Dia De Los Muertos

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My altar
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Catrina draped in my grandmother’s rosary beads
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A lamp made by my brother

Dear Reader:

Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) is a misunderstood holiday celebrated in Mexico, and in my home, on November 2. Given the timing of the holiday and the macabre imagery and costumes, people assume it’s simply “Mexican Halloween.” But, the meaning of this holiday is so much greater.

In the year 2000, my 35-year-old brother was diagnosed with an incurable form of cancer and I did what I always do when presented with a major life challenge; I researched and read about the topic of death. Books have always been my saviors. During the toughest year of my life, as I watched Matt die, the accumulated wisdom of others brought me comfort. It was during this time that I learned about Day of the Dead.

The holiday takes its origins from the Aztecs and was celebrated around the end of summer like Halloween. With the arrival of Spanish conquistadors, Catholic influence led to the combination of the holiday with All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day. Dia De Los  Muertos follows the same two-day structure. In the Catholic tradition, All Saints’ Day calls us to reflect upon how we should live; All Souls’ Day is a celebration of those we’ve loved and lost. In the Mexican tradition, November 1 is the day to remember the loss of children and November 2 is the day to remember adults who have left us. The most important aspect of the holiday is the belief that the spirits of the dead join the living for the celebration.

In preparation for the party, altars are created that contain remembrances and offerings to our departed loved ones. (Sugar skulls are often included for children and alcohol for adults. You may have noticed KAH tequila in my display.) I love arranging my tribute each year and I love talking about my altar to visitors in my home. Those who are represented are gone but not forgotten; that truism is comforting to me.

I remember:

  • My grandmother, Rose Carmella Bartucci. She had a big heart and memories of her make me smile. My daughter never knew her, but her middle name and nickname (Rosebud) are in her honor.
  • My brother, Matt. I miss you so much.
  • My father-in-law Jim. My husband inherited all your best traits and my daughter adored you.
  • Bart, my faithful four-legged companion. The pink shed isn’t quite the same without you.

During the time that my brother was sick and following his death, I often felt very alone in my grief. It’s not easy or natural to speak of death and dying in our culture, but I believe very strongly that we should. What better way to start a conversation than by bringing the departed back into your living room?

I’ll end this now as it’s time to toast my loved ones.

Cheers,

Michele

 

 

On Acceptance

“All I’m saying is, kindness don’t have no boundaries.”

Kathryn Stockett, The Help

 

Dear Reader:

Yesterday I felt a memory. It hurt almost as much as it did seventeen years ago. I was discussing religion with a friend and it brought to mind something I’m sure I wanted to forget. How many words does it take to describe how horrible it feels to be judged? Not many.  And yet choosing the words is so difficult for me, even now.

I’ll start at the beginning. My father converted to Catholicism shortly after marrying my mother, and my siblings and I were raised Catholic. But when my brother, Matt, met his wife he joined the congregation at her non-denominational Christian church, and his new church family came to supplant his birth family. It was not difficult to understand why:  we were raised in the “classic” dysfunctional family. You know the kind; we looked so good from the outside that no one could believe it when we fell apart.

I understood my brother’s desire to believe and to belong. I had moved away with my husband and started a family and a life separate from the drama that was a painful part of my past. I was mothering a newborn as Matt was beginning his married life 300 miles away. We had always been close, but for three years we saw each other only occasionally. We exchanged birthday greetings and the obligatory holiday wishes through the mail.

Then my brother called to tell me he’d been diagnosed with cancer and had only a few months to live. My husband, young daughter and I arrived on his doorstep the next day.  We were met at the door by a man I did not know. He introduced himself as Bruce, a close friend and the pastor of Matt’s church. We stepped into the small living room of Matt’s ranch house to find him comfortably settled in his favorite chair with his dog in his lap. He looked great; he was smiling. After the three of us exchanged hugs, Bruce suggested that my husband and daughter take the dog into the yard for a romp. Matt grabbed a ball and joined them, and Bruce and I were left alone. That’s when I discovered that Bruce was serving as a sort of gatekeeper to determine who could spend time with my brother. He was applying a religious test to anyone who didn’t identify as an evangelical or born-again Christian.

