Sunday, October 31, 2010

Day of the Dead

Today I celebrate Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. It’s not a holiday I grew up with but one I’ve borrowed from the Southwest and Mexico. It’s become one of my favorite holidays partly because it’s a good spiritual counterpart to Halloween. Except for the candy, October 31st doesn’t leave much for grownups. Being scared of goblins and ghoulies lost its sway when I got old enough to lose people that I loved. The dead just aren’t scary in the same way anymore. In fact, I’d welcome a visit from some of them.

That’s what Day of the Dead is about. There is a belief that on this day the veil separating this world and the next is thinner and so it’s a time we can be closer to those that we love who are dead.

Day of the Dead celebration centers on rituals for remembering loved ones. We can visit in our imagination or feel their presence. It can mean prayer or conversation, writing a letter or looking at old photos. The tradition that I use includes making an ofrenda, or altar, something as simple as putting photos and candles on the coffee table and taking time to talk and remember. We also have chocolate as a symbol of the sweet and bitter separation from those we love.

A ritual is a way of ordering life. Whether Purim or Advent, hearing Mass or saying Kaddish, small ceremonies help us sort and reframe our memories. When someone dies the relationship doesn’t stop, it’s renegotiated, literally re-conceived.

This isn’t a very American idea. Culturally our preferences are for efficiency and effectiveness; even with grief we use words like closure and process.

I remember my frustration when I was grieving and well-intentioned friends would suggest I move along in my process and quoted Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. The simplified version of her theory lists stages: Denial--Bargaining--Anger--Depression, and Acceptance. But it’s false to create an expectation of five discrete steps. This listing implies order and that a person can move from point A to point B and be done. That makes grief seem like an emotional Monopoly game where you go around the board, collect points and get to a distinct and certain end. This false notion of linearity is apparent when we hear people judge someone who is grieving, “Oh she missed the anger stage”, or “He hasn’t reached acceptance yet.”

I always thought that “losing a loved one” was a euphemism used by people who were afraid to say the word dead.. But after losing my brother Larry I know that lost is the perfect word to describe the feeling that follows a death. Something just out of reach, still here, but also gone.

Though he died several years ago my feeling about my brother is that I have misplaced him; It’s that sensation of knowing that my book or that letter I was just reading, are around here somewhere…if I could just remember where I left him.

I think this is why we can sometimes be so hard on the grieving, and why we want them to go through those stages and be done with it. We love closure and things that are sealed and settled. But death and grief, for all their seeming finality, are not as final as we would like.

So tonight I’ll make cocoa and light candles; we’ll look at pictures and tell stories and we’ll laugh.

The root of the word grieve is heavy. We carry our dead as a cherished burden. Death ends a life but not a relationship. Who would want to close the door on that?

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Christopher Hitchens dying from esophageal cancer that has metastasized. He is chronicling this in Esquire Magazine and NPR is also interviewing him weekly. What else does a writer do than take his own experience and turn it into words, hopefully mining the experience for others but also for himself? That’s what we do.

Hitchens, you may recall, has written and spoken extensively about God, religion, and belief and his non-belief in each of those. Now cancer. Soon death and I must say that I do admire him for the integrity of his beliefs about belief.

Yesterday he spoke about the many people who are praying for him and he makes a distinction between those whose prayers are good wishes for his health or comfort versus those whose prayers are more along the lines of, “God, maybe now that this bastard is dying he’ll finally believe in you.”

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Put Away the Pink

Ladies please. Put away the pink and get out the red. October’s pink boob month would have all of us convinced that we are within minutes of dying of breast cancer. Not the case. Not even close. Breast cancer is no picnic but even though some people die it’s not likely to be your killer.

What is very likely to kill you is your heart and cardiovascular system.

Read this and tell your friends: The NUMBER ONE killer of women is Heart Disease.

Read this too: More women die of cardiovascular disease than the next five causes of death combined, including all forms of cancer.

Saddest fact: Less than 50% of women know that heart disease is our biggest killer. We are so swept away by the pink propaganda of breast cancer that we are dying from marketing and fear. That makes us real boobs.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

His Check Up-- My Check Out

It hit me hard today. The date was on the calendar a long time. But I had made one deal with God four months ago, so did I dare another? I did. But then it was today. John’s appointment was at 4 o’clock and at 9am I was mad at him, talking to myself, talking to him—though he wasn’t in the car with me. I was mad about his work, my job, money, family, yeah even sex. Of course it took me a good 30 minutes to get it: I was mad about cancer.

Mad that every four months this big crevasse opens and I drop in. He doesn’t—or says he doesn’t. But I wonder. These are the times I wish to be male—to have that ability to compartmentalize.

But the good news is that I caught myself. I talked myself down—or up as the case may be. I remembered that I loved him with or without cancer and that maybe cancer makes it all more precious. Lesson of second marriage and of cancer: dust doesn’t matter, check books don’t matter, laundry doesn’t matter but good sex and watching movies together does.

But what I still hate is that I live so far out. I live in four month increments. I live now—the exam at 4pm was fine and most of the blood work was fine-- But we wait four business days till the results are back for the “cancer marker” that crucial blood test that tells whether cancer has returned.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Pink Ribbons vs Reality

Oh it’s pink frenzy time again. Breast cancer awareness as corporate communication. You just know that half of the companies with pink ribbon promotions don’t give employees leave time to get mammograms or provide adequate family leave time for a caregiver to help someone with cancer. It’s a sales promotion with pretty pink pretend ad copy.

Wouldn’t a real commitment to breast cancer awareness be something like giving all women in a company two extra hours “Pink” leave each year to get a check-up or take any measures for her health. That I could almost swallow.

But the real service to women would be to tell them where the real risks hide rather than scare and distract them with pink shoes, and pink shirts and pink cupcakes.

Heart and lung. CPR. Cardio Pulmonary Reality.

Friday, October 1, 2010

October Day

O hushed October morning mild,

Thy leaves have wakened to the fall;

Tomorrow s wind, if it be wild,

Should waste them all.

The crows above the forest call;

Tomorrow they may form and go.

O hushed October morning mild,

Begin the hours of this day slow.

Make the day seem to us less brief.

Heart not averse to being beguiled,

Beguile us in the way you know.

Release one leaf at break of day;

At noon release another leaf;

One from our trees, one far away.

Retard the sun with gentle mist;

Enchant the land with amethyst.

Slow, slow!

For the grapes sake, if they were all,

Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,

Whose clustered fruit must else be lost

For the grapes sake along the wall.

-----------------------------------Robert Frost