My father’s picture from his Naval Aviator days of the early 1950s rested at the edge of the dinner table. In it, his hand rests atop the ladder to the jet cockpit. He’s halfway up, left leg ready to take that next step, and he’s looking upward, in the parlance of fighter pilots, at 10 o’clock. His eyes are right above the horizon, and they’re on fire with pride and excitement. He was fully aware of the privilege he was granted, to soar above the earth with expert precision and speed. The sky was his foster home for that time in his life.
On a small serving plate at the foot of this picture sat a dill pickle, a small serving of pork tenderloin, and three Snickers bars. A small cup of water sat next to the plate.
My 7-year-old son learned about the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos at school last week. It’s the Mexican “Day of the Dead.” He’s got a big healthy dose of OCD in him, so he was instantly hooked.
He came home last Wednesday and announced that Sunday night, we would celebrate Dia de los Muertos as a family, and we would celebrate his grandfather, my father. This was not up for discussion. By the time we realized how serious he was about this plan, it was too late for us to object or turn back. We were booked.
My son arranged everything. I mean, he didn’t cook the food or pick the menu, but he insisted that the meal be something “Poppy” would love, and he was the one who chose the food and drink items to be placed next to Poppy’s picture, a picture he selected after a weekend of contemplation walking around in my mother’s living space.
Did it matter whether Poppy loved dill pickles that much? Nope. Did it matter that Poppy would much more likely be drinking Jim Beam than water without ice? Of course not. What mattered is that my son, named in part after this man, wanted things this way.
You see, my son was born six weeks after Poppy died. He’s the only child of ours who will never know the relative for whom he has been named. And he hungers for knowledge. Who was this man? What qualities of his might I today, or one day, possess?
As someone named after my own biological father, also a man I never had the privilege of meeting before his death, I understand this hunger. And I also understand the frustration of wanting to know about a dead person but being surrounded by adults who insist such knowledge causes pain, and sadness. I understand being shooshed.
So around the table we went, telling a story, sharing a memory. My eldest remembered his pipe. My second daughter recalled his gruff voice and how friendly he was to people at church. I told of his love of grilling on the deck, always with charcoal until his last decade or so. My mother spoke of how so much of his happiness centered around his grandchildren… and Auburn football.
“Live together, die alone.”
But... must we grieve death alone?
So much of my experience with mourning, of wrestling with the grief of loss, is done in isolation. It’s the way most of us have learned to handle death. Sure, we have a funeral with lots of people, and then we all retreat into our separate hearts, and when the crushing sorrow revisits us unawares weeks or months or years later -- and the crushing sorrow always revisits us -- we are alone, or we seek isolation, like a panicked wounded animal. The crushing sorrow is our burden. It is both cruel and selfish to share it, or to expect anyone else to shoulder that load with us. So we hide. We bury. We obfuscate.
Why are we this way? WTF is wrong with us?
After our family Dia de los Muertos last week, I’ve decided we will, as a family, strive to once each month recognize someone we have lost. Most of these losses might affect one of us more than the others. Most of these will affect the adults more than the children. But we need to show them what it is like to wrestle with a crushing sorrow and seek meaning and value in the process.
We need to show them that death is an inextricable thread of life. We can either strive to embrace it, or we can ignore it until it crushes us.
NOTE: Inspired by my son and my own increasing encounters with friends and loved ones facing age and terminal illness, I began today reading Atul Gawande's "Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End."