He asked me to describe my relationship with God. I told him I was Catholic. He asked if I had acknowledged that I was a sinner and asked the Lord for forgiveness.

“Of course,  I’m a sinner. Aren’t we all?” I answered.

He pressed on:  Did I understand that my brother would be going “home” and could I support him in this journey? I felt like crying, but I was steel. I told him that Matt and I had always been close and that I loved him dearly. I assured him again that I considered myself a Christian. Bruce left shortly after our conversation and we enjoyed the day with Matt. My “Catholic credentials” had been deemed satisfactory.

I will never forget how it felt to be held in judgement. I thought I had, but yesterday the immensity of it came back to me with full force. There were people who felt they had the moral authority to decide whether I should be allowed to spend time with my own dying brother. Well, I confess, I judge them as well,  and I find them to be lacking in compassion and grace. My opinion of evangelical Christians was formed by that single heartbreaking experience.

Since then, I’ve been careful when I interact with people who I know to be Christians. But for some reason, this week, after all these years, I opened up to the wife of one of my husband’s closest friends, a woman with whom I’ve also grown close.  I’d been careful to avoid talk of religion with her knowing that she attends a Christian church, but when we found ourselves alone our conversation turned to things we hold dear, such as family. She mentioned her faith and I found the courage to share my memory with her. She disavowed the isolationist position of the members of my brother’s church. While she shared some of their beliefs, she could not exclude us as her friends. I was not steel; I felt tears come to my eyes.

Making judgements is part of being human, but it can be humbling to reflect on the moments you’ve been judged. It can be a reminder to work to consciously choose acceptance of others over rejection.

When I woke up this morning I found myself thinking of the waitress at a restaurant I frequent.  She’s Mexican, and one day she told me that since our president came along she’s been concerned about what people think of her. Are they wondering whether she’s  legal? Did they think she should go back to Mexico? I thought of the day I was discussing colleges with a friend and she said that she and her daughter were researching the rising incidence of anti-Semitism on campuses out of concern for her daughter’s safety. I reflected on a discussion I’d just had with a young man who lost Facebook friends when he announced his engagement to another man. Suddenly my mind was filled with the faces of those who had been judged and hurt.

Perhaps we should all regularly call to mind those times in our lives when we’ve been deemed unworthy so that we may  be less likely to inflict that kind of pain on our neighbors.

Michele

 

 

 

 

 

I’m Very Sorry…

Dear Reader:

It’s been a couple of weeks (longer than ever) since I last wrote to you. I’ve been immersed, deeply, in my own world (more on this in the days to come), but I’ve returned to “real life” where my friends have been living without me (mostly). We’ve been tethered to each other by the quick text here and there and the certainty that we are being remembered and wished the best.

Today I returned to the fold where I learned that a close friends’ father passed last week quite unexpectedly. He was a young man (about my age) and he died from a sudden heart attack. I can only imagine the shock and confusion my friend must feel. Death, it seems to me, is always unexpected and in some way unfathomable. The fact that it is inevitable does not change our ability to find it believable or acceptable.

How can it be that the person I called “father” is no longer here? When my brother was diagnosed with cancer at 35, he was given 3-4 months to live. When he died a year later, there was still part of me that could not comprehend that the world would go on without him. I can still remember the sign on the freeway as I drove into town after his funeral: Expansion made possible by your tax dollars. Completion 2013. Wow…I thought …he won’t be here to enjoy the improvements to the road. In the weeks to come my mind grappled with the realization that he would not be here, ever again, to meet me for a cup of coffee. I’d never hear his voice at the end of the line. He wouldn’t get to see his niece grow up.

In the days, weeks and months after my brother’s death, I remember wishing that there was some sort of sign I could quickly and easily give to others to tell them that, despite appearances, I wasn’t okay. In other times and places, mourners have been identifiable by their manner of dress and afforded special considerations. I knew my friends cared and yet they found it difficult to talk about the death of my brother. Most of them didn’t know where to start and what words to choose and they mistakenly believed it would do more harm to approach the subject rather than to ignore it.

There were a few people, though, who knew just what to say and I learned from their compassion and my loss that the only words one needs to hear are: “I am so sorry about the loss of your (fill in the blank).”  In the days that followed, I received a few letters from family and friends who knew my brother and shared special memories. Some of the stories they told, I’d heard, but others were new to me and they were all a joy to read. Friends who did not know my brother, made donations in his name to the American Cancer Society and local hospice care and I received notes recognizing their gifts. Any and all overtures to recognize my grief and loss were of comfort to me.

