Dia de los Muertos. The Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday associated with the Catholic celebrations of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. Family and friends gather to pray for and to remember friends and family members who have died. The day we remember and celebrate the lives of those we have lost. But how is this day any different from another day I ask?
I’m not Mexican but yet this day stands still for me. I try not to go there. To hear their names spoken aloud, to see their handwriting on a piece of paper, to once again acknowledge that they won’t be there when I dial their number and wait as the telephone rings, and rings, and rings. What would happen if I try calling? Would anyone pick up? Has someone else taken over their number in this life?
It doesn’t take much for me to feel a tear slide down my cheek. As I page through recipes, I see the beautiful curves of my Aunt’s hand moving my arm in circles as she teaches me how to make her favorite split pea soup. I drape my mother’s arms around me in her afghan blanket in the morning’s cold dew as I watch her pulling the yarn to her lap, mindlessly moving the needles stitch by stitch.
I haven’t put the pictures back up on the wall of my father. His smile staring back at me as I pass through the rooms of a house he never visited. The pain is still too new, too raw. It is his voice I wish I could hear on the other end of the phone as I stare down at his number, permanently memorized by my hand.
I wonder how long it will take before the hidden sobs welling deep in my chest will stop hurting so much. I wonder how many more days I will wake and wonder if the past few years aren’t just a part of a bad dream. I wonder how they got through these days before us, as they too watched friends and family disappear, one by one.
They say we will see them once again in heaven and this hope can bring comfort and peace to many. I held onto that hope when the pain wretched my body so hard, so deep, that I wanted to fall into the dirt beside them. But today we are in the in — between. That place where the pain is no longer a stabbing knife to our heart, but also not the peaceful place that comes with acceptance. We are in that place between these two extremes, and we vacillate between the two ends of the spectrum on any given day.
Today is different though. I imagine them here, gathered around me, laughing and smiling with each-other as they celebrate this Day of the Dead on my living room couch. It is their day after all, to celebrate in silence as shadows around us. I can see my Uncle Lee with that sparkle in his eye telling a joke to his daughter Jen as my Aunt Pat hands her husband, Uncle Dave, another beer. I can see my cousin Andy trying to get in a word amidst the cacophony of laughter and memories being shared. I can see my Grandpa and Grandma holding hands, together in eternity, each son and daughter joining them in heaven, awaiting the others to follow when their day comes at last. I can see my father still looking straight at me with tears falling from his own eyes. It hasn’t been that long for him either and he still misses what he can no longer have. And there’s my mother, smiling and laughing that she has orchestrated yet another great party. She is happy at last.
What would they say to us now I wonder, as they look at us from another world, another dimension. Would they hold onto any regrets? Would they have any last words of wisdom? Would they have any leverage at making sure our hopes and prayers are heard?
November 1st is the day they walk amongst us, brushing that hair out of your eyes, crossing paths as a deer or coyote on the morning trail. November 1st is the day we let their words be whispered into our head. November 1st is not just another day where I try to remember those who mattered most, I also try not to forget.
“It’s the dawn of a new day,” I hear them whisper, “Go out and celebrate. Live life to its fullest and do not despair. We will see each other again. That day will draw near, sooner than you think, with each day you take a breath.”
So I step outside my front door and breathe in the fresh autumn air. I listen to the birds sing. I smell the leaves turning orange, yellow and red. I let the taste of sweetness linger on my tongue from the leftover Halloween candy still sitting out on the porch step. I feel the warmth of their arms around me as I charge forward into the sunlight. The Day of the Dead is for the living as well as those who are dead. It is a day for us to live in joyful harmony of their memories and new ones yet to be had.
November 1st may be just another day. But for me, it is the start of another year where their memories are made to be present, perhaps more so than in the past.