’s passing on All Soul’s Eve. Now, instead of just begrudgingly handing out Halloween candy to the hundreds of children walking our street, I also light a candle and join people all over the world in remembering those that have moved on. IMG_4497

When there is a break in the stream of trick-or-treaters at my door, I privately savor a mini-Snickers (my Mom’s favorite), close my eyes and connect.  I think about the woman who made my Halloween costumes by hand, greeted me with my favorite milkshake after my swimming lessons and randomly showed up at my college just to take me to lunch.

And then, the rustle of the leaves bring me back to the present, and more kids approach, more candy goes into buckets, pillowcases, mouths.

After a few, insane hours of “the best day EVER” (just walk up to a house and they give you candy? Definitely Heaven on earth!), I will usher my sugar-crazed zombies to bed and prepare for rest myself. The last step will be blowing out the candle. Before I do, I will close my eyes, remember my beautiful mother and my sweet baby Ava, and I will thank them for showing us the beauty in death.

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November 19, 2005
(photo by Anna Stockwell)

Your body is away from me

But there is a window open from my heart to yours

From this window, like the moon I keep sending news

secretly.   ~ Rumi 

 

 

I’m livin’ in my head
Too much life in my veins
Forgetting all of the time
We’re always in motion with angels   ~from “Just like you”   John Mellencamp

Thanks, Roxie.

I didn’t sleep well last night. I woke up in a fog and could barely go through the morning’s motions. Then, of course, the kids want to eat and the dog wants a walk and blah, blah, blah…wah, wah, wah.

It’s so easy to complain, so easy to fall into the “poor me” rut. What I really wanted to do was take my boys to school, go back home and crawl back into bed. Poor Me needed some more sleep, dammit. I opened up the back of my car to throw the boys stuff in for school and headed back into the house to grab something. When I came back out, this is what I saw:

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I commanded her to GET OUT! I pulled on her collar. I enlisted the boys for help.

No go. She wouldn’t budge. 

Dog guilt wins. I guess I was going for a walk.

I take a deep woe-is-me breath and reluctantly go grab sneakers.

I drop the boys at school

All of my kids went to kindergarten here. The philosophy is that a young child learns best through imaginative play. Lovely. Worth taking a moment to appreciate.

All of my kids went to kindergarten here. The philosophy is that a young child learns best through imaginative play. Lovely. Worth taking a moment to appreciate.

and then take my dog on her walk.

 About 3 minutes in, The smell of pine and leaves and fall overcome me. I have to give it up and laugh at myself. What the hell was I complaining about? It made me think of a quote that I love:

 If you have not slept, or if you have slept, or if you have headache, or sciatica, or leprosy, or thunder-stroke, I beseech you, by all angels, to hold your peace and not pollute the morning.”       ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

 Or even better, one by my late mother, which was uttered thousands of times in our household with five children:

                                            “Suffer in silence”       ~Mary Helen Rozell

 God, I love that one. So simple and to the point. If you must whine and complain, so be it, just don’t do it out loud.

I’m not talking about true suffering here, I’m speaking of petty suffering. If someone I love is truly suffering, I hope with all my heart they will come to me and share it, so I can support them. True suffering is the big stuff: sadness, serious illness, unforeseen tragic events. Petty suffering is the whiney stuff:

“I’m so bored!”             “Chicken, again?!”

“my noodles are cold!”                        “not another rainy day!”                   “I hate my teacher!”  “Why do I have all the bad luck?”     “I can’t believe I still have to drive this old car!” 

“Man, what a terrible night.”

You get the idea.

The thing is, constant, habitual, petty suffering can inadvertently lead to true suffering.

 To ensure that things don’t go that far, the solution is to form a new habit:

constant, habitual appreciation.  

Appreciation is the antidote for petty suffering.

When I find myself in petty suffering, I know it’s time to decide to shift my attitude. I tell this to my kids as well: Your mood at any given time is completely up to you.  As mind-blowing as it may seem, it is a simple, conscious choice. Not always easy, but very simple. Simply choose not to complain.

Appreciation can make that choice a bit easier. When the petty suffering creeps up, take a few breaths and find something to appreciate. No matter how bleak things seem, there is always a way to shift your perspective and bask in gratitude.

Today, I fully appreciate my stubborn dog. I was all ready for my pity-party, but she had her own agenda. There was a whole beautiful fall day to explore. She helped me make the shift into gratitude and the rewards were spectacular

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Much more valuable than sleep.

Thanks, Roxie.

Joy Ride

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As a mother of 3 teenage boys,  I have to think that the odds are pretty high at least one of them might  be brought home in the paddy wagon before they move out of the house.

 

What’s not probable, however, is that the teen would be waving and yelling “Sorry, Mama!” from the back seat of the cruiser as it pulled into our driveway.

 

 

 

The criminal is Kelly, our 13 year old son with Down Syndrome. His getaway vehicle was his sister’s powder blue bike with white tires and bluebirds on the seat.

