photo by emdot


I search through the cases of milagros. Through silver hands, patina-ed trucks and copper lungs. Medals of disembodied legs and small praying men with hats held in hands. I settle on a sacred heart, flames rising from its fold, and, at the last minute, point to a pair of eyes for Santa Lucia, for my daughter. I seek ritual now. The repetition of the familiar helps me touch my childhood, reminding me of comfort. When I get home, I dig out my antique wooden Virgen de Guadalupe. I place her over a handwoven fabric, light a candle and pin the ex-voto to the cloth. I am trying to remember a roadside shrine I found once on the Ruta Puuc, the road that follows the Mayan ruins on the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico.

It was a decade ago that I followed the road with a rental car and a day pack. When I passed the unadorned shack on a road from the ruins of one Mayan temple to the next, the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe caught my eye and I quickly pulled the car off the road. Lit and unlit candles dotted the ledges and floor of the little alcove in the middle of nowhere. Pictures, letters and thousands of milagros, little metal folk charms of body parts or saints, surrounded the statue of her. Each symbol imbued with its own individual and very personal meaning--some a prayer for healing, others a call for fortune, a change of luck, a dream of love or a need for strength. I hardened fast to the spot in front of the makeshift altar, enraptured with something primal within me, my indigenous roots suddenly alive to magic and the gods. There is a way Latin American culture, my culture, seamlessly ties together the ancient, Pre-Columbian with the  New World; the pagan and the Catholic; the profane and sacred.

A decade later, after Lucia was stillborn, I recreate the same shrine in my living room. I wanted all those things in my grief--a miracle, a prayer, a call for fortune and a dream of love. I set the Virgin up in the center. They call her the "Mother of the Apocalypse." Apocalypse, indeed. I add a sugar skull, a picture of St. Lucia, a rock, some water, a drippy candle, a Buddha and a mizuko jizo. A bit of heaven, of earth, of water and of fire, the altar seems to touch an ancient secret in me I have only just  remembered during the ritual. I whisper it to myself, "We have all grieved." Humans, that is. Humans have always grieved.

Humans have always pleaded with ancestors and visions of saints and demons and volcanoes to alleviate that which aches within us. We have invented religions around it. We have knelt in front of shrines to Coatlique, or the Virgin, or Demeter, and asked her to heal our broken hearts, to give us back our children. I feel connected to this sense of universality of babyloss. Maybe it is the only religion I have now, the only thing I really believe--that babies die and parents grieve. It has happened for so long and so often, in the first stories of the universe, that I bend my head in shame for being surprised that it happened to me.


My mother reminds me again that I should have had a funeral for Lucia, so that she can have some closure. "It is different in my country. The whole town would come to help lead Lucy to heaven. She will be stuck here." And I instinctively look around my house.

Please let her be stuck here, I think. Maybe in that space between the couch and the wall. I could kneel on the cushion and peek into that spot, 'Hello, love,' I would say. 'I miss you.'

My mother says that in her country she would have the baby's body interned in the house. In the living room. They would set up chairs. The people would come, she says, the local village ladies who always pray rosary for the dead. They would coo about how beautiful Lucia looks, and everyone would see her as a baby instead of something unmentionable after a long pregnancy. For a week, every night, the women and her family would pray rosary over the dead. Light candles. Her sisters would sit. Every once in a while, a cousins would come before going out drinking that night.

"My sisters will cry when they are moved to cry. They will fix black coffee and plain soup. Her soul goes to heaven that way."

The silence of disappointment sits between us.

"You eat soup? At the equator?"
"It is tradition to not make anything spicy or interesting."
"Huh." My mother stares at me, as I stare at my chewed fingernails.
"It helps, Angel."
"But you don't even really believe in this stuff, Mama." I protest.
"What does believing matter? It helps. Those rituals are important. Maybe you just need a funeral for her for you to heal. Believe me, at the end of the week, after sitting and praying the rosary every night with those women all covered in lace, you accept the death. We all walk to the cemetary after the week is over. The vultures fly around and stare at you. You don't expect anyone to walk through the door after that. "

I never expected Lucy to walk through the door.

Though I have seven living aunts and three uncles, forty-seven first cousins and double that in the second cousin category, I have no aunts in this country anymore. Very few cousins, respectively. There are no village ladies. There is no way our baby can lay in our living room. I live in suburban New Jersey. My neighbors, while kind people, don't pray rosary at dusk for the souls of dead babies and grandmothers, or make huge vats of tasteless soup so we can mourn properly. My husband and I made decisions for our mental well-being, but I didn't quite think of my mother, or how American our decision seemed to be to my entire Panamanian family. It seemed right to have Lucy cremated. To fold her into the fabric of our daily grief.  To spare everyone a funeral the day before Christmas. I feel like I have always had my feet in two worlds. Panamanian and American. Brown and white. Joyful mothering and grief-stricken mothering. The living and the dead. And some days I feel like I fail both sides of each of those coins.


After Lucy died, I ask my mother how to translate stillborn into Spanish. "We don't use that word 'stillborn' in my country. No one talks about it."  And I remind her that no one really talks about it here either, but we still have a word for it. She sighs and reminds me that she was eighteen when she came to the United States and she doesn't know all those adult words. The only thing she knows is nacido muerto, born dead. It is much more blunt than stillborn, which has the sort of poeticism to which I am drawn. But truly, Lucy was born dead. Beautiful and dead. Nacido muerto.

We have a long tradition of storytelling in my Panamanian family. Of hyperbole and tall tales over liquor and candlelight. Magical and wild tales of my grandparents and their parents are woven with both the vivid and proper. My family has stories of stabbings and sex. Music and cigarros. Affairs and guitarras. We even have stories of lost babies, found again decades later on the arm of a son, and affairs that end in our legacy. I weave my own tales, some days, about my daughter's afterlife. I tell them to no one in particular. I whisper the words, "Mi Lucia nació muerto." Then I set the story in a place of my invention, a dirt road cut through the jungle, pyramids rising in the distance and roadside shrines dot the way. The air is thick there with humidity and rainforest perfumes. And they sit, my Indian grandfather with his Seco and milk, his arm around his round wife, mi abuelita. My great-grandmother Isabel plays guitars and sings bawdy Catalan songs of death and sex. Lucia spins, her skirt flaring around her like a flame, as they clap for her young, beautiful spirit.

Did the cultural traditions of your family bring you comfort or conflict? Have you used rituals in your grief, and if so, how? Have you found yourself attracted to the traditions of another culture or religion? How have you adopted rituals into your grief and search for comfort? Have you integrated different cultural or religious rituals into your life?