I love this time of the year.
The next few days — call them Halloween or Samhain or All Hallow’s Eve or Calan Gaeaf or Nights of the Dead — are also a time of remembrance of those who have gone through the veil to the Next World, and to honor them, to listen to the wisdom they may come to whisper in our dreams.
I create an altar to the ancestors, known and unknown, to the dead who are remembered, and also to those who are forgotten. All are welcome. All are family.
I have a complicated relationship with some of the people who have passed in my family. My relationship with my adopted mother was always difficult and became more so as she aged and her mental illness got worse and worse. When she died a few years back, in the middle of winter, I felt a lot of relief, frankly, but also a great grieving that we would never, in this world at least, be able to have the sort of relationship I had longed for with a mother. The day she was cremated her spirit clung to me like tar, my nostrils full of her particular smell of oranges and orris root and Nivea hand cream. It was overwhelming and I had to be very firm and tell her she could not cling to me in death as she had done in life. It was time to travel.
But then I began dreaming about her. She came to me frightened and angry and confused, accusatory, and needy until, after several nights I was able to help her cross the river into a village I knew she’d love. Then in a kind of reception room, she pulled back at the last moment, and looking fragile and shaken she asked, “but what if I’m dead?” I told her that she was, in fact, dead and that everything she’d feared so much had already happened and yet look around… it was just fine, wasn’t it? Better than fine. This was exactly the sort of place, full of lovely people with a friendly pub and lots of dogs, that she’d adore. She looked in a mirror and sort of chuckled and said that yes, it wasn’t so bad at all. Then she joined all the others going through the doors to the charming village…. and that was the last of the dreams.
A number of years before my mother’s passing, I spent the last week of my adopted father’s life in his hospital room as he slowly, slowly, died from lung cancer. The nurses kept coming in at shift changes and saying, “Is he still with us?” and shaking their heads. He was unconscious and had been in terminal breathing for days. He was stubborn, working something out, I think. His last words to me were, “I don’t want anybody to be mad at me.” He was frightened, unable to forgive himself for something. Although he had quit drinking 25 years before his death and went to AA religiously, he had never ‘worked the steps’ as we say. He had never apologized to my mother or to me for things he’d done, never make amends. It weighed on him, maybe even tortured him. (A cautionary tale for which I’m most grateful.)
At the end of seven nights, sleep-deprived and despairing, I left the hospital for a few hours to go to my mother’s house and grab a bit of shut-eye. The phone rang two hours later. My father had died. Ah. Ah. (I have always wondered if the nurses finally, as an act of mercy, just upped his morphine drip and let him float away. If they did, all I can say is thank you.). My mother and I, feeling nothing could be done at 2 am, retreated to our separate bedrooms. Sometime around four, the door opened and someone checked to see if I was okay. Although I was half-asleep I thought how kind that was, and how out of character, frankly, from my mother. Later, when we sat at the kitchen table drinking coffee and making arrangements, I thanked her for the gesture. But of course, it wasn’t my mother. She wouldn’t do that. My parents always slept in separate rooms. I had been sleeping in my father’s room, in his bed. It was easy for him to find me, to check on my well-being, as he had been so unable to do in life.
Next Christmas I found myself alone in the house. The guests had yet to arrive for dinner, and the Best Beloved was out picking up my mother. I was in the kitchen basting the Great Bird, humming along to a carol, when I sensed a presence again. I looked down the hall to the front door. The only way I can describe it is as a Dad-Shaped-Hole. A space in the air where Dad wasn’t. A closet sentimentalist, Christmas had always been his favorite time of the year. He died just after Christmas and was heartbroken he hadn’t been well enough to leave the hospital and celebrate at home just one last time. Hey Dad, I said. So glad you’re here. There’s always a place at the table for you.
I am convinced we die pretty much the way we live.
The dead don’t go anywhere. I once asked a friend of mine, a priest, where she thought we go when we died. She said, “We don’t go anywhere, Lauren. We’re already there, walking through the body of God.” Oh, yes, it’s like that.
The veil that separates us from those who have transitioned is thin this time of year when the land lets go of life, easily and with as must trust as a leaf falling from a branch, a reminder that all things come and all things go and we can trust the ground to catch us. It is, perhaps, a reminder that what we perceive so much of the time is just a tiny fragment of All-That-Is and that we are surrounded, embraced, supported, and companioned by inhabitants of The Next World all the time. But Oh, I suspect the perspective is so much more marvelous than our myopic views, so filled with understanding and connection and peace.
Blessed Samhain, dear ones. Remember you are beloved.