The dead are not under the earth

The dead are not under the earth

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.

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The immortal daughter, the mortal daughter

The immortal daughter, the mortal daughter

During the five days of festivities, the city never sleeps, and millions of people throng the streets all night, decked in their newly-bought finery. Friends and family return from all over the world, and in many homes, the festival also occasions their own daughter’s homecoming, from a city or country thousands of miles away. The festival is about new unions, reunions, of the coming together and being one again, of dispersed loved ones. There is space for all in these festive five days—from the deeply religious to the merely fun-loving.

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To my first daughter, on Christmas morning

To my first daughter, on Christmas morning

This is a beautiful life, Lydie. It is a life where I have held you in my arms, if only for a few hours. It is a life that carries your name and your spirit. It is a life that holds unimaginable beauty in the warm smile of your brother, in the depths of your sister’s blue eyes, and from the immeasurable love for our Christmas baby.

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a father's day dilemma

a father's day dilemma

I still recognize the unmistakable signs of another smile. It’s one that feels wider and more pronounced than before. While I don’t see it, I know it has a genetic familiarity reminiscent to that warm and pleasant smile that I was blessed to witness, so very alive in my memory. What will Father’s Day mean to you this year? Do you feel like Father’s Day is treated differently than Mother’s Day? What will you do to mark that day?

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vacation

photo by Garry - www.visionandimagination.com

I walked on the black-sanded beach by myself, waiting to come across a large carcass of a whale or ship, something broken and empty, like me. Here it is, I would think, the perfect metaphor for my grief. I would climb it, I imagined, examine it, and take a piece of it home. "You didn't die in vain," I would whisper. "I will remember you." And in that moment, the inextricable link between all creatures would be known to me. Nothing like that happened.

I had never traveled sad before.

After my daughter's death, I fantasized about moving away to somewhere very warm and beautiful. Life is too short to stick around New Jersey. Or maybe this time, when we didn't have a newborn to care for or money to be spent on her, was just the perfect occasion for us to travel the world for a while. We could leave this terrible place where babies are stillborn and you can't make a left turn. Eight months after my daughter died, we packed up our grief and headed to my mother's country, Panama, for ten days.

Some days, I was ecstatic, begging to travel long distances through the country for the possible glimpse of a sloth, or totally jazzed to hit the fisherman's beach to bargain in Spanish for some fresh catch. I bounced on the balls of my feet, clapping my hands like a motivational speaker. "Come on, people, those monkeys aren't throwing poop at themselves. We've got a jungle to trek." Other days, I could barely muster a walk out of the bedroom. I woke up several times each  night thinking about the dog or my father, wracked with guilt and overwhelming anxiety. Something. Was. Wrong.

The other thoughts in those hours of the night were how far away this country is from my daughter's ashes. Lucy's death seemed so small and long ago, like a dot I saw on the tarmac of Newark as our plane arched toward Central America. Oh, but I packed her death. It ached in my every joint, in every inch of my being. Some days, every activity seemed rather pointless or overwhelming or both. "Meh. I'd rather be sleeping."  And the family would leave as I read books and wept uncontrollably.

And I remained cold. Eight degrees off the equator, I shivered in the sun. I wore a sweater most nights, sometimes during the day. I couldn't get warm. It had been like this since Lucy died, not being able to feel warmth.  I carried a bit of winter solstice in my body now.

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I cried during very chaotic turbulence, because what I didn't dare speak before my trip or during, was that I was convinced I was not coming home from Central America. Riptide. Hanta virus. Panamanian drivers. Mud slide. Pool accident. Infected finger. Lightning. Freak machete accident. The ways in which one can die on a vacation are surprisingly varied, interesting and around every corner. I sent emails to all my people, "I will always love you." The pilot actually came on the loud speaker on our return flight to say that we may have to make an "emergency fuel landing." This is it, I thought. I was the one with tears in my eyes and hand raised. "Uh, is that emergency landing because we have no fuel? Or is that a landing to get fuel? Could you just clarify the emergency part?"

