Day of the Dead

I stumbled upon Dia de los Muertos in October of 2001 while wandering around Pilsen on my lunch break. I had been in Chicago for about six months, and my dad had been dead for four of those. I had few friends in the city and even fewer at my job, so I spent most of my work time sneaking out to soak in grief and wander around the blocks adjacent to my office.

One afternoon, while approaching a small patch of grass the city tried to pass off as a park, I saw a folding table draped in a bright yellow cloth and festooned with marigold garlands. On top of the table, there were large cardboard boxes covered in bright paper and crepe garlands stacked up like a short pyramid. I got closer to investigate and saw a placard in English and Spanish proclaiming that this was a community altar for Day of the Dead. It was late October, so a few people had already started decorating the altar with photos, notes, and neatly packaged bags of candy and food. Mementos like toy cars, rubber chickens, funny figurines, and action figures were also tucked in to the growing pile, and I imagined these were whimsical inside jokes between the grievers and the deceased. I was drawn to the juxtaposition of festivity and grief – the first time I had seen a reflection of my conflicting feelings of mourning and celebration for my dad’s “homecoming”. I became obsessed with the idea of adding to the altar for my dad.

I wrestled with the idea of the altar for a week. I made a list of what I could bring: A picture of my dad, a photo of a lobster tail, a small toy gorilla. I went back to the altar again and again and watched the tiers become cluttered with hundreds of notes, objects, and squirrel-eaten food. The fact that I was not really part of the community or the culture gave me pause. But the gut-churning longing to join with these anonymous People Who Had Lost, to add my ache to the pile of grief, to find a bit of humor and festivity in the darkness, kept me coming back to the altar.

Eventually, I wandered a little farther on my altar-watching trek and made it to the National Museum of Mexican Art and saw that they had a whole exhibit about Dia de los Muertos. Sugar skulls, dancing skeletons, paintings, sculptures, and helpful descriptions helped me put together a bigger picture for this new obsession. When I got to the very last room of the exhibit, my breath caught in my throat. I saw a small alcove plastered with neon post-it notes on every inch of the wall. Notes that people had written to their beloved dead. Notes, the description informed me, that would be collected and burned on the Day of the Dead as a kind of offering. Perfect. I cried with relief and sadness as I grabbed a green post-it and scribbled:

I miss you dad, but I’m so glad you’re finally Home.

I stuck it on the wall with the hundreds of other notes of love and longing and release and I left. I didn’t go back to the altar. I didn’t want to see it succumb to the elements, as it was designed to do. I had fulfilled the need to be part of a collective mourning.

When my mom died a few years later, I thought about driving down to Pilsen and hunting for an altar. I didn’t. We remembered her in different ways, and my Chicago circle was much bigger. More of my friends had known and loved my mom, so I had a communal mourning for her in a way I hadn’t with my dad.

In 2014, my brain was pulled to the altar again. Another quieter, lonelier grief stirred fleeting ideas of a road trip to the city. That year, I thought about finding a community altar to grieve the loss of tiny twins who I would have delivered in late October. Miscarriage is such private grief. No one knew them – not even me! There are no photos, no favorite foods, no shared memories. The doctor didn’t even print out the ultrasound picture. I saw them exactly one time, and that was on the day I was told “So, there are two, but neither has a heart beat”.

We had a different kind of anonymous but communal mourning for the babies, even though only about 15 people in the world even knew they had existed at the time. Like I had when my dad died, I was aching for a way to express some kind of public yet anonymous grief. I wanted to scream at everyone I met in those first few weeks “MY BABIES DIED!”, but I didn’t. I wanted to share their brief existence with the world, but couldn’t think of any socially acceptable way to do it.

I miscarried in March (fun fact: on my mom’s birthday!). Easter was right around the corner. I read in the bulletin of the church we were attending that congregants were invited to bring any kind of flower to the altar on Easter Sunday, and they would provide small notes and floral picks so we could write a note with the memorial information on it and stick it in the plant. So that Easter, I brought a small, double-bloomed hydrangea to the altar at church, pulled out a white square of paper and wrote:

With love for our twin stars.

