Tag Archives: Death

Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead)

1 Nov

Today is the first day of November: All Saints Day or Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). It’s the perfect opportunity to remember those who have left us and reflect upon how much they meant to us.  Just by thinking of them today, we can keep their memories alive in our minds and in our hearts.

Our Dia de los Muertos  Altar 2013

Our Dia de los Muertos Altar 2013

Colorful skulls and pan de muerto

Colorful skulls and pan de muerto

Flor de Muerto (Marigolds)

Flor de Muerto (Marigolds)

Making fun of death

Making fun of death

Cancer took them too soon...Rosie, Jessi, Jeffrey, T.T. and Lexi. R.I.P little ones

Cancer took them too soon…Rosie, Jessi, Jeffrey, T.T. and Lexi. R.I.P little ones

Resting in eternal matrimony; Hermelinda Chimil  and Elias Mireles

Resting in eternal matrimony; Hermelinda Chimil and Elias Mireles

Precious Gillian Winters

Precious Gillian Winters

Skeletons and more skeletons...

Skeletons and more skeletons…

Grandpa Joe

Grandpa Joe

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Remembering Grandpa

20 Oct

muertos 4The other day, my eight year-old daughter, Isa said something that stuck with me: “Mommy,” she said, “Isn’t it sad that I’m not used to saying the word Grandpa?”

It’s very sad, indeed. Isa has never had a grandfather, as René’s father and my father both died before she was born. My father has been gone for almost thirty years now and it seems as if I think of him more often as I grow older myself. It’s become a regular occurrence that his memory comes to me when I’m reading or writing and I don’t know the meaning of a particular word. I think to myself, Oh, if only Dad were here—I could ask him—because when I was a young girl, every single time I needed to know what a word meant, he always knew.

My dad still shows up in my dreams sometimes. I’m the first to admit that because of his alcoholism, I’ve carried the weight of a heavy resentment toward him for many years. But now in my dreams, I’m no longer the victimized and martyred little girl as I used to be. I’m just a daughter who’s over the moon to see her daddy again. And as if I’m still half his height, I stretch my arms up high to hug him, the soft cotton material of his Brooks Brothers button up shirt brushing against my skin. I bury my face into his neck, the scent of nicotine and Old Spice coming off of him like a stale and comforting perfume. I always ask him the same question: “Where have you been all this time?”

Lately, I think of my dad every time I walk through the living room. It’s that time of year again when we set up our altar for Dia de los Muertos—Day of the Dead, and his photograph is the focal point of our altar. He’s surrounded by skulls, candles, marigolds, pan de muerto, and most importantly, by the smiling faces of other relatives and friends who have also left this earth.

muertos 1

I think he would be surprised by the number of faces placed next to his: his two younger brothers; his granddaughter, Gillian; the many faces of Isa’s young friends who’ve all died from cancer. He might be a little bit pleased that on this altar he’s still the patriarch—the grandpa watching over them all—a part of something that we who are still here on this earth have yet to understand.

It feels good to remember that in more ways than not, my dad was a decent man. He was flawed, as I am, but he did the best he knew how to do, just as I’m doing the best I know how to do. And despite his imperfections as a father, he must have done a few things right along the way.

After all, I turned out pretty good.

muertos 3

Because of Daisy

17 Feb

daisy

A bald-headed, freckled-faced girl named Daisy died in her sleep after being sick for a very long time. She was at home, surrounded by her loving family, and she felt no pain. But she died, and I must say that I’m so very weary of hearing of yet another family’s tragedy and loss. I’m sick and tired of children dying from cancer.

Not again, is all I can think. How can it be that another sweet, funny and adorable child has died? Why was there no miracle this time?

I’ve always believed that a positive attitude is beneficial to one’s well-being and that our life experiences are never random or fortuitous. I truly believe that what we experience here on this earth is revealed in order to teach us something essential that we’re meant to learn. I’ve discovered these fundamental lessons are usually about love.

When my own daughter, Isa was diagnosed with leukemia, an incalculable transformation took place in my life.  I saw first-hand the astounding and unquestionable shifts in consciousness that came to pass in our family, friends, and even our community during our struggle with Isa’s cancer. Love was always the main component.

I see these miraculous changes have also occurred in Daisy’s family and in the huge number of people who knew and loved her—even strangers who’ve only heard of her fierce battle through her blog http://prayfordaisy.tumblr.com  or on Facebook.

