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.

momcalava

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

Transitions

First day of school today. For me, this day will be forever linked with my Dad.

The call came at the office. This was strange for two reasons: one, I didn’t know my Dad even knew my office number, and two, my Dad never called me. Ever. I was the one who made the calls.

My adrenaline surged as I took the call.

“Hi Honey.”

“Hi, Dad. Is everything alright?”

“Well, your mother’s a little off her feed.” My mother had been suffering with early-onset dementia for the last several years and my father was her sole caretaker.

“Dad, what do you mean? Is everything alright? Do you need me to come over?”

“Yeah, that might be good.”  

Alarms flash. Never in all of my 35 years had my Dad ever asked me to come visit him. And never, ever, had he asked me for help. I stopped what I was doing, made arrangements for my kids and was on the road within the hour. I spent the two and a half hour drive worrying about what I would walk into at my childhood home.

When I arrived, things didn’t seem that out of the ordinary. My dad was sitting in his usual spot in the den, legs crossed, tv going. My mom was excited to see me, but soon fell into her pattern of nervously moving about the house with no obvious goal.

“Oh, honey! It’s so good to see you.” I bent to kiss my dad’s cheek and his next words were: “I think I’d better go.”

Before I could answer “to where?”, he struggled to get to his feet. He made his way to the old phone hanging on the kitchen wall and called the ambulance. He told them he “needed to go”, but he didn’t want any lights or sirens. “Just pull up out front”.

I was stunned. I didn’t even know my dad was ill and now he was marching out the front door waiting for his ride. I told him to give me a minute, of course I would take him! But he shooed me away and told me to take care of Mom. I then realized the truth: he didn’t ask me to come to help him. He wanted someone to come take care of my mother. He knew what he had to do and he could not wait any longer.

As the ambulance drove away, I wondered if my dad would ever return. Caring for and watching the woman he loved for over 40 years deteriorate before his eyes had taken its toll. And if I was going to be totally honest, I would admit that my dad was a functional alcoholic. Add these facts together and the shock of his downfall was not really so shocking. 

I alerted my sister and three brothers of the situation and they all made plans to get the hospital. My father was examined and admitted. He was given something for his pain and he rested. The doctor told me he was coughing blood and was severely dehydrated. They would run some tests. I listened, but I knew what was really happening; my father had hung in there for as long as he could. He would never have voluntarily gone to the hospital unless he was sure. My father was done. He was finished with this life.

The hours passed and the next day came.  My father started to physically react to the fact that there was no longer alcohol flowing through his system.  His body started to shut down and he fell into a coma. The medical staff still held out some hope, but I understood what was happening.

My siblings all seemed to have the same sense. We gathered around my father’s bed and the hope we held was that my brother, who lived thousands of miles away, would make it in time to say goodbye. Another night passed and my father’s condition stayed the same: totally unresponsive. My brother finally arrived and we were all relieved.  He was able to touch his dad and say goodbye.

And then we all waited.

We soon found out that in the absence of serious trauma, the body will take its time to die. It is a machine systematically shutting down all the gears. The five of us were all used to watching the dramatic deaths of afternoon soap operas or reruns of M*A*S*H. The reality was that this was kinda taking a tad longer than any of us thought it would.

After several days of the hospital bedside vigil, we discussed the possibility of hospice care.

The next day we moved my father to his own bed at home. It was such a relief to be comfortably in the house where we all grew up and have our father resting peacefully in his room. In the last several years, my father seemed to be preparing for just this moment. He had collected photographs from all stages of his life and had them elaborately framed and put on the walls. He even had a photo taken of himself leaning on his waiting gravestone, dark clouds threatening in the background. This masterpiece he had blown up to a ridiculous size and was hanging over his head in bed. He called his room “The Shrine” and he had appropriately returned to spend his final hours here.

My brothers took turns sleeping on the floor beside my father. The hours ticked by. Another morning came and my father continued to breathe his slow, shallow breaths. I had been away from my husband and three small boys for almost a week and it was feeling like too long. My life was moving along back home and the captain of the ship was needed. I could hear the strain in my husband’s voice when I called. He was doing his best to hold things together while running his busy practice, but my boys wanted Mommy.  This was the very end of the summer and my oldest son would be starting first grade in a few days. He was excited and was anxious for me to be home.