A different kind of celebration, a different kind of offering. The tradition I grew up in remembered those who had died with Easter Lilies and other flowers on Easter Sunday – a reminder of rebirth and beauty rising up from the soil after the death of winter. Now I think of my parents and grandparents primarily on All Saints Day. I didn’t grow up recognizing All Saints Day, but now I’m drawn to it: a quiet, usually chilly fall day of reflection on those who have gone before us that doesn’t get lost in the shuffle of Easter festivities.

We aren’t limited just to those officially recognized saints. Anyone in what the church folks like to call The Great Cloud of Witnesses counts as a saint. Most of us will never do anything that gets us considered for beatification, but someone will think about us when we are gone, and I do think about how I wanted to be remembered. Maybe one person will remember that I shared a little hope when they had run out or shouldered something with them when their back was stooped with grief. I hope my daughter will remember me with even a measure of the love and admiration I still feel for my own mom.

Ultimately, we’ll all be there someday, leaving this life for whatever comes next. On All Saints Day, I remember the quote attributed to Ram Daas – We’re all just walking each other home. On All Saints Day, I recommit to being a person who will walk into the grief when that’s the path in front of me or the people I love – to mourn with those who mourn. And recommit to filling my lungs with beauty and joy every day I still have breath. Don’t forget to dance with those who dance. If no one around you is dancing, put on a song that reminds you of someone you love and bust a move. My All Saints Day playlist includes In A Gadda Da Vida and Age of Aquarius.

Venus Fly Trap

One rainy afternoon about a month ago when we were limping along the uphill path between lunch and bedtime, I let my daughter look over my shoulder as I scrolled Instagram. She saw a video of a golden retriever puppy with the “I’m just a hap-hap-happy guy” soundtrack and she yanked the phone from my hand and demanded “Are there more videos of puppies in this thing?”

Oh kid. There are so many videos of puppies in this thing.

This began our ritual of indulging in exactly 10 minutes of Puppy Videos after lunch. She burrows into my lap and squeals with laughter as infantile voice-overs declare “I’m a pah-tay-toe” and sing the “Found a stick on the ground” song or any of the other two dozen repetitive ridiculous TikToks or Reels that people are making with their puppies these days. 

The tricky bit is that for every eight videos of a German Shepherd snuggling a kitten, there is at least one foul-mouthed, vulgar voiceover puppy video mixed in. I try to pre-screen them or stick with a reliable hashtag like GoldenDoodlesofInstagram, but still the swearing dogs sneak into the queue. 

I handle the sneaky profanity by casually brushing it off and scrolling quickly to the next video. “That video had some gross and rude words in it. We don’t use those words, and I don’t want you to hear them.” That’s been enough of an explanation so far. 

Yesterday, in an effort to minimize the number of F-bombs my kid hears while she digests her fruit snacks, I switched it up to a set of Reels that rotated puppy videos with videos of pandas and baby elephants and flying squirrels and whale calves breaching next to their mommas. 

I swiped up to the next adorable innocuous video, and my kid watched in horror as a beetle ambled into the jaws of a venus fly trap. She saw the spiked lobes clamp shut as the beetle struggled to escape. She burst into tears. “What is that? Mommy! What happened? Did the plant just trap that bug?”

“That’s a Venus Fly Trap. They eat bugs. They trap them in their petals and then they eat them.”

Her face pinked and she struggled to produce words through the gulp of hot tears. “You mean there are plants that kill animals? On purpose? Do they eat any other animals besides bugs? Do they eat butterflies? Can they trap humans? How big are they? Where do they grow? Does anything eat them?”

We watched a couple of kid-science videos about Venus Fly Traps and the facts seemed to help. Venus Fly Traps are small. They don’t grow around here. They don’t trap other kinds of animals. Lots of different kinds of animals eat Venus Fly Traps. We talked about how many kinds of creatures need to eat bugs to survive, and how if no other creatures ate bugs, the whole earth would just be so full of bugs we would never want to go outside. 

