Dream of the Dead
The Visitation Dream.
This was not one of those “Your in the wrong house” dreams although I didn't recognize the place then and, now that I'm awake several days later, I can't place it anywhere in my living history. I was comfortable there as if it was a family residence. It was just not familiar.
I was in a kitchen area facing a counter with cupboards below and shelves with glass doors above. The cabinetry was all old style wood, light green painted, as if from the nineteen-twenties or -thirties. The room - in fact, the whole house - was dark. It was night time and I was being quiet for I knew the family was sleeping.
The cupboards also had drawers. I open one and took out two long knives, regular meat carvers, and started slapping them together in a motion not unlike when sharpening them with a steel bar. There was no steel bar, just two long kitchen knives and I was slapping them, scraping and swiping them together and moving about the kitchen as though I were performing for an audience. This went on for a few dream-time moments, however long that is.
The cupboard ended where a hall began. It was darker down the hall and it was from out of this darkness that Jennifer came. She was young, ten or twelve, with a night shirt on. She came to me directly and we embraced. I hugged her with my arms wrapped around her as far as they could reach.
Her arms were those small and tan ones that she had at that age. I could feel her against my chest. It was a warm and loving hug that went slowly and lasted a long time. I was so happy to have her alive and in my arms again. I said to her, “I love you so very much”.
It was as wonderful as I was capable of feeling. Suddenly, that feeling went dashing away. I knew something was really wrong with this scene. I awoke and the pain of loosing her rebounded cold, hard and deep. My weeping woke Nancy. Reality had returned and I was, again, very sad, reliving my great loss.
Sleep, a retreat from life's struggle with reality, is as close to the ethereal kingdom of the dead that the living can go unless one does, indeed, die. Perhaps hopelessly, I often fantasize that she visits me in my dreams but I am so deeply asleep that I don't recall her visit when I awaken. In the dream, she comforts me and watches over me. She breaths into me and takes some of my breath. I rest my head in her lap. In the morning I don't remember that she was with me. In fact, I have no memory of dream.
Dia de los Muertos.
There is a longing that I have to see and be with my daughter again. It comes from deep inside my being and it's so strong that I can feel it physically, in the same way I feel hunger. I am quite certain that I share this longing with nearly everyone else who has lost a close loved one. Like soldiers in a foxhole, there is a camaraderie among us survivors that is tight and strong and subliminal and needs no explanation.
From somewhere in the psyche of this longing is an archetypal mythology that tells of life everlasting. We, that is the collective “we” that is also known as Humanity, want so very much, not only for our loved ones but for ourselves, for life to go on that we refuse any postulate that death is an ending. From the core of this belief, we develop a sense that those who have passed on are not really gone but are somewhere “near”, that is, beyond the reach of our knowing minds and our measurable parameters but barely just beyond.
Throughout the world and for all of human history, there have been expressions and celebrations of this belief. They are present in many diverse cultures long past and even today. One such culture, for example, the Wiccans, the cultural descendants of the Celts, participate in the season of Samhain. This season is more comprehensive than just an honoring of the dead, it's also associated with harvest time and preparation for the coming winter and its events. During this season the veil between the living and the dead becomes thin and those who have gone before can visit for a while.
“If all of this seems a little morbid, remember that all cultures deal with death in different manners. The Western aversion to anything related to death is not present in other cultures.
In the Philippines, they celebrate 'Memorial Day' based loosely on All Souls Day. Customs include praying novenas for the holy souls, and ornately decorating relatives' graves. On the eve of All Souls (i.e. the evening of All Saints Day), partiers go door-to-door, requesting gifts and singing a traditional verse representing the liberation of holy souls from purgatory.
In Hungary the day is known as Halottak Napja, 'the day of the dead,' and a common custom is inviting orphans into the family and giving them food, clothes, and toys.
In rural Poland, a legend developed that at midnight on All Souls Day a great light shone on the local parish. This light was said to be the holy souls of departed parishioners gathered to pray for their release from Purgatory at the altars of their former earthly parishes. After this, the souls were said to return to scenes from their earthly life and work, visiting homes and other places. As a sign of welcome, Poles leave their windows and doors ajar on the night of All Souls Day. All of these customs show the wide variety of traditions related to All Souls Day.”1
Being a Southern California boy (previously Northern Mexico), the nearest and most prominent culture that participates in this tradition is found all around my community. The event is called “Dia de los Muertos”, the “Day of the Dead”.
The roots of the Mexican aspect of this event grow from the Aztec culture going back as much as three thousand years. Of course, it has changed drastically since its origin of human sacrifice in a dominating theocracy based on ignorance and superstition. However, the most elementary part of the legend still persists: There is a time of year and a metaphysical place (or membrane) where the spirits of the deceased are able to step back into the plane of the living to visit those they've left behind. When that barrier is thinnest they do, it is said, step over for a visit.
Whatever expression Dia de los Muretos has had in the historical past, it is today recognized by the Catholic Church as a legitimate interpretation of All Souls Day, November 2nd. The day following All Saints Day, which honors the souls of the great Catholic Saints. The 2nd is a day for honoring the souls of all of the rest of us.