Any parent will tell you, in the small world of a 6-year-old, starting school is a very big deal. And to be truthful, even with a beloved parent on his deathbed, it is a big deal for Mommy as well. My baby was growing up and this was an important milestone for all of us. I had to be with my son for his first day.

I had to return to my life. I had to make a choice.

When it was my turn to sit with my Dad, I explained what was going on. I held his hand and kissed his face, feeling the familiar scratch of his beard for the last time. I knew that my Dad was tired and that he was ready to leave. He had worked hard all of his life and deserved to be at rest. I loved my father and would miss him terribly, but I knew in my heart that he wanted to go. It felt like his time, and if he was ready, I was ready.  

I explained to him that Luke was going to the first grade and would be entering the “big school”. I told him about the lovely ceremony they have to welcome the first graders. The school houses grades one through eight in the same century-old brick building. The graduating eighth grade class presents each incoming first grader with a flower. At the end of the school year in another ceremony, each first grader will present the eighth graders with a parting rose. In our little corner of the world, these ceremonies hold significant importance. I knew in my heart that my father would understand. He had raised five beautiful children. He knew.

I was the fourth in line of those five children, yet I was the first to have children of my own. My siblings struggled with my decision to leave my fathers side. My sister stared at me incredulously. How could I possibly even consider leaving at a time like this? What kind of person was I?

I spent the ride home pondering that question, letting my grief and guilt wash through me. As I pulled into my driveway, my kids stormed the car, literally jumping with joy at my return. I knew at that moment that I had made the right decision. I was not a daughter any longer. I was a mother.

The next day at my childhood home, my siblings were growing weary. Someone had been at my father’s side every moment for over a week. Everyone needed a break. My younger brother asked his girlfriend to sit with my Dad for just a bit while everyone took some time to get some air. She agreed.

At the same time, my 6-year old was being handed a flower by a 14-year old who whispered “Welcome to our school” in his ear. Luke beamed with pride as he marched with his class out of the school auditorium, his kindergarten teachers standing with wooden-handled brass bells in their white-gloved hands.

As the children were leaving, the sound of those bells rang in unison to create an exquisite song, their rich tones touching the deepest part of me. At that moment, I knew my father was with me. I felt it. I cried openly then. I wept for the loss of my father and the loss of my daughterhood. I wept for the bittersweet joy of my son growing up, and in gratitude for the beautiful community that held my family and honored even this seemingly small transition in a child’s life.

Minutes after we walked into the house after the ceremony, my phone rang. It was my sister-in-law calling to tell me that my father had passed. When my father was finally left alone without family, he turned to my brother’s girlfriend and opened his eyes. She calmly said, “It’s okay, Tony, you can go.” He closed his eyes and took his last breath.

He heard those bells. I know he heard those bells.

Ton'

Ton’

Though nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass,

of glory in the flower,

We will grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind.”

~William Wordsworth

Cracked

Mom 1991

1991

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My mom would be 80 years old today.

She was a glorious creature (as my Dad used to say) in every way.

 

 

 

 

I wrote the following essay about my daughter, Ava, but in my heart, my Mom and Ava are forever linked.

Ava made her presence known to me on my mother’s birthday in 2005 and they both gave me a crash course on life and death in November of that same year.

Together they cracked me open to the possibility of angels.

 

cracked

My baby was coming early. I tried to ignore it, wish the contractions away, but there was no denying it. It was happening. This was my fifth child, so I knew.

The school of life had already given us plenty of intense lessons: our third child surprised us with Down Syndrome and our fourth shocked us with a birth defect that required immediate surgery and a month long hospitalization two hours from our home. We thought we had graduated, but life had other lessons for us.

As I labored in the bathtub, the fear came in waves along with the contractions. The memory of the ultrasound five weeks earlier surfaced: the suddenly silent technician excusing herself to get the radiologist. The radiologist bluntly telling us of the many abnormalities. So many problems that her condition was deemed “incompatible with life.”  Our baby girl would not survive.