Somehow this spun out into a tearful discussion about death and God and her soft heart. We talked about how God is sad when even one creature dies, and that she is reflecting God’s image when she is sad about death. I made the mistake of mentioning souls, and she asked me to remind her what a soul is. I said it is what makes her who she is – what she thinks and feels and how she lives in the world. “I think my brain does most of that” she retorted. 

Touché, kid, touché. 

Photo by Egor Kamelev on Pexels.com

I was talking with her through her dribbling tears and she referred to God as “He” and then she remembered previous conversations and amended herself. “But God is not a he or a she! God is both!” Les chimed in from the table where he was clacking away at his laptop – “You know that Jesus said that God is like a mother chicken!” Her face unfurled into a huge wet-cheeked smile. 

“WHAAAAAAT??” 

“That’s right!” I said. “God is like a mother chicken who gathers up all her chicks under her wings. Do you remember we saw that video of the chicken sitting on her nest on the farm and then the person walked over and picked up the chicken and the chicken had actually been sitting on some tiny baby kittens? That’s what God is like! God gathers up anyone and everyone and takes care of them and loves them.”

She was giggling now, remembering the kittens under the chicken. “Momma! I bet God is like a banana!” “Really? Why?” “Because God is yellow and has a peel!” She collapsed in a pile of giggles. 

“I’m not sure God is like a banana, except for the fact that God is good for us like fruit.” 

We spent the next several minutes giggling over how God could be like a dog, or a tree, or an ant (God is patient and faithful, God is strong and provides things we need, God is always working for our good).

I’ve felt a bit uncomfortable talking with my kiddo about faith-related topics for about a year now, but that is starting to ease a little. Someday I may be ready to write about that, and what this season of intense untangling has been like for me. Maybe not. 

Let’s just say my relationship to my faith is complicated at the moment. God, it seems, is on the lookout for me as surely as I am on the lookout for God. Every time I feel like I’m standing at the edge of the abyss and screaming into the void, something pulls me back and dazzles me with beauty and God-ness. Creation, and my kiddo’s exquisite sensitivity to its fragility and interconnectedness tended the sore spots and scabs of faith I had been picking this weekend. 

God is like my daughter, whose heart breaks for the cruelty and sadness of the world.

God is like my daughter, who laughs at the ridiculousness baked into the system.

God is like my daughter, who pulls me deep into the wonder of this life, this earth, and reminds me that I have so much to learn.

Hope and Death

My daughter and I watched a delicate little field mouse draw its last breath on our front stoop yesterday afternoon. Our hound dog’s face had just emerged triumphantly from the viney ground cover that lines our sidewalk and dropped the poor twitching creature from her mouth when I screamed “Daisy! No!”

My kiddo held hope for a few moments that the mouse was OK. “Maybe it just needs to rest a minute, mommy. It’s probably just scared.” It died as we hovered over it, trying to revive it with our wishes and whispered encouragement.

I buried it in the soft earth next to our garage. My daughter originally wanted to leave it for a scavenger, like they do when they discover a dead animal at her outdoor Kindergarten. Her school sprawls across 42 acres that includes wondrous wooded knolls, a natural pond, a small stream, dense underbrush, and wide open fields – a thriving suburban ecosystem. 

The first time the Forest Kindergarteners came upon a dead animal this year, her teacher sent an email to all the parents letting them know that they had found a dead bird, and that some of the children had decided to fashion a grave for it using rocks and twigs and leaves to make a circle around its body, and to say goodbye to it. “We left the bird for a creature who would make it a meal, and talked a little about the circle of life”. She attached a photo of children, including my kiddo, gingerly placing pebbles in a reverent ring around the body of the chestnut colored nuthatch.

When I buried the field mouse, my daughter confidently assured me that “It will be safe and cozy there in the dirt. Nothing can eat it.” I reminded her that, in fact, worms and other small creatures that live in the soil will eat it. This seemed to remind her of something her teacher told the class; “Oh yeah. That’s right. Dead things get eaten, too.”

She was calm and matter of fact about the mouse throughout this funeral rite, but when she told my husband, Les, about it later, she teared up a little bit. “It was so CUTE, daddy! So tiny and furry!”. She had also silently wept when I told her a few days ago that Les had squashed a big spider in the mudroom. “Why did he kill it, though? Why didn’t he take it outside? Why did he kill a living thing?”. Hot tears slid down her cheeks in genuine anguish.

