Celebrating the Dead
This year instead of carving pumpkins for Halloween, I created a Day of the Dead altar.
I lived in Mexico for five years and always appreciated the idea of the celebration. I loved the art, but I never participated past being an onlooker and an occasional purchaser of sugar skulls and Catrina statues.
But this year, I was compelled, I’m not sure why. I went all out, even building a weather-proof house for the altar (thanks, Jay) and spending days and days burning my fingers on the glue gun and swimming in glitter.
A mixture of bad luck and being friends with addicts has meant that more than my share of people have died young. I didn’t have pictures of everyone, but I found obituaries from the 90’s and took pictures of pictures.
I thought about each of them a lot. I touched their photos and found surprises in the obituaries. I cried, especially for the first friend who died. He was murdered a week after getting me drunk for the first time. It was a senseless death, driven by racism and hate and one that I never got over.
I probably never really got over any of them. But so many years later, re-finding them, remembering them, glueing glitter and flowers onto their picture frames, and celebrating their short lives helped me appreciate them again, as an adult, as someone with a different perspective, a longer view. Their lives may have been short, but they were not wasted, and I promise that year after year, I will pull them out and make them a beautiful altar and invite them back into my consciousness.
One friend died of an overdose when I was deep into my own partying days, and I barely registered that it had happened. We had not seen each other since my sophomore year of high school, and he was the third or fourth early death in my life, so I don’t remember what I did, but I don’t think I felt much of anything.
A few years later, I was living in Mexico, just weeks into sobriety. I was walking in the Condesa, having an inexplicable crying jag that would not end. All I could do was walk, and then, there he was. I couldn’t see him, but his presence was visceral. We walked together for a while, and he told me to stay the course. We discussed addiction and what happened to him. I found a cathedral, and even though I’m not religious, I sat there and felt him with me. Eventually, he began to fade, and I walked home in the dusk. I was changed. I learned from him that we are not different. We were doing different drugs, and his were more dangerous and less socially acceptable, but we suffered the same ailment. He was on my side. I had an ally.
I was able to grieve for him after that, and I could clearly see his face for the first time in years. I still can, his curly brown hair and perpetual expression of humility and kindness, even though he wore the uniform of all the fucked up kids of the early 90’s: nose ring and band tees and flannel shirts.
Was that psychosis or did he come to help me? Was it unprocessed grief? My theory now is that he owns space in my brain. He is etched in there; all my people are, dead or alive. Under a certain amount of stress and in a time of need, that etching came alive to help me. Whether it was him or his residual pattern in my mind doesn’t matter too much to me now. It’s an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything, even if it indicates some underlying pathology.
We need our departed. Most of the time, they won’t come back and talk to us, be our cheerleaders, but they are still alive in us.
The beauty of the Day of the Dead is that we can nurture what is still alive instead of putting our grief into the ground and moving on. Our memories, the way someone smiled at us, the friendship we probably took for granted. The love of a grandparent. None of that is gone. It’s not too late to celebrate.
And in so doing, let us remember that we will go too. This time we have is precious and undeserved. We are lucky, not entitled to life. We can’t be, because that would mean that those who passed were not entitled to their lives, which makes no sense. We knew those people. We loved them, and they deserved life as much as any of us.
What do we want to leave? How do we want to be remembered? These questions can fuel our lives, help us appreciate today and what we have and how we recognize and attend to our inter-being with everyone around us.
Mostly what I remember about all of them, the young ones, the old ones, the addicts, the fighters, is how they were all kind to me. Every single one of them. And that’s what I hope to leave as well. I’m not going anytime soon, I hope, but when I do, please remember the kind times. I’ll keep working to have more and more of them.