As we near Samhain, I wanted to share something I wrote a while back. While I like watching scary movies and checking out really amazing Halloween decor (who knew San Diego was so into Halloween!), it’s not really a time of year for me where I am super festive. I find myself drawing inward, and really focusing on past relationships – especially with those who have died and with whom I have been close. While everyone is carving pumpkins and thinking up ways to scare each other, I’m writing long letters, meditating on loss and death, and feeling very somber in general. It is a time of deep and reverent communication with myself and the dead I honor.
This piece was originally submitted to and published in Wyrd & Wyse, Issue the Fourth and has also appeared in the Hex Rated newsletter.
Death is a casual stranger. Sometimes I see her on the street and I smile and nod or sometimes barely look up. I hear his voice, a visitor talking in the cubicle across the room. I don’t bump into Death. I don’t shake hands. I don’t seek out Death’s eyes. Maybe I want to, though. Maybe I should. I’m a line-strider, right? A hedge-rider? I’m a witch, aren’t I? Aren’t I supposed to nuzzle up to Death like a warm blanket in the cold? Well.
My English teacher from high school died in 2007, riddled with cancer all over her body. I graduated high school in 1989, and we remained close friends, almost as if she were the mother/friend I never had in my own flesh and blood mother. We spent countless hours in her tote-filled garage, totes full of granddaughters’ art, of old lesson plans, of endless Christmas decorations. We sat among the tubs of these memories – chain-smoking, drinking Budweiser, and talking about everything. Everything that life could throw at us. Her husband’s illnesses. Her son’s estrangement. My…my what, exactly? My 20-something-year-old drama, I suppose. Caught in a thousand dilemmas of unrequited love, I struggled to maintain a GPA that was worth anything while I drank and smoked my way through the 90’s. She read all my shitty poetry and critiqued it as if she were reading one of the Greats. She was my confidante. She was my advice-giver. She was a partner in crime. She offered comfort, love, and a house with no judgement. I helped her write out checks for bills when her husband could no longer do it. I took care of their house when they went on short trips. I did help.
When she got sick, I didn’t know at first. I had called her to see if she wanted to go to lunch. She told me that she couldn’t, that she had to go to the doctor because they had found cancer. I swear she said it in her heavy West Texan drawl like “I’m sorry sugar, not today, I have cancer.” How she said it – conversational, like it was a bug that would be gone by the next weekend – made me laugh. I didn’t know. We didn’t know. My laughter was just a symptom of my shock and confusion. Over the course of the next few months we discovered how bad it was. Bad, bone and liver and all the other organs. The doctors would try to treat it. She was in immense pain. Before it got to be unbearable, I would go visit. We would sit on her patio outside (no more garage smoking) and watch birds. One time I took a small voice recorder and had her tell me two of my favorite stories – the one about when she met her husband, and the one about when she met Steve McQueen. She got worse. She and her husband moved to a nursing facility, a nice one. I visited maybe 2 or 3 times. Maybe more. I don’t remember. All I do remember is getting a call from another ex-student that said if I could make it there right then, I should. That she was going to be gone soon. I had just started a new job. I couldn’t get there fast enough. She died surrounded by people who loved her, and I am glad for that.
But I hate that I wasn’t there to put my hand in her frail, warm, too-thin hand one more time. I might have been able to be there. I didn’t go. I was scared.
I did what I could at the memorial service. She had planned it in advance. We had talked about it. She wanted my mother to sing and she wanted me to speak. My mother sang Ave Maria in a room off to the side of the chapel with a partitioned wall, so you could hear the music but not see the musicians. I read an ee cummings poem and talked about how much she meant to me. I choked back sobs. The next day, I drove 139 miles away to sing at her graveside, the August Texas heat blazing a hole through the back of my black suit. I visited her husband and sent him cards. He died a little over a year after she did.
I took and took and took from them, from her. In my youth. I took her advice, her cigarettes, her beer, her love. I took it all without thinking, without realizing what it would be like to not have our garage, our inside jokes. I keep the voice recorder next to her picture on my altar. Sometimes I listen to it. I bawl with regret. Grief. Gratitude. Did I give, ever? Was it enough?
When my own father was dying, I helped him. (Did I?) We were not close. He may have thought we were. Years of disapproval, stern looks, and a lack of demonstrative ability to really love had molded me, though. Dutiful daughter, yes. That box was entirely checked. Filled out with the blackest of markers. My father had a brain tumor that had grown back with a vengeance. The day we learned that it was back, my father and mother stood on opposite sides of a medical center lobby. There was no touching. There was no love passed between them at that moment. There was no hand-holding in comfort. In their 57 years of marriage, they couldn’t do it. Their fear was palpable. I sat in the same lobby, not knowing what to do. Who to sit by. Where to go. Judging them for not dealing with that moment differently. I sat there. Lost, angry, and small – like all the parentless days of my childhood. My father got worse. The tumor changed his demeanor. About 5 months after the diagnosis, he had to be placed in a facility, as my mother could no longer care for him. The last time I visited him when he was lucid, we shared just a few words. The last words he said to me were “blue jay.”
The hospice room. There was no TV. He had only been there 3 or 4 days. He was asleep when I came to visit. He looked hollow, his breathing raspy, uneven. I sat beside the bed a good distance away from him and recited spells in my head. I told him he could go. That everything would be ok. That he should go. That this was not a body that served him any longer. I did not touch him. I did not reach for his hand. I didn’t want to wake him. I was scared. He died 24 hours later.
These deaths happened years ago. More deaths will happen. I am closing in on 50. Aretha is dead. Bowie is dead. My husband’s twin brother is dead. He shot himself: Too young, too young. 42 and all the time in the world to…
I go to my normal job every day that is not too demanding. I make pies and bread and other baked goods when I feel like it, and give them to others, sometimes sell them. Sometimes I make offerings out of what I bake. This time of year, I make soul cakes or breads that I place outside for my spirits of place, or the deities that I work with, or for my loved ones who are dead. My loved ones. Like I own them. I burn those offerings. I burn them wrapped in paper, letters to the people I still talk to now, regardless of the whereabouts or even the existence of a body they no longer inhabit.
I want to be better friends with Death. I don’t want to be scared. It doesn’t make sense. Death will come for us all, and it is natural. But it’s like we walk through this life with our hands over our eyes, fingers slightly splayed apart, knowing what is coming but not looking at it, like we watch horror movies. Death brushes up to us, sits on a bench right next to us, stares at us. We don’t stare back because we are scared.
I’m not afraid of riding the hedge, right now, in life. I talk to my English teacher practically every day. I talk to my father, with whom I have a better relationship in death. They both visit me in the form of birds: a cardinal, a blue jay. I talk to my brother-in-law. He is a large grey cat, and I have only seen him once, but I’m sure it was him. Pulling back the veil a little is not the fear.
Walking through the veil and staying there is.