Once you are on the shitty end of statistics, that small stretch of number is your homeland where no death scenario is too far-fetched, wild, or out of the realm of possibility. I even imagined different ways to be imprisoned in a Panamanian jail for being at the wrong place at the wrong time during a drive on a desolate piece of highway.  And my living daughter seemed a step away from death too. Sometimes I just cried, not because I saw Beatrice's imminent drowning, but because I wanted Lucy to be in the pool with her sister and her father, bouncing and splashing. I hate seeing Beatrice without her sister. My husband without his daughter. The world without a little giggling girl.

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There was part of me that imagined this trip as something healing, something different than it was. I tried not to build it up or imagine it being a vacation from my grief. But I admit part of me felt like maybe a change of scenery would change my grief. Just a respite from the exhausting heavy weight of it. Maybe like Atlas passing the world to Heracles for a brief minute just to stretch the shoulders. How could I not be happy in such a beautiful place? But the pure exhausting nature of grief amplified the ugliness inside me and the beauty of everything else. Lush green and grief. Moss and anxiety. I looked out of our room onto the great expanse of the Pacific Ocean, watching the sun set, and still, I was so fucking sad. It's easier to be sad in New Jersey. You are supposed to be sad in New Jersey. This was just another shitty day in paradise.

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When we walked in our house, I walked straight to her urn. Why hadn't I taken it with us? I stared at it for fifteen uninterrupted minutes, I missed home.  I missed her (which had nothing to do with home.) I missed grieving her. Home represented non-judgment. No expectations. Just grief in whatever form it came. And yet the vacation was beautiful, dare I say, worth it. I listened to the story I told to other people about the vacation--epic hikes through the jungle, watching twenty hummingbirds fly around my daughter, lying on the beach, rolling a cigar in a factory with my cousin,  spotting a sloth in the jungle, or discovering a moss-covered wall and waterfall.  Those were amazing moments. The truth is when I spoke of my amazing days before, they have really always been an amazing moment or two enveloped by the mundane. After my daughter died,  they became amazing moments enveloped by the grief. And they are, in their own way, sometimes happier. Maybe the juxtaposition with grief makes them happier.

If someone asked me many years ago to describe how both my best and worst moment could be wrapped up together, I couldn't have imagined what that could possibly be. Then I birthed Lucy, knowing she was dead, both so incredibly tragic and beautiful. Her birth, a peaceful moment of agony. And so this first vacation after her death, an agonized moment of peace.

 

Have you traveled, or been on holiday, since the death of your baby? What was the experience like? How has grief changed your experience of travel? Or how has travel changed your grief?

la llorona

photo by A30_Tsitika.

I paint my face like a calavera. I don't know what I am trying to achieve, making myself look dead, but I do it. I am alone. It feels like I am doing something wrong, and in that way, I am excited. I put a base of white onto my face. It reminds me of high school and listening to the Cure and being a punk rocker. Then I pull out the black face paint crayon and draw a joy there, a swirl here. Some flowers and decorations. I am more beautiful with the mask of death.

I want to feel close to her.  I want her to be amongst my posse in the afterlife, the otherworldly gang of ancestors that come when the veil between the living and the dead is thinnest, guiding me into good real estate decisions and warning me of enemies. I beckon her to come this day, the next and one after that. To rest in my arms while I dress like a calavera. We are but a whisper away from the other side. Maybe we are a coat of white face paint away.

I straddle cultures. I straddle existences. Half-white. Half-Latina. Half-mother. Half-La Llorona. I am an erstwhile Catholic and a half-assed Buddhist. I spent years living on the Mexican border in Arizona, speaking Spanish like a Chicana, and come home to a house full of Panamanians. I married a Southerner and live in New Jersey. I have attended midnight masses in four continents. I put each image of death, each candle burned, into a steaming cauldron, stew them for decades. I take some dark ideas out, adding liturgy and spells, until it is a soothing, warming bowl of ritual. Because above all else, I am a ritualist. I like rites. I like routine. I like customs. I like ceremony. I like something to do over and over because it is. What. We. Do. So I paint my face. I paint my face and I build an altar across my dining room. And I pull out the pictures of the dead.