I know Daisy’s family carries the strong faith that she’s all right now and I believe this, too. But from what I’ve seen over the past five years since I first became a part of the pediatric cancer world, the pain and hurt is only just beginning for them. Every time I think about her mama and daddy not being able to hold their precious Daisy in their arms, my heart breaks a little more.

When I think about what Daisy’s family has faced and what they’ll continue to face in the coming days, months and years, an infinitesimal part of their burden becomes mine and it hurts deeply.

Yet, I am grateful.

I’m grateful because each time a child dies from cancer, I’m reminded that by some small shred of grace that was bestowed upon me and my family, my daughter is still here, and I’m blessed with the chance to watch her grow up.  I will never have enough words to express my extreme gratitude for this miracle. I only wish that Daisy’s parents had been able to experience this miracle, too.

Yes, Daisy suffered and ultimately died, and we all know that this is the worst thing that could ever happen to a family. Yet, because of Daisy, we are changed forever. Because of Daisy, we can appreciate the blessings we have in our lives. Because of Daisy, our love and compassion for others keeps growing and expanding and filling up the universe.  I believe that this understanding of love is one of the greatest lessons we could ever learn. This kind of love is the real miracle.

Bless her little heart,  Daisy taught us well.

Time to Remember

23 Oct

I almost didn’t do it.

Halloween will be here soon, and we had already decorated the front porch with strands of cottony spider webs and dangling skeletons. We’ve been planning our costumes for weeks now and a tiny witch’s costume and black hat dangle spookily in the closet when it’s not being tried on over and over again. Bright orange pumpkins, swollen with seeds, sit on the hearth waiting to be hollowed out and turned into grimacing goblins.

It’s that season again, when the days shorten and the change of light paints shadow pictures on the sidewalks as the sun settles lower in the sky. I knew that there was still one thing left to be done, but I thought that I just didn’t want to do it again this year. My husband, Rene still hadn’t brought it up, so I figured that we just weren’t going to get around to it.

Selfishly, I was relieved that he hadn’t said anything, because I just didn’t feel like digging through the shed to look for all the boxes. The thought of having to sift through all of the stuff was more than just a bit overwhelming. Besideswhy do I always have to be the one who does everything around here?

Then last Saturday evening, my oldest daughter, Nora said, “Mom, I’m going to set up the altar—want to help?” and I suddenly realized that I did want to help.

We moved tables and covered them with white cloths; we emptied boxes of candles and vases and arranged them around the centerpiece of a grinning papier-mâché skull. My daughter Isa and her best friend, Tali helped tape tissue paper onto an arch that stretched across the window in a rainbow of pink, orange and yellow flowers. Lastly and most importantly, we lovingly dusted off the photographs and placed them on the altar. The following day, we took a trip to the farmer’s market and bought bunches of fresh marigolds and gladioli and came home and filled up the vases.

Isa and Tali helping to set up the altar.

The altar was ready for Dia de los Muertos. It’s time to remember.

I’d been trying to ignore the importance of this celebration because I’d been thinking all along that it’s only for Rene that we do it each year. After all, it’s his Mexican culture, not mine.  Yet in the process setting up the altar; through the act of looking at all the photographs of the people who have died and really thinking about them, I always realize how important this celebration is to me.

Time has a way of robbing us of that deep connection we once had with our loved ones, no matter how devastating their deaths were to us. People die—even children die—and yet somehow life manages to continue on no matter what. Our memories fade and those of us who are still here on this earth tend to let those memories slip into the recesses of our consciousness. As we move on with our lives, we forget to remember. And in forgetting, we lose that sense of emotional connection that we once held so deeply in our hearts.

I want to remember these people because in doing so, they continue to stay alive.

Lexi died last February, so this is the first time she's been placed on our altar.

Lexi Krasnoff died last February, so this is the first time she’s been placed on our altar.

Rosie Chavez was a star who still shines brightly on our altar. We left her some red lollipops.

Michael “T.T” McGrew and Jessi Modeen both died from their cancer. I never met Jessi, but found out after Isa was diagnosed that her mother, Denise used to live three houses down from us and I babysat her when she was a child. She always loved my name, and gave it to Jessi when she was born.

It’s impossible to forget little Jeffrey Zamora! Rene’s parents, Herlinda and Elias Mireles watch over him in the background.