One of the things I gained from the loss of my brother is the language of empathy. It’s a simple, quiet language that holds immense power to bind us all. We will, each of us, experience loss. Do not be afraid to acknowledge it or touch it. It will find you in your time. Be ready to say, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Be ready to look into the eyes of a grieving friend and offer what you can.

Sincerely,

Michele

 

 

 

Mean Mothers

Dear Reader:

As we drove home from Southern California yesterday, my husband asked me, “Does Mother’s Day upset you or make you sad in a way?”

I knew exactly what he meant, but the question still took me by surprise as I was quite happily surveying grape orchards and remembering the events of the weekend. If you know me from my blog, you know how proud I am of my daughter and the close relationship we share. If you are one of my dear friends, you begin every visit with the question, “How’s your daughter?” I love talking about my daughter. I simply adore her. She is my single greatest source of pride.

So, why should Mother’s Day in any way upset me? Well, the answer has to do with my mother. She died three years ago on the morning after my daughter had major surgery at Stanford Hospital. In life, my mom had loved being the center of attention and so the timing of her death seemed appropriate.

One of the nurses heard me take the call from my sister and she became immediately quite concerned about my state of mind. My daughter was scheduled to spend four days in the hospital, but she would need continuous home care for several weeks. The doctors and nurses, my husband and I soon realized, were training us to take care of her at home. Her release would be determined not only by her condition, but also by our ability to care for her. The hospital chaplain was alerted to our situation and within the hour began appearing at our door. My husband shooed her away several times while I snoozed, but she was determined to talk to me.

“Ah, good, you’re eating!” she exclaimed as she approached me late that night in the cafeteria. “I’m Dusty, the hospital’s multi-faith chaplain and I’m here to see if you’d like to talk.” Really I just wanted to eat, but I was polite. I thanked her for her concern and let her know that I was tired, but fine, and that I knew exactly what I needed to do:  take care of my daughter. “But,” she continued, “it’s hard to take care of someone else when you are suffering yourself.”

How could she know that was exactly what I’d told myself for years when I thought about my mother? She was simply unable to be kind or nurturing as she was in pain. The explanation served to protect me from completely absorbing the constant emotional assault she inflicted on everyone close to her. My mother died without having a relationship with me or knowing her only grandchild. “She’s no longer in pain,” I told Dusty and I left her to interpret the comment in any way she chose. I returned to my coffee and eggs as she left finally satisfied that she had done her job.

A week later I found myself speeding down the freeway to attend my mother’s funeral. I paid my last respects to the woman who had created me and who had, I think, helped determine the happy course of my life.

“You know we may not have Natalie if it weren’t for my mother,” I answered my husband.

I missed out on having a strong bond with my own mother; maybe that’s why I finally decided at 35 to throw away my birth control pills!   We all make choices and those choices are often based on needs we may not even consciously be aware of. Maybe I needed a strong mother/daughter bond. I did not have that with my own mom, so I set about to create it with my daughter.

It has been many many years since I felt anything for my mother, but it took time and counseling to resolve issues from my childhood. It seems to me that it is still taboo to speak about one’s mother in anything but appreciative terms, but for those readers who can relate to my story, I’m sorry… and I’d like to offer the following book recommendations: Mean Mothers by Peg Streep and Mothering Without a Map by Kathryn Black.

I’ll borrow Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words to perfectly describe my feelings about my life: “For everything you have missed, you have gained something else…”

I am so fortunate to be able to celebrate Mother’s Day with my daughter. Happy ending!

Sincerely,

Michele 

A Kiss for You…and Me

Dear Reader:

My pink shed is filled with all manner of things that inspire me, inform me or simply please me. One of those things is this bird; you squeeze the sides and its beak opens to reveal a chocolate kiss. It’s been with me for 25 years now. The yellow has faded and it has been stained with coffee spills. It used to hang from a knob above my coffee maker in my old home.

