Take Back The Night
Last night on my way home from trick or treating with my children, I watched a video of a small town in Mexico called Patzcuaro and their celebration of what they call Dia de los Muertos, The day of the Dead. I couldn’t take my eyes off this most sacred and beautiful offering of this time of year. Women, men, and children all sat at the bases of their ancestors’ headstones, huddled in blankets and cloaked in beautiful wraps as they settled in for a long night of honoring those who have passed on. A plethora of marigolds were strewn across the headstones, along with ornate handcrafted adornments of love.
Baskets of homemade bread surrounded the space. Row after row, each family had come to pay tribute. The cemetery glowed with tall tapered candles. Bright yellow, orange, and red flowers with colorful candy-like like bursts of stars fallen on the ground. Clothing and trinkets of the person who passed rested against each headstone.
As I watched, my heart sank. It felt as if my ability to live in my own culture and continue to partake in our commercialized holidays was coming to an end. Every year since my son Koa died, I struggle to tuck away the story of his life, suck my grief back into my belly, and put on the happy ‘trick or treat’ mom-face to head out into this frenzied culture scavenging for packaged candy on a day meant for paying homage to the dead.
When we arrived home, we scattered in different directions, peeled off our masks, face paints, the itchy clothes, and returned to our normal state of being. My heart was a heap of cement. I turned out the lights and took refuge at the altar my family and I built for Koa. His picture was lit by a candle’s flame. Candy, cakes, flowers, a cup of water, a few of his belongings, crystals, and a statue of a mama holding a baby gathered at the feet of a tall Mother Mary adorned with marigolds.
My 10-year-old son, Banyan came and sat on my lap at the base of the altar. We were silent for a while until he spoke. “If only we had been somewhere different that day, then Koa would still be here.” I told him I believe that everyone who has ever had misfortune befall on their lives might wish they had been somewhere different the day the tragedy hit. I asked him if he felt like we had control over such tragedy, if he felt like we could change the course of things on these levels. No, he whispered.
Banyan was only six when his brother died. He witnessed the accident. He told me he remembered where they were playing and who they played with before Koa saw my car come down the driveway. He remembered Koa grabbing a handful of flowers from the bush and running towards my car to give them to me.
His recount of the accident in this much detail was a first since his brother died. He had mentioned small memories, but never told the story all the way through, expressing his feelings in between details, recalling the moments about the day his only brother died, right before his eyes.
“He ran after your car because he wanted to give you the flowers, Mom.” Banyan said softly as his growing body draped across my lap. “Koa jumped off the rock wall and ran behind your car and when you turned, the tire knocked him over and he hit his head on the wall, Mom.” He was telling the story as if he felt like I didn’t know what happened.
I lay there holding him, listening, feeling the quake of his grief and loss. After a long pause he said, “I don’t really remember Koa.”
I told him what he and Koa used to do, where they played, things I remember that made them laugh, but he couldn’t picture any of it. His memory was fading.
After three and a half years since Koa’s death, I know I don’t allow myself to fully remember him as he was. I can only let small memories in. The seer of pain piercing my gut can only be taken in small doses. My heart sets off an alarm in my brain saying, “This is enough for now.” I wonder if Banyan doesn’t remember Koa because of how young he was at the time, or because he has the same alarm sounding off in his heart that tells his brain, Enough now.
I picked up my huge, growing, beautiful boy and carried him off to bed.
As my head hit the pillow, I found myself not wanting to breathe. Small breaths made their way through, but only just enough to oxygenate my system. There was no life force in my inhalations.
I heard my voice say, “It’s too painful to breathe this air.”
I didn’t mean it was difficult because I was missing Koa, although that was palpable. I meant I couldn’t breathe this air because it was air surrounding a world devoid of meaning. Air of a country that has forgotten their dead. Stale, stagnant air that turned an ancient ritual of celebrating the darkness and dedicated to honoring our loved ones’ lives and deaths into a commercialized, candy-coated holiday.
I thought of the bereaved parents enduring this meaningless making of Halloween. Instead of having an opportunity to honor their sweet children, ritualizing the night with prayer and remembrance and aching hearts in search of healing, their children, my child, can no longer put costumes on and roam the streets in search of their favorite treats.
In and out of my body came these tiny, lifeless breaths just barely enough to keep my blood moving.
I began to ache. My muscles in atrophy, my bones flaccid as I lay there realizing once again, I am a part of this sleepwalking culture—a culture that denies and rejects the exquisitely painful opportunity to face life on life’s terms. To use a time like Hallow’s Eve, when the veils are the thinnest between us and the departed, and remember that we live and die. We, and everyone, and everything in our lives will die. There is no way around it.
How painful this air was to breathe tonight. It is unfair that I was asked to breathe it. I felt cheated and angry, but empowered and justified to say, “I will no longer participate.” I can’t be asked to hold my grief in, paint a smile in place of the tears that want to fall, and squelch the very essence of what it means to remember. Remember. Remember the dead. Remember my son, who is dead.
My little angel, Koa, sure has me on a ride here in this lifetime. The way he works through me seems to be by not letting me just stand by and drag along. His spirit urges me to be a part of a wake-up call, to rise up out of sleepwalking, to not miss the vital moments, to face life as it is. He reminds me of what we have forgotten, to call on and take part in the ancient ritual of ceremony set forth by our ancestors. Over and over again, Koa reminds me to remember.
I feel him moving through Banyan, too, calling on him, like on that night, to remember. He will always know death. He will always have a brother who died. He will always carry the images of watching his brother die that day.
Tonight I rest in the knowing that at least one child in our American culture went to bed knowing the true meaning of Halloween and was able to use the dark night of remembering to help heal his precious heart.
Next year I will take our family to Mexico for Dia de los Muertos and we will deepen our relationship with a culture that knows the medicine ways of this time of year.
As much as I want to just go to the parade, march down the street in fun creative costumes, trick or treat, and smile at all of the cuteness and excitement of the children enjoying their celebrations, it’s just not my path. So be it.