The day of the dead. The day that the barrier between the spirit world and the world of the living is the thinnest.
Ten years ago, November 29, 1992, the son of two of my closest friends was killed in a drunk driving accident. I was 28, he was 22. He was a passenger. He was named after my father, Malcolm, Mac for short. His parents and my parents had been close friends since before I was born.
I don't think any of us knew how serious a problem he had with alcohol. I had known him much better as a kid, than as a young man, and I think I still saw him through my growing up eyes: he was the first baby I ever got to take care of, the first one younger than me.
We are welcoming in the dead today. My new housemate is definitely a pagan, so we are having a group of friends to dinner. We've asked everyone to bring a dish that they associated with someone they've lost. It took me so long to figure out what to cook - I don't know why, because the person who is most recently lost to me is my mother, and she taught me how to cook. The problem was not that I could not think of anything to associate with her, but that there is all too much.
I am honoring three of my dead. Mac, my mother, and my grandmother. When I think about the day of the dead, and about honoring the spirits, I get the image of a crowd, gathering around the doorway, wanting to be invited in, hoping they have not been forgotten. All four of my grandparents. Other friends. Other ancestors, who I know only from pictures and family history. Other friends....children.
We live in a culture that wants to pretend that death doesn't exist. You have to sign a piece of paper to STOP doctors from taking "heroic measures" to keep you alive. This is odd to me - do the doctors really think ultimately that they can prevent it? How? And why?
But in a way, it feels right to sit here, and think about the dead. Not good, but right.
These three people are still a part of my life. Their dying was, and is, a part of my life. Mac's death was a huge catalyst for me to reconsider the choices I was making, and to some extent it put me on a new path. I wish it hadn't taken that big a jolt to get me to pay attention, but there it is. My mother and grandmother were probably two of the most influential people in my life, in many other ways, mostly good, but a few bad. They were both amazingly hospitable, generous, loving. My grandmother had a mean streak, and I see it in myself once in a while. My mother at times was not good for standing up for what she needed, for taking care of herself instead of everyone else; and I see it in myself once in a while. Mac struggled with his place, with his role within this overachieving family - he was a bit of a rebel...
I see it in myself, once in a while.
So I'm cooking a cherry pie, and creating altars in my head for each person. The cherry pie is for Helen. At this time of year, my mother used to turn into the Holiday Mom from Hell - she loved holidays, and pretty much from thanksgiving until boxing day she was going full speed and then some. Her altar includes a silver spoon - how I hated polishing all that damn silverware for the Thanksgiving table. It also includes two watercolors, one of hers, one of mine. Some flowers - I think my love of plants jumped whole from her head into mine, like Minerva from the head of Zeus. A teapot, of her making. In our house, love is taken up in tea cups.
Mac's altar is harder. When I think of him, I first think of the summer at the lake, when he was about 7, so I would have been 13. He lived in a complete fantasy world, wearing a superman t-shirt every day, and morphing from Superman to Spiderman to Spiderfrog over the course of the summer. As I remember, he wouldn't answer to his own name, only to the proper superhero form of address. A comic book, preferably old and well-thumbed. A bag full of balsam fir needles. He loved our cabins, in Ontario, and the smell of the needles can instantly transport me there.
I cannot imagine a worse loss than the death of a child. My grandmother died at 94; she was mourned, but her memorial was also a wake, a true celebration of an amazing life. My mother died at 61 - a life truncated, but she had packed an enormous amount of living into those 61 years. I grieve, for my loss, but not for hers.
But 22. 22 years old. How can I not rage against this loss, against a life that he was not allowed to finish? That realistically, he was barely allowed to begin? I imagine what he would be doing now, at 32. Of the places he would have been, the experiences we might have shared, of the things we might talk about. This is the death I still don't understand. Not a death I can honor - I can honor his life, but not his death. I still rage against the cruel unfairness of it, of the blow to his parents, the hole that can never be filled. Children should bury their parents, not vice versa......
My grandmother, Katy. Can you tell I live in a matrilineal family? A china cup, with a saucer. I like my tea in a mug, preferably holding about 20 ounces, very strong with milk and sugar, but she liked hers in a delicate china cup. I wonder how many hours of our lives we spent together, drinking tea, talking. More fir needles. She kept coming up to our cabins until she was 92, and I remember taking her on a three day camping trip when she had to be at least 80. I want to be able to chop wood, with an axe, when I'm that age, so I have a good example. A scrap of wood, to remind me of this. A baby quilt. I remember her nimble fingers helping me to make doll dresses, tiny quilts and seams.
So much of who and what i am is taken up with these people, these ancestors, my dead. I refuse to take this stiff-upper-lip New Englander stance that we won't talk about them, that I won't continue to mourn them, laugh at their foibles, cry at my missing them, have conversations with them.
I don't know who W.H. Auden wrote Funeral Blues for. It's a favorite poem of mine, and I think expresses perfectly the light that goes out in the world when you lose someone precious to you. I'm glad he wrote it. I'm not sad and mournful today, but reflective. One wonderful line in the poem is I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong. But in a way love does last forever, at least beyond death. As long as I am alive, my love for these people, my life twined with theirs, will be alive. The pieces of who they are are carried inside, and will be passed along to Tessie, and then whoever she in turn loves.
Maybe as long as love is passed along in teacups, it can last forever.
For Caroline and Sam, begun October 29, 2002.