The dead are not under the earth

photo by  A. Périsset

photo by A. Périsset

This post mentions my living children.

It is this season again. One of the maples in our yard has burst into red; the other’s crown is tinged golden. The sound of dry leaves curls across the yard, down the sidewalk. The air is crisp now. The proverbial harvest is finished.

Fall was always my favorite time of year.

Growing up, my family was really into Halloween. Year after year, we stuffed clothes with straw and used an old mannequin head to make an figure that sat by our front door to frighten other children. Then, once, my dad replaced the figure and sat perfectly still with the bowl of candy in his lap. He scared the hell out of the kids who came up for candy.

As I got older, I took over the decorations. One year, I painted my face pale, bloody around the neck, cut a hole in a box, and stuck my head to sit like a decapitated head on a table. I would flutter my eyelids open as children approached the house. Another year, I dressed in all white, a dead bride, hung a noose from a nail above the door, and leaned limp and sideways out of the doorway when children approached.

This was before I knew Death.

Now, Halloween is just the first in a string of fall and winter holidays I no longer know how to celebrate.

I can’t stomach the decorations. My neighbor’s row of tiny gravestones squeezes my chest. The sight of the realistic skeleton, half-buried in ivy, makes my skin crawl. At a local shop, a white sheet is hung up and printed with red handprints and the scrawled words help us. I close my eyes, as if I could block the unwanted images that surface in my imagination.

Death is all too real.

I so desperately want to raise my living children with the fun and magic of holidays, the way I grew up. I decorate the house with benign, neutral things—Indian corn, garlands of autumn leaves, pumpkins and gourds. We will dress the girls up for school parties, and I might take M trick-or-treating a few houses on the block. And at my school I will dress up like a character from a book for our annual Book Parade.

But my heart’s not in it. In spite of what everyone assured me the year after Joseph died—when all our holidays were heavy with his should-have-been-there absence—holidays have not gotten easier.

*            *            *

We try adopting Day of the Dead in our house. We do not have a graveyard to go to. No leaves to sweep away from the gravestone. No favorite meal to cook or libation to pour out.

We are not Mexican, not Catholic, no Aztec blood.

Still, we dust off the mantle, move the usual vases and knick-knacks, and make an altar.

We put out photos of our grandparents. All dead now. Several before we were even born; the last gone only a few years ago. A photo of A’s Aunt Joanne, whose name is E’s middle name, joins them. I don’t have one of my aunt who died of cancer. I dig out the picture of my friend Hans dancing with me at my wedding. His death, six years ago, still painful.

For the second year in a row, we move Joseph’s urn to the mantle, along with his birth announcement, and the photo of my pregnant belly days before he died (was dying even then?).

But this, too, in its own way, feels empty.

Why do I do this? I wonder.

I do not believe that this night the veil between the worlds will open. I do not believe the dead will come back to visit us. I do not believe I will be reunited with my son.

*            *            *

M is two and a half. Talking. Expressing more complex thoughts. She understands what dressing up means for Halloween and is tickled by her cat ears, tail, and whiskers. She has discovered “treats” and knows that’s what you get when you trick-or-treat.

She can name some of the people in the photos on our Day of the Dead altar. She knows E is named for Aunt Joanne. She knows Baby Joseph is her brother.

What will I say to her when she begins to ask about Death? When she is old enough to wonder why?

It will not be enough to teach her the facts of these holidays, to dispassionately recite origin stories as I do for my students at school: “Some people believe…”

I don’t know what I believe anymore.

These two lines from a Sweet Honey in the Rock song, “Breaths,” keep popping into my head:

            those who have died have never, never left
the dead are not under the earth

It is a start.

I sing this, and I stubbornly repeat these autumn rituals, hoping they will—someday—become celebration.

What rituals have you found meaning in? What do you believe in?