Our altar at night with all of the candles lit. My dad is right above the skull.

Our precious Gillian Winters.

The Feast

26 Oct

The meal is almost ready. The white tablecloth has been laid on the table, its hand-embroidered flowers against the white background like a snowy meadow of red poppies. Colorfully painted vases that have been placed on the table spill over with bright orange and yellow marigolds, accompanied by tall stalks of scarlet gladiolas which hover at both ends like skinny old women reaching out their long arms in welcome. The piquant aroma of the marigolds combined with the lingering scent of burning incense creates an atmosphere of magic and anticipation in the dark room. Candlelight dances across the faces of the guests, who sit still and quiet in the darkness, their expressions never changing.

All over the table, the abundance of food is evident: bread that has been baked in the shape of corpses lies in plentiful heaps next to the steaming tamales in their tightly-wrapped corn husks. Candy and ripe fruit mingle with the tiny toys and trinkets that have been left on the table to please the children: a toy truck for a young boy, a favorite black-haired doll for a girl of six.

This room should be filled with excited chatter in anticipation of this spectacular meal, yet not one guest utters a word; each one of them waits patiently in silence, staring off into the candlelight. There is a feeling of time slowing down—a sense that no one is going anywhere— that there is no need to hurry.

On this night, despite the festive preparations, there will be no eating and drinking at this table, because in reality, all of our guests are only familiar faces captured in photographs; some smiling, some somber, but all of them are gone forever.

All of our guests are dead.

After all, tonight’s celebration is not really meant for them, but for us—for the family and friends who knew them and loved them and planned this elaborate celebration in order to remember them.

Tonight is the offering. It is “Dia de los Muertos”.

The Mireles Family Altar

As a child, the idea of death confused me, because I really knew nothing about the process of death or the act of mourning. I understood that people died, but my parents, probably in their attempt to protect me, didn’t talk about it, or softened its meaning by referring to it as passing away or moving on. In my child’s mind, I saw these dead relatives passing away as if they were swooping off into outer space like in a cartoon. No one talked to me about what happens when you die. I never once saw a dead body; I never attended a funeral or memorial service, and I never even cried over the loss of someone dear to me—even after my own grandparents died I truly felt no sense of real loss. Death was just some abstract concept that I was never able to understand.

When I was in college, my father, only a few years older than I am now, died suddenly from pneumonia. I wasn’t able to grieve thoroughly and deeply after his death, because real mourning had never been modeled for me. Our family handled his death without fanfare. We had a simple gathering of friends at our home, but there was no memorial service, no funeral, no music played, and no words spoken aloud of who my dad was and what he meant to all of us. Not being able to grieve his death openly with friends and family left an emotional vacancy in my heart and later manifested in a long period of depression and suffering for me. I had lost someone so close to me, yet there was no real goodbye.

Shortly after my father died, I met and later married my husband, Rene, who is an indigenous Zapotec Indian from Oaxaca, Mexico. Throughout his life, Rene had been taught to accept the experience of death as a normal occurrence—something that was a natural part of life. Nothing about death was ever covered up for him, and so he was able to teach me that death is not something to keep quiet about, but quite the contrary—it’s a chance to talk, cry, rage, and even laugh about —but mainly, he helped me understand that it’s perfectly natural to feel the emotions associated with losing someone close to you.

Rene comes from a culture where death is not feared, but is considered an important and revered part of life. When someone dies in Rene’s hometown, the prayer vigil lasts for nine days. The corpse, in traditional dress, is laid out at home on the dining room table for everyone to touch and kiss goodbye. This is followed by a funeral procession where mourners walk alongside the pallbearers who carry the casket on their shoulders to the church. The traditional brass band plays somber music as the people cry and wail. Everyone helps out to cook and feed the large crowds that gather, and prayers are said for the dead throughout the night. Tears are shed openly; stories are told about the deceased, and most importantly, emotions are displayed without shame or misgivings.

And it’s not just when someone dies that death is revered. It’s celebrated yearly on “Dia de los Muertos” (Day of the Dead) with much celebration beginning on November first (All Saints Day).