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It was hand-made by an elderly woman who lived down the hall from Nonnie (my Italian grandmother) in her last residence:  an assisted living facility. I remember the day I acquired it quite vividly. I was visiting with the rest of my family and Nonnie was uncharacteristically demanding. She wanted “the bird with the kiss.”  We kept re-directing her back to the garden as it was a particularly pleasant day. But, she wanted the bird. She wanted the bird her neighbor made that gave kisses.

It took a while for us to consider her request seriously and decide to comply. We were, I remember, confused and impatient. But, she persisted, and led us down her hallway and into the room of a woman perched on her bed surrounded by skeins of bright yellow yarn. Indeed, she was making birds that offered chocolate. It was a cottage industry and she could barely keep up with the demand. We each purchased a bird and then retired to the garden where we enjoyed chocolate in the sunshine.

My grandmother died a week later.

I look at that bird and wonder:  is there a moral to this story? Is it a reminder to listen better and judge less or to stop and be patient? Or does its value simply come from the smile it produces on my face when I look at it and remember one of the most beautiful people who ever graced my life.

Tell me about your interesting mementos,

Michele

 

 

 

 

In Praise of Prozac

Dear Reader:

I knew this was a post I’d write someday, and I wanted it to be sooner rather than later! I truly don’t know how much of a stigma still attaches to those who benefit from counseling and antidepressants, but there was every reason to share my experience with you and no reason to keep it secret. I believe Prozac has allowed me to live a better life, and that’s certainly worth sharing!

Let me start with the day I first felt the impact of my new prescription. Three days after I took that first pill, I had the energy to move the refrigerator so that I could clean every square inch of my kitchen, including the floor under the frig!  My 4-year-old daughter was at pre-school, but  Tom Jones kept me company. He provided the background music. I sang along loudly, energetically. “It’s not unusual to be loved by anyone. It’s not unusual….”

What had become usual were the panic attacks I’d been having whenever I left the house. The first attack came in an unlikely place: a bookstore with my daughter. I was in my happy place with my happy girl and yet I couldn’t wait to get out. My heart was racing and I felt completely out of control. The next day the toaster broke and I found Amazon. You can get anything on Amazon, and yet I knew I’d have to leave the house eventually.

I had the toaster delivered, but by the end of the following week, I’d made it to my first counseling appointment and my doctor’s office. I described the event at the bookstore, my brother’s diagnosis and the general “heaviness” I felt. I was taking care of my daughter’s needs, but not much more than that. I was self-medicating with Starbuck’s mocha Frappuccinos, but I had little energy and had to will myself out of bed and into the shower each morning.   Both my psychologist and general practitioner agreed that I could benefit from counseling and an anti-depressant.

My doctor reasoned it out for me:” People take aspirin when they have an ache and yet they can’t imagine taking a pill to cure another type of ache. Your brother has terminal cancer and you have a young child to take care of. You need help.”

“But what about the end-game?” I asked.  I was afraid to start taking the drug, because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to stop. And yet, I knew I needed help. Children can help clarify many decisions in life.

That was 16 years ago. Since then, my dosage has gone up and down and I’ve tried to wean myself off the drug.  But without it I am surly to my husband, I retreat from my friends, I feel hopeless and listless. I do not still regularly move my refrigerator on cleaning day. It seems that major spurt of energy was just an initial daylong effect of the pill. (I do, however, still accompany Tom Jones in song; it’s not pretty!)

I’ve never had any adverse affects to the medication. It was all good: I even quickly dropped the 10 pounds of Frappuccino weight I’d put on! I remember telling a friend about my treatment plan. She quite innocently asked how it felt to “be happy all the time.” I explained that Prozac was not a “happy pill.” Life was still hard during the year of my brother’s illness and following his death. I was still sad, but the medication and counseling helped. I had both the energy and courage to leave the house; I knew I could manage it.

There is a theory that some people are born with a switch; stressful circumstances or a major life event can trigger that switch and then it’s done. They need the drug and that’s that.  My brother’s cancer diagnosis was the trigger for me. (If you would like to read more about my brother’s death, see my post entitled Happy Birthday, Brother.)

I’ve made peace with myself. I’m a strong woman who must accept that she too needs help. I am grateful that I live at a time when I have the option to help myself. And, I hope that anyone else who needs help will ask for it.

Sincerely,

Michele