We’ve talked about death regularly since our beloved Chihuahua mix died last summer. We told her that AuggieDoggie is with God, and that we’ll see him again some day. I believe that some version of that statement is true. We told her our current beliefs about heaven, and resurrection, and that God will make a new Earth someday and all the people and animals will be together again. Some days I waffle on how confident I am about that, but I don’t tell her about my doubts. I choose to project the most hopeful version of all the things I’ve believed and wrestled with over the last several years. 

I wonder whether she’s regaling her classmates with musings on eternity, as she often does with us.

“When God brings us back to life on the new Earth, we can jump from high up and not get hurt! And I won’t need a flu shot, because we can’t get sick!”

“On the new Earth, I bet the dinosaurs will have to all be in one place so they don’t try to eat us.”

“Auggie and Daisy will play together someday when we all die and come back to Earth!”

In the car on the way to school last week, I told her that my grandpa was missing a finger. His pinky finger had gotten cut off in an accident, and the doctors couldn’t reattach it. 

“When your grandpa comes back to life on the new Earth, will he have all his fingers?”

I’ve found a lot of comfort in her unmuddied focus on the wholeness and togetherness of the afterlife. She doesn’t seem terribly ruffled by thinking or talking about death. Her curiosity and open-hearted approach to these discussions feels healing to me. I spent at least 30 years terrified of death. 

In July, it will be 20 years since my dad died of complications from Type 1 Diabetes. He was 51 – just 8 years older than I am now. I was 23 when I got the call at 2:30 am that the disease that had ravaged his body since he was five years old had overtaken him. 

Growing up with a parent with a debilitating chronic illness can really do a number on one’s mental health. I didn’t realize just how sick he was, or how perilous every hospital stay really was, until I was in middle school. Once the reality of the situation hit home, I spent the next 11 years worried every day that that day would be the day that he died. Or worse! That somehow my mom would die before my dad, and we three kids would be left to care for him.

But don’t you worry, I also had a thick layer of Fear of Hell ladled on top of all that Fear of Dad Dying. And the Fear of Hell started much earlier. Because on top of the fear that my mom or dad could drop dead at any minute, I was also very much afraid that if I should be the one to die, I would almost certainly go directly to h-e-double-hockey-sticks. Why? Because according to the Southern Baptist preacher who yelled all the chapel sermons at the sleep-away church camp I attended with my cousin the summer after third grade, I hadn’t been properly baptized. One way ticket to a burning lake of fire, obviously.

I’m not going to church-bash here. I was raised in a church that did not adhere to the Turn or Burn agitation of some Protestant denominations. But when you’re a kid, and you have been raised since birth to revere clergy and to believe that every word of the Bible is literally true, hearing about how I would be physically tortured for all eternity when I died kept me up at night every night for three years. What if that guy was right, and my parents and pastor were wrong? That’s a story for another essay. 

Just know that I haven’t always been so hopeful or open-hearted about death. I’m not Protestant anymore, and I no longer believe in literal hell. My husband and I converted to Eastern Orthodoxy 6 years ago. One of the most healing and mind-blowing things I learned since becoming Orthodox is that the Eastern church has never embraced a doctrine of literal hell or eternal torment. The early church, and for millenia afterwards, the Eastern church, has embraced the mystery of God’s justice and perfect goodness with both arms around the assurance that we worship a Good God, who loves every single one of us. For eternity.

That’s what we teach our daughter. 

It’s not easy for me to talk about death with my kiddo, but it has gotten easier. Once you are not trying to tightrope across a narrative that the all-loving God who created you and pandas and tree peonies is the same God who would damn most humans to hell, the cognitive dissonance tumbles away in the wind. So does the fear. 

I can be more honest about what I believe, and what I don’t know about death and what happens after we die. None of us really knows, of course. But I have spent more time thinking about it than most people I know. My mom died eight years after my dad, when I was 31. We talk about Grandma Betty and Grandpa Scott regularly, and my daughter knows that they both were very sick when they died. 

“Do you think your mom and dad will like me when I meet them after I die?”