His crime: Taking a Joy ride   

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This year, Kelly started Middle School and his bus comes to pick him up at 7:00 am. Even though he is in bed by 8:30 or 9 every night, I still have to wake him up every morning. Poor guy just wants to stay in his warm bed.

If only this applied to the weekends…

Kelly has a selective, internal waking sensor. His subconscious knows that on the weekends, Mom sometimes does not rise at her early hour and there is potential fun to be had. Kelly wakes unassisted Saturday and Sunday morning, usually much earlier than any other living creature in the house. With stealth, he gets dressed and slinks downstairs. I am assuming that on the particular Saturday morning of the crime, our downstairs seemed a tad boring; no iphones lying about, computers all locked or put away, gaming devices hidden. A quick peek outside and a beautiful fall day beckoned.

Kelly has been told time and time again not to leave the house in the morning and never to go out of our yard without telling us.

No matter. He does it all of the time anyway, consequences be damned.

This is because Kelly’s brain is wired for joy.

From the moment he wakes up until the moment he falls off to sleep, Kelly does whatever feels good to Kelly in the moment. After over a decade of this behavior, I have learned to anticipate most of his actions…that is, if I am awake.

On this particularly beautiful morning, Kelly decided it would feel good to take his sister’s bike for a spin, and when he got to his boundary at the end of the street, I’m assuming he looked around, broke into a wide grin and pedaled into freedom. When I came downstairs and there was no sign of him or the bike, I had a feeling. I checked his usual haunts in the neighborhood and sent his Dad out to look. I didn’t waste much time before I called local police. I knew with their radio communication they would find the criminal, and in no time and they did, about two miles from home, heading to his new school.

It can be frustrating raising a child who doesn’t listen to his parents and blatantly breaks the rules, just because he feels like having a little fun.

Hmm…let’s analyze that sentence for a minute, shall we? I just described a teenager!

And since I already have two of those, I can honestly say that the Kelly version is not any more difficult. In fact, I find I can almost always learn something from Kelly.  The lesson is usually to lighten up, have more fun, and not give a damn what anyone thinks.

Granted, he sometimes pisses some people off. I’m sure the local police might have felt their resources may have been better used that Saturday morning. But I’m the one who called the cops, not Kelly.  The perceived danger was born from my fear, not his. It can get scary not knowing where your child is, especially when he has a disability.

But is he truly the one who is disabled? Yes, it’s true that he cannot complete some intellectual tasks at same speed as his typically developing peers, and his decisions don’t always follow what some would consider a logical pattern. That’s just because he’s wired differently. It doesn’t necessarily make it wrong or inferior. In fact, I think Kelly has the clear advantage because he truly doesn’t give a damn!

He also doesn’t care what his GPA is or how popular he is. He doesn’t care if a food is “good” for him or if his clothes are stylish or is his hair looks cool. All he cares about is his own happiness and the well being of the ones he loves.

Interesting concept. Makes you stop and wonder who really has the “disability”.

When Kelly was born, my oldest brother wrote me a letter. We didn’t know that Kelly had Down Syndrome before he was born, so we were in shock for a while. At the time, I didn’t understand the full meaning behind his wise words. I didn’t know who Kelly was going to be yet, nor did I understand that he would be our teacher.

Now, I read it and nod. Time and time again it comes down to the same thing: 

Let joy and love lead you around by the nose.

It might really be just that simple.

 

Dear Kelly “Unconditional” Thurmond,

Hey bud. Welcome to this crazy world. Thanks for dropping in on us. We’ve been expecting you and we’re glad you made it in one piece. You gave your mom and dad quite a dramatic entrance to show that there is something quite extraordinary about you and people better take notice.

Like all great men and women of the past, sometimes people don’t know what to make of you at first. One of the coolest things about greatness is that you really won’t care. You will see things immediately that they do not. You have an innate understanding of all that really matters in the world. You hold in your hands the key to the mysteries of the universe, and most will rush blindly past you in their quest to attain it. If they took the time to boil down all the messages of every prophet who has ever walked this Earth from any religion, they would see the Truth written all over you. But most people are so unable to see beyond themselves that they miss it entirely.

Yeah, the big boys with their M.D., PH.D.’s say you have a “condition”. Education is not all it’s cracked up to be. What school did Jesus graduate from? The Buddha? Mohammed couldn’t even read and write. The big boys are blind. We are the ones with the “condition”. You will not be a lab rat in this rat race. Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, King, Gandhi, Mother Theresa and so on, they all stood for the Truth that you are. The big “G” must love your parents and your brothers a lot to honor them with your presence. We all have a lot to learn from you. Be patient with us-we won’t always see the Truth that constantly radiates from you-we’re a bit slow, you see. Teach us to see what you see always-

“unconditional love”

From your uncle, with gratitude-

The Hermit of Woodchuck Hollow 

1/20/2000                  (written by my dear brother, Matthew Rozell)

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Check out the character in the background. Now that’s what I call a Joy ride.