Or would she? I felt I had to have hope for the little life inside of me. Ava. Sweet Ava. Couldn’t she defy the odds? For five weeks I oscillated between cheering my miracle baby on and knowing that she would die. The constant peaks and valleys of these emotions were relentless and exhausting. My labor truly began at that ultrasound. All the questions, questions, questions, tormenting me every hour of every day and into the night. What would this mean for my family? How would we get through this? How would this affect my other young children? Why? Why us? So much uncertainty.

Until finally there was no more room for thought. The moment came when everything changed, when the worries of the past and future could no longer exist-every sense focused on the now. Any birthing woman knows this intense time: transition-the time when you cannot go on, yet the only choice is to move forward, to move beyond everything you thought was possible, opening beyond what you thought your limits were. You cannot bear for things to escalate, yet they must for this new life to be born, for the world to change.

And Ava would change us in the deepest, most profound ways and answer all of the questions. There was nothing that could be done for her, nothing for us to fix. Her body was just not made for this world. She would leave the world in the very same room she entered. She would only know the touch of those that loved her, the sounds and smells of a busy, loving home. This tiny life would be with us for just ten days, yet she would be one of our greatest teachers.

New and fascinating questions emerged for all of us to ponder: What happens when we die? Where do we go? What is Heaven like? We were able to openly explore these questions and my older children would come up with even more: If death happens to everyone and every living thing, why are we so afraid of it? Together we journeyed through life’s most awesome mysteries and for a small bubble of time, death would not be dark and scary, but graceful and peaceful and full of love.

And mixed with this grace would be life itself. The full spectrum of which would unfold before us in ten short days and then, abruptly, we would be marched forward.  The fragile, beautiful bubble of that sacred time would burst and the urgency of life would take over once again: children to feed, dishes to do and balls to be kicked.

But Ava opened us all up to the glorious possibility of angels and that could never be taken away. Suddenly, there was a whole new dimension added to life. What a comfort it is to think someone is looking out for us, helping to guide our way. Maybe we are not alone in all of this. Maybe there is more.

I would never have asked for this gift. If the gods had sat me down and said, “Listen, we’re going to give you a baby. We know that you’ve been through a lot already and you’re not expecting another, but this one will teach you so much more!  She will be born with a lot of problems and you and your family will have to face them head on. You are going to have to dive right in and explore the full spectrum of all that life has to offer, from birth to death.  You ready for that?”

Hmm, gee…No, I think I’ll pass on that experience, thanks all the same.

There would be no way to understand how the depth of this experience would alter the very fabric of who I am. I would have no way of knowing that having and losing this child would leave me  more appreciative, more spiritual, more compassionate.

More. Just more.

This tiny soul would stretch me in ways I didn’t know I could survive. She would take me places I didn’t know I needed to go, change me and mold every part of who I am, never to be the same.

The experience would break me open and when I would heal, the pieces would not fit back together so seamlessly.  There would now be cracks, and through these cracks, slivers of light would touch places inside of me that had known only darkness, places that I didn’t know were there.

Ava taught me that there are some things I just cannot control, no matter how much I question or worry or work. She showed me that despite how hard I fought to be Captain, I would always remain the first mate and when I finally gave up the fight, the sweet relief of surrender would wash over me. It was so much easier it was to ride the waves instead of swim against the tide. I realized how nice it truly was to give up the illusion of control. The experience moved through me and changed me and did not crush me. Things were okay, they were really okay.

These lessons are hidden in the scars that now make up the intricate tapestry of who I am. They are not unsightly and they are no longer painful. Their complexity and depth add a whole new dimension to this person that I call me. Now all of life has to pass through the filter of these scars and the experience is more rich, more colorful and more delicious because of it. They are lessons that I would never ask for, yet they have been essential to my growth, my evolution. They cracked me open to the idea that maybe this is exactly what life is about: healing and learning and growing and healing and learning and growing.

I wish I could say that the next time life comes a-calling, I will greet her with no resistance, but I cannot be sure of that. I know that the intensity of my time with Ava has left me wiser and stronger, but I am not totally fearless.  Not yet.  That will take more work and more lessons that I have no doubt life will supply.  

With these lessons part of me will crack and, hopefully, I will welcome the light.