One year ago, on November 1, the traditional Mexican Day of the Dead, I honored my mother’s death. I had found her on her bedroom floor just ten days earlier, and several days after she had stopped returning my calls. Her death was sudden and unexpected – a brain aneurism that I pray every day took her quickly and without pain. Even in the depth of my sadness, I know that both she and I were so lucky for that quick passing. No days, months or years of slow decay, confined to her bed – or horror of horrors, in a hospital bed that was not her own. And I know she was ready, despite her good health; she had told me so.
My mother was not afraid of death. She spoke of it openly with my son, even made clear that certain objects could be his after her passing. She insisted that after her death he finish building her sustainable house atop a mesa in northern New Mexico. He was eager for the Brazilian dart gun, but was less convinced that he would be finishing the house that she had already been constructing for 16 years – and counting.
Now a year past and I am in Mexico, where Day of the Dead is an extremely important cultural celebration. It lasts a week in fact, with a busy industry surrounding it. Near the central square in San Miguel there are dozens of vendors offering colorful sugar skulls, candles, and other offrendas ready for you to create an alter to your beloveds. Aiden made a day of it and chose sugar skulls, chickens, rams, and Catrinas (the skeletal female figure most common in Day of the Dead imagery). He hung paper decorations and bought candles. And he is always one to make sure there are flowers.
We placed two photos of my mother among the offerings, with nods to his two great grandmothers, both of whom also passed in recent years, and even sugar dogs representing the deeply loved animals, which existed in our family long before he was born.
As Aiden decorated he shared a story of the games he and his grandmother used to play: Warmer/Colder, he called it, whereby one has to identify an object with the other indicating proximity using “warmer” or “colder” signals.
I realize I can’t take this acceptance and open conversation for granted. I know there are so many children, especially in America, who are shielded from all aspects of real death, and see only its extreme ugliness through video games or TV. They don’t learn of the real act of death, sometimes the ugliness, but also the inevitability, importance of and even, yes, the beauty of death. Not to mention the value of openly discussing and being empowered by having—in fact choosing—what I call a “good” death. That’s a death on your own terms, be it quickly such as in your sleep, or in your own bed through the help of hospice care (angels, all). May we all be so lucky.
Sure, Aiden is innocent enough to still think death comes only at the end of a naturally long and healthy life. He is still blessed not to personally know anyone who has died young. But he knows that death comes. It always comes. And his first experience of death came with the idea that it is not to be feared.
So it feels essential one year later to celebrate my mother. On our alter we will add coffee and chocolate to sweeten her afterlife. We will add some tequila, because that has to be good, right? And some fresh bread, without which she might never have eaten a breakfast. If I were in Madagascar I might be among those digging up her bones after several years, dancing all night and replacing them with love. She wouldn’t have cared what happened to her physical body, regardless the year. She had always wanted her body burned with little care of where the ashes would go. “I’ll be gone by then,” she told me. “Do what you want.”
This will surely be a time of some sadness – I miss my mother every day – but as the celebrations here remind me, it is also a time of gratitude, love and joy. I had a wonderful mom, with whom I had many adventures and unforgettable moments. And her relationship with my son was beautiful. We were so fortunate, and that is worth celebrating. Her funeral last year was a great send off: live music, good food and lots of friends. So it will be during this year’s Dia de los Muertos, where we will continue to honor those we loved so deeply but who are no longer with us. I’ll play some old hippie tunes, we’ll tell stories of our time together and remember the fun we had. And I’ll remind myself again that we always carry with us the ones we love. In fact, I found myself in tears the other day watching a Mexican procession I imagined my mother would have loved seeing. When I explained my tears to Aiden it took his sweet insight to bring things back into focus: “But mom, she did see it. She’s here with us. In spirit.”