A cemetery in Mexico on Dia de los Muertos

All over Mexico and Latin America altars are constructed displaying photographs of the deceased, fresh flowers, food and gifts for “La Ofrenda” (the offering). Whimsical skeletons and skulls made of sugar are placed on the altar in order to make death seem humorous and less tragic. People actually go to the cemetery, their arms laden with marigolds and candles to spend the night and pray for their dead family members, encouraging the souls of the dead to visit. It’s a beautiful and moving tradition, but it’s one that I really hadn’t embraced until a great tragedy hit my own family.

The first time Rene suggested that we have an altar in our home was after my brother’s daughter, Gillian died after choking on a hotdog. Gillian was only six years old, and her unexpected death left me inconsolable. For the first time in my life, I allowed myself to really experience the grief and despair that comes from the death of a loved one.

Gillian's photo, with one of her dolls beneath her.

Gillian’s death was a sudden, heart-wrenching loss—one that I never imagined I’d be able to face, but I had to. At times, seeing my brother and his wife suffer was unbearable, but having Gillian’s photograph on our altar helped me work through some of the pain and grief that I needed to express. The process of celebrating her on the altar helped me understand that through her death, she gave me a precious gift—the realization that I could let go of my own inflexibility and self-righteous behavior toward my brother, and try to repair our strained relationship. Ultimately, Gillian’s offering was successful—my brother and I are now closer than we’ve ever been.

Death has touched our family many more times since my daughter Isa was diagnosed with leukemia four years ago. The sad truth is that children with cancer sometimes die. When Isa was first admitted into the hospital, we became friends with Erika and Jeff Zamora, whose son Jeffrey was in the room down the hall from us, battling another form of leukemia. Isa and Jeffrey were around the same age and they became playmates. I would often run into Erika at the clinic when both children were receiving treatment at the same time and Jeffrey and Isa would be so happy to see each other.

A clear memory I carry in my mind is a time when our kids spent the afternoon in the same hospital room receiving blood and platelet transfusions. You’d think that with two kids so sick they needed transfusions, this would be a somber affair, but Jeff and Erika brought Mexican food along to share and our room became “party central.” Jeffrey and Isa happily played and watched cartoons while Jeff’s wild sense of humor kept us all in hysterics. Our boisterous laughter soon brought all of the pediatric nurses to our room to join in the fun. It was a joyful afternoon.

Jeffrey died a few months later. It never occurred to me that he wouldn’t make it—so many people were praying for his recovery—and I truly believed in my heart that he would live.

After his leukemia relapsed, he had been scheduled to have a bone marrow transplant as soon as the doctors could get him into remission again, but his little heart couldn’t handle the stronger chemo and he went into cardiac arrest. Imprinted like a video clip in my mind, I will never forget walking into the ICU, overflowing with family and friends of the Zamoras, and seeing Erika, unable to conceal the devastation and sorrow in her face as she held Jeffrey’s tiny body in her arms.

A smiling Jeffrey Zamora on our altar

Jeffrey’s sweet smile now looks out at us from our altar, a red toy fire engine placed under his photograph. He joins the other guests: Rene’s parents, my grandparents, my two uncles, and of course, Gillian. My father’s photograph is in the center.

For years now, I’ve carried the burden of resentment in my heart toward my dad and how his struggle with alcoholism affected me as a child. The altar is a chance for me to let those feelings go; a chance to remember and embrace all that was wonderful about my dad—that the reason we live in this beautiful home is largely due to his life’s work.

My daughter, Nora making paper flowers for the altar

Celebrating Dia de los Muertos offers me chance to be appreciative for everything I have and to understand that life sometimes offers bad experiences, and it’s all right to be sad and it’s all right to cry. It’s also all right to remember and laugh about the good times, too. We just have to accept that death is unavoidable and that’s why it’s crucial to take the time to live every moment to the fullest.

Quietly staring at the altar, as I look at the faces of those who are no longer here with us, and although I feel a bit sad, I also feel peaceful. But what I feel most is supremely thankful that I am one of the lucky ones—that Isa is alive and well, and that her photograph is not up there on the altar next to Jeffrey and Gillian.

Through some miracle of the universe, or most likely the loving grace of God, Isa is right here with me and Rene and my other  beautiful children as we gather around the altar to remember our family and friends and to cry and to laugh. Hopefully, our children will continue this tradition with their own families someday.

For now, this is the moment: the table is laid; the celebration begins. We tell our stories and Isa smiles up at Jeffrey and Gillian as the candlelight dances in her eyes.