I line up their photographs on my ofrenda. This time of year feels sacred and frightening. The leaves fall. My people fall. My grandmother. My aunt. My great-grandmother. My grandfather. My father-in-law. My daughter. So, I take a bit of them and add it to my Día de los Muertos altar. I decorate it with their funeral prayer cards, the Irish blessing written on the back. I put little bibles and prayer books. There is a rosary created by a blind nun and a bowl of fruit. I make sugar skulls. I paint a large painting of a woman crying and holding a stillborn baby. I hang it in the middle of the wall, papier-mâché skeletons flanking each side, flower lights hanging around the wooden frame.

Ssssshhhh. Don't tell anyone, but the painting is me and Lucy. It is a 16 inch by 20 inch secret done in bright acrylic. I tried to paint the Virgin Mary, but I always paint me holding Lucia and crying. It is pathological. It makes others uncomfortable. There is this show of competing artists. One of them could take pictures of nothing but clay and red dye that looked like bloody  internal organs. She suffered from colitis her whole life. She tried to create other work, but she always ended up painting organs hanging from a box. I keep painting my dead daughter. I paint death because I do not show her picture in my house, except on Day of the Dead. I put her picture in this little brightly colored frame that betrays the gray of our heartbreak. I can close it up with an orange ribbon when neighbors come by. Does anyone notice our Lucy there, lips red as the sacred heart? The lips are strange and mesmerizing to me, and I have kissed them. The dead wear makeup too.

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Is it okay to tell you a ghost story? It is Halloween after all. Sometimes I feel like La Llorona, the Wailing Woman, who walks the edges of ponds, arroyos, the rivers, the places where water runs and her children might wash up. See, the legend goes that her children were swept away by a flash flood, carried off dead, and she, driven insane by the grief, wanders the rivers of the world looking for them. She screams and keens into the night. In another land, the legend is that she killed her children herself, threw them in the river. But the end is the same--they are gone, and she is condemned to wander the earth. But the scream is one we all know. She screams into the night, "Dios Mio! Mi hijos! Mi hijos!" or "My God! My babies! My babies!"

She is beautiful and terrifying. Every old man and woman in Mexico has a La Llorona story, even my mother. It is a ghost story, a nightmare, to lose your children. Everyone knows that. La Llorona is a warning told to children who become young adults. Do not venture out at night or La Llorona will snatch you. Do not go meet your boyfriend by the riverbed, under that beautiful weeping willow, La Llorona will steal you from us. I am both comforted that child loss is acknowledged, even in ghost stories, as something to drive you mad, condemn you for eternity, and also sad that we have such bad PR. I get La Llorona, I do. I feel condemned some days. Like La Llorona, wild hair, wild eyes, wandering the babylost rivers of the internet, wailing, "Dios Mio! Mi hija! Mija! My daughter. My daughter. Oh  my God, my daughter."

This time seems wrought with ghosts and visions and the other world. Today is Halloween and Samhain, the Witches New Year. Tomorrow and the next day, the Days of the Dead. Tomorrow is Día de los Inocentes ("Day of the Innocents") also known as Día de los Angelitos ("Day of the Little Angels").  November 1st is a day set aside to honor children and babies who have died. We who wander the internet wailing have created our own culture around death, our own rituals of mourning. An angel writes our baby's name in the sand across the world. We write poetry. We light candles together. We trade skulls and hearts and ornaments.

I paint my face white, turn myself into a skull. I commune with the dead. I create elaborate altars for her. I summon her, conjure her baby form in the arms of my grandmothers and aunts. I stare into a bowl of water, scrying and crying. There is something comforting in the desperation of these motions. It is something other than wailing.

 

 

What ways do you honor the dead during Halloween, Samhain or Days of the Dead? Or if you don't, why not? What rituals have you created for yourself? For your family?  Are these rituals different for your baby(ies) than for your older ancestors? Do you connect with the community of parents who have lost children during October? What rituals feel most comforting to you?