“Your mom and dad died when they were very sick. But you aren’t going to get sick and die. At least until you are very old and I am a grownup.”

“People don’t get to choose when to die, right? There’s no way for a person to make themselves die, right?” she asked one morning in the car. “God decides when someone will die.” That’s all I could scramble together in that moment, three minutes from turning into her school drop off line. 

“When your mom died, did you ever wish that you could die with her so you wouldn’t have to miss her so much?”

“I didn’t want to die with her. There were so many things I still wanted to do! I wanted to get married, and get a dog, and have a house, and travel and have adventures. I knew I would really, really miss her. But I also know I will see her again, and there are a lot of things I still wanted to do on this Earth, in this life.”

“Yeah. Me too. I don’t think I would want to die when you die, mom. But I think I would miss you too much.” 

“I miss my mom so, so much. And my dad. But I have you, and your dad, and my friends, and Daisy, and so many good and wonderful things here. I’m glad to be here with you, right now.”

“Me too, mom. Just don’t die until you are very, very old.”

“Deal. I’ll do my best.”

I want to leave Diet Culture for good. I also want “healthy food” to save me.

 This is an excerpt from the essay I wrote and workshopped in my writing class this summer. It is the foundation essay to the essay collection I hope to finish and publish.

I didn’t know my mother kept a diary. I discovered it in a stack of books perched on the crowded nightstand in the upstairs bedroom of her house. A bedroom she had not been able to reach for months, her body unable to summit the staircase. She had been living entirely on the first floor the year before she died, and she had been dead for over a year when I found the diary. My siblings and I had finally started to clean out the house that she and my dad had built together; sorting 30 years of life into Dumpster, Donate, Sell, Keep. 

My sister sat on the floor in front of a heap of wrinkled clothes she had pulled from mom’s dark brown carved-wood dresser. “I think this is mom’s diary. What should I do with it?” I handed my sister the purple hard-back, but she waved it away without looking up. “Don’t read that, Jill. It’s private.” I wordlessly tossed it onto the bed beside me and moved on to the rest of the stack. When my sister dragged a white garbage bag full of stained t-shirts and snagged hosiery to the dumpster, I lurched for the book and sat down on the floor with my back against her bed. The blood throbbed in my ears as I cracked open the spine and leafed through the entries. The daughter reading her mom’s diary, hands sweaty, expecting to find notes about her marriage or my dad’s illness and death, or my meddling grandparents, or me or my siblings. I expected her diary to look like mine – chronicles of heartbreaks and everything I couldn’t say out loud, with a few private joys woven in to hold it together. Waves of grief, guilt and curiosity trembled through me as I flipped through the pages. There were only twenty or so entries spanning over a decade. None were more than a paragraph long.

Please, God, help me lose some weight. I don’t want to be like this anymore.

Went to Weight Watchers tonight. It feels more doable this time. They’ve changed their program since the last time I tried.

Shortly after she completed her chemo she wrote: 

Well, the Lord works in mysterious ways. All those years asking God to help me lose weight. Looks like the chemo has finally helped with that! Be careful what you wish for.

Nearly every entry was about her weight or her body shame or a new diet she was trying. Prayers scribbled in exhausted script. “Please, God, help me have some self-control. Please, God, help me lose some weight.” My dear mom had suffered so much, and the only griefs spilled into her diary were sorrows over her weight and failed diets. My heart tore wide open and I gulped back a sob. The sharp sting of this breach of her privacy compelled me to run the book out to the rust-orange dumpster and hurl her secrets over the container’s wall into the tangle of broken lawn chairs and mouse-chewed craft supplies. I never told either of my siblings what I had read.

I never thought of my mom as “fat” when I was growing up. She was soft and mom-sized. She shopped for clothes in the plus section but seemed to me to be similar in size to many of her peer moms. She was always on a diet. Weight Watchers, Slim Fast, Bible-based diets, soup and Special K diets. She never really lost any weight. My dad made relentless commentary about what she cooked and ate. 

Do you really think you need seconds?

None of us really need dessert every night, you know.

Is that on your diet?