This special day is a holiday, gleeful and joyous. After all, as I have learned from my Latino friends, the ones we miss so dearly are visiting. The are to be welcomed and treated well and offered the treats they enjoyed as mortals. Sugar Skulls are scattered about loosely on tables and trays like Hershey Kisses. Pictures of the deceased are placed on an altar decorated with cut-out paper skeletons. Salt, Water and Incense are offered, too, by a Priest who blesses both an altar, especially decorated for the occasion, and the souls of the visitors and the families who are present.
The Celebration at Hospice.
Nancy and I arrived with a new Hershey bar to give to Jennifer. She loved chocolate and each year I bring her a mortal's treat that she enjoyed while living. Last year it was a can of Starbucks Cappuccino. She loved coffee, too, cold. This time it would be a Hershey's Chocolate.
I don't really know what happened to that candy bar. It was in the car when we arrived, I had it in my hand as we were preparing to leave the car for the Hospice building. We parked merely across the street, in a supermarket's parking lot, but it had, seemingly, disappeared by the time we stood before the large and impressive Dia de los Muertos altar.
The altar was in the center of the Hospice's biggest group room at the Dorothy D. Rupe Center in San Luis Obispo. The room is the former living room of a local historical family's home that was passed down and re-sold until it was granted to Hospice of San Luis Obispo County.
The altar was three-tiered with pictures of deceased loved ones, placed there by the families and friends of those sitting, standing and chatting all around it. The mood was gay. I placed Jennifer's 2000 high school senior picture on a spot near the back where it could still be seen in it's 8x10 frame and yet not block anyone else's pictures. I stared at it and gently said to her, “You naughty girl”, scolding her for breaking my heart.
There was an small emergency when it was learned that the priest was late! The altar had to be blessed but with no priest, what could be done? Enter Reverend Ballinger (my wife and Jennifer's Step-Mother)! She was asked to be the understudy for the MIA priest! The emergency to which I elude was not that the priest was absent but that Nancy was being asked to do a priest's job. She confided in me later that all she could do was bring the incense and Holy Water to the altar. She was confused about just how far she'd could take the priests job. She didn't throw Holy Water. She could smudge but don't Catholics do it a certain way? And the prayers. They were not only from a Catholic Missal but they were in Spanish, too. She carried in the water, set it on the table, said silently a prayer with a kind open-hand gesture and then sat next to me and was done, done, done!
The above is surely a digression. It was, though, very amusing at the time.
The Priest finally arrived late and performed an impressive ceremony. Then Patrice, who chaired the ceremony, spoke kindly of her past loved ones, a child and a husband.
Then a very special event took place. Lidia, the very Latino Counselor for Hospice of SLO, a lovely, small, compassionate spirit, and a Guatamala native, had arranged for a couple of dancers, who do Traditional Mexican Dancing, to perform. Actually, there were four people who agreed to dance but at the last minute, two were injured in an accident. So, there were only two dancers and they made a fine couple.
To the sound of Mariachis from a somewhat distant boom box, they danced about each other. She wore a to-the-floor blue dress with multicolored embroidery and a thick skirt ensemble that followed her twirls and sways to the music. Her hands flew in tempo into the air and past her side and together, clapping and snapping. He wore long tight pants and a simple long sleeve shirt that was strategically opened to reveal a patch of dark chest hair starting on his young chest. He wore a matching sweat band around his crown and no hat. He spun around her in complex twirls that bent this and that way while his heels chopped at the pavement. I could feel myself catching the rhythm of the energy. The crowd of some 60 people was picking it up, too, some clapping, most swaying or tapping feet to the tempo of the brass and the guitars and the clicks of castanets.
They did several dances during their presentation. One of them, stands out vividly. This is a dance that the gentleman did solo while his Senorita counted time and swayed gently in the background. He carried a couple of wooden handled knives that he'd retrieved from just off stage. When the music began he took the knives and played them together. He slapped them together and scraped them like he was sharpening them off each other. He threw them up spinning and he caught the handles, he tossed them up over his back and caught them, he kicked his leg up spun a knife up from under it, into the air and caught it without missing a beat.
I saw much more than a beautiful display of traditional entertainment. There was certainly something else going on. I was witnessing the same events that had occurred in the last night's dream. I actually saw some of this before it happened! The slapping knives gave me a sensation that I had never known and I don't have a word that describes it. It was a profound thrilling that cause me to wonder of an association between the loving visitation by my daughter on the eve of the Day of the Dead and the dream's significant components with my daytime and live experience of this Holy Day.
When we returned to the car, I looked again, more thoroughly, for the chocolate bar. Under a jacket, in every pocket in the clothes, down the cracks between seats. It was definitely missing.
I wonder about the mysteries of life and how things come and go and occur with and without synchronicity and certainly without consent. Our love ones, whose loss is intolerable, and we, ourselves, mortal in spite of our denial, come and then go. To where do we all go? From where do we all come? Do we really go anywhere, at all?
And where is that chocolate bar, a simple loving gesture that I brought for her pleasure on the Day of the Dead?