I wrote this piece when mother had died just weeks after Dia De Los Muertos in 2012. It became a kind of eulogy at her funeral, and was later published in Elephant Journal. I am also sharing another piece I wrote about my mother that was first published in Life in 10 Minutes and included in Life in 10 Minutes print anthology. As we approach Dia de Los Muertos on this side of the border, here is my nod to honoring death.
As I write this, I am on my way back to the U.S, from Mexico on this Thanksgiving Day. Yesterday, my mother died. It was thankfully a peaceful death, and hopefully a release for her as I know she has suffered a lot in these last years. As with all death however, (and with all things actually), there is contained in the grief, a kind of joy; in this case, an opportunity to be with my family, some of whom I have not seen in quite sometime-all made more special since I have been living in another country.
It has not been lost on me that my mother’s death has come on the heels of Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead,one of the most special holidays in Mexico where families honor their deceased loved ones. They do this of course, with rituals and customs that to some probably seem strange and to still others, who fear anything “foreign”, possibly blasphemous.
This holiday has long since crossed the border however, and is well-known to many in the United States with most schools even using the day to introduce some cultural aspect of Mexico into their classrooms. Nevertheless, as extranjeros, we can create altars,
bake pan de muertos and eat sugar skulls, but without the historical and cultural background and most importantly, the attitude towards death that is uniquely Mexican, the holiday in the states is not much more than decoration or worse, a different take on Halloween.
Where I, and many people I know in the states, grew up not talking much about death; not acknowledging the fact of it, the polar opposite is true here in Mexico. As a child, I always got the sense that if you talked about death, then you just might invoke it, and so I recognized it as a taboo subject. The Mexicans not only acknowledge death as simply the other side of the coin of life, but they go even further by making friends with it. They even mock it, and taunt it with their own mixture of indigenous and Catholic rituals, sprinkled with the color, art and pageantry- and a bit of the macabre- that is characteristically Mexican.
The Tibetans have a similar way of dealing with anything we might view as uncomfortable, such as death or fear, or other unsettling emotions: make friends with them, invite them in, accept them as they are. When we are able to do this, I have learned, we see that they can not harm us. It takes the wind out of their sails, so to speak, and we are then free to show up for our life and be present with the knowledge of the impermanence of everything on the planet-including our transient emotions and our precious life.
Despite the seemingly raucous wild party atmosphere that is Dia de los Muertos, to Mexicans, this attitude is not some kind of twisted fascination with death. Quite the contrary, I witness every day the extraordinary devotion and respect for life demonstrated in countless ways, but always with a more relaxed, carefree attitude.
They acknowledge forces and events beyond their control, but like the Tibetans, understand that while they can not control those forces, they can control how they view them. As hardworking as people are here, there is always time for fun, for joy, for celebrations, and for laughter. They recognize that death, their constant companion, is with them at all times. So, why not have a party? There is something to be learned here.
It is natural when someone close to you dies, to then reflect on life-on your life, and ask: how can I live it more fully, more joyfully, more completely? At times, these thoughts are easier to reflect on than to remember to put into practice. And practice it is. If I have learned anything from being alive this long, it is that life is a practice, and there is always an opportunity to understand it more fully, to see the reality of every moment without fear, without a “story”, as it is-with acceptance. And that reality is, that love and loss, life and death are equally contained within the same seed. They can not be separated.
As my Tibetan teacher once said, “If you don’t want to die, then I suppose you should not have been born!” We cannot have it both ways. It does me good with my mother’s passing, to be among a culture and people that celebrate life and death so that I remember to invite myself to both parties.
My Mother's Two Deaths
Gloria "Chachi" Laino, circa 1952 (age 23)
This piece is written as a haibun, a Japanese form of poetry (short piece of prose + haiku), I discovered years ago and fell in love with. It was also first published in Life in 10 Minutes and included in the print anthology.
My mother has been dead three years. But before that, she had what Buddhists might refer to as a “little death”. As much as I tried, I wasn’t able to be present at her actual death. Hopping on a plane after it was imminent, I missed it by one day. This bothered me for a long time, not for my sake, but for hers. I know for her, it would have been a happier death with all of her children surrounding her, believing as she did we were her best accomplishment.
She had been ill many times in the years prior, having gotten the “death call” from my sister at least twice. I was still living relatively close at the time, and could drop everything and go.
One such time, she was rushed to emergency. Her heart was giving out again and I received the call. “Come now”, my sister said. When I arrived at her room, I wasn’t quite prepared for it. Why do people always appear so small in hospital beds? For most of us, seeing our nearest and dearest in their most vulnerable state shakes us to our core, yanking that security rug out from under us with a brutal force.
She had been put on a respirator, and my sister informed me that because she kept trying to pull her various tubes out-she was always stubborn like that- the nurses had strapped her hands into pingpong-like paddles to protect her from herself. The combination of the paddles and the drugs that caused her to be “out of it”forced her into an indignity no one should have to experience. Not being able to talk or touch, it was her frightened eyes that haunt me now. Wide and pleading, they followed me around the room. I felt like her life raft to what remained of her vanishing world.
Since she was as helpless as a newborn, I exchanged roles with her. For several days, I read to her and sang to her, and chatted on about my life, as she never took her eyes off of me. I knew she was loving me in that moment, and I don’t think I had ever felt so close to her.
She refused to die then, this tiny, frail woman whose stoicism and strength are buried in my DNA, but when I remember her now, I like to think that she did. I like to think that her last memory was of me holding her loving eyes, while channeling my best Ella with Someone To Watch Over Me.
A love song echoes
its lullaby for passage
she sleeps without dreams