I saw the pain in her eyes even though she never retorted. “Probably not” she’d sigh. 

My dad was dying, slowly, of Type 1 diabetes, which is the type that has nothing to do with how much you weigh or brought about by what you eat but is rather a ruthless genetic glitch. He had been managing the disease with a strictly sugar-free diet and daily insulin injections since he was five years old. He was also taking lithium for bi-polar disorder, which was still called Manic Depression in the 80s. His life depended upon careful label reading and strict sugar avoidance. He lived on meat, baked potatoes and Diet Coke. He occasionally indulged in strawberries or a swig of beer when his brothers were in town, but only if he was at home where he could check his blood sugar and stab another hit of insulin if needed. 

When I was 14, he was let go from his job as a computer systems analyst because he couldn’t physically sit at a desk all day or type. Diabetic neuropathy in his fingers made it impossible to feel the keys of his keyboard. He was eventually granted permanent disability and stayed home all day for the next nine years, propped up in his brown faux leather recliner at first, and eventually a home hospital bed. By the time I was 18, he had only five modes: sleeping, yelling, laughing, crying, or watching M.A.S.H.

His comments to mom were, I believe, rooted in love and concern for her but mixed with vanity, jealousy over an abandon with food he had never experienced, and full buy-in to patriarchal, capitalist norms about what a woman’s body is allowed to look like. He was a good man, addled by disease and mental illness. He was a good man, who policed my mother’s food intake and bemoaned her inability to return to her svelte pre-baby body.

I’ve gained fifteen pounds since my daughter was born five years ago. Fifteen new pounds since the round-the-clock breastfeeding of a struggling newborn and the bleary nineteen months of sleeplessness that followed as my babe woke every two hours to eat. I had to oblige her. “She’s right at the edge of falling off the growth curve” her pediatrician told me. “You can switch to formula if it’s too much for your body”. I did supplement with formula, but kept drawing her to my breast, over and over, throughout the long nights. The lactation consultant didn’t find anything amiss with my breastmilk, or her latch. “She’s just tiny. She can only hold so much at a time in that tiny tummy”. She all but refused to eat solids, so I felt compelled to keep going despite the crushing exhaustion. She needs it. She’s so small. And also, feeding a hungry human from your body burns a shit ton of calories. I felt free to eat almost anything I wanted. 

The medical establishment concludes that the “typical Western diet”, obesity, and low levels of exercise all increase your risk factor of developing colon cancer. I can’t “get” Type 1 diabetes, but because my dad had Type 1 and my grandmother had Type 2, I am at higher risk for Type 2, which is commonly believed to have a strong link to obesity and visceral fat that pads your organs around the waist. I’m predisposed to at least two lethal diseases whose trigger seems to have at least something to do with what you choose to eat. On the other hand, years of data shouted by the anti-diet, body positivity folks say that diets don’t work, almost always do more harm than good, and that weight has less of a correlation with health than the patriarchy wants you to believe. The conflicting science haunts every grocery list, every meal plan, every daily decision about what to put in my mouth. 

My new fifteen pounds snuck up on me over the last three years because I kept eating whatever I wanted even after I stopped breastfeeding. My husband doesn’t comment on my weight or what I choose to eat, but despair over the soft cushion of my middle keeps me awake at night. I read anti-diet-culture manifestos and try to buy into intuitive eating and body positivity. Every day, I hold up the genuine urgency of accepting my body and setting a better example for my daughter and weigh it against the deep, deep fear of succumbing to the colon cancer that took my 59 year old mother while I still desperately needed her, or the diabetes complications that ultimately took my dad at 51. I want to confidently stake my tent in the anti-diet and body positivity camp, but I never get there. The tangle of fear at my feet trips me. What if the medical establishment is right? What if the unbridled bloom of my belly triggers a deadly disease? What if my lack of self-control leaves my young daughter motherless? What if there is a limit to my husband’s solidarity with my self-acceptance? What if I, like my mother, just don’t want to look like this anymore? If I get a terrible disease that I could have prevented, all eyes will be on my waistline. I want to love my body, but I also want to control it.

I am the unbeliever who lies awake at night, worried that she might be wrong about hell.