The Oxford English dictionary defines “remember” as to “have in or be able to bring one’s mind an awareness of someone or something from the past.”
I have thought a lot about remembering or memory since our son Mack died on New Year’s Eve 2012, two weeks shy of his 9th birthday. Often a memory of a moment between us will bubble up unbidden and in the early days of mourning these would pierce me as a reminder of what I had lost. As the years have unfolded, I have come to relish those moments and even invite them.
Recently, I recalled a night when both Mack’s dad and sister were out. It was just the two of us for dinner so I lit candles, pulled out the china, and we sat at opposite ends of the dining table.
Mack peered around the candles and called from his end of the table, “Really?”
“I love you!” I giggled. And again, out loud, today, I said “I love you, Mack.”
I have come to appreciate that memory lives in a separate space and at times Mack and I share a moment. Often I laugh out loud and “re-member” Mack’s great laugh and feel his warm spirit because we always laughed together.
As I stroll through the stores looking at the Halloween décor, endless bloody knives, skulls, bats, gravestones, and the recent emergence of the terrifying clown, it strikes me that we have a culture steeped in death, but these are images of violent death moments. What these images can’t begin to tell is the story of the mysterious and vibrant relationship we can choose to have with our loved ones beyond death.
In Henri Nouwen’s “Bread for the Journey” he writes:
It is very important to remember those who have loved us and those we have loved. Remembering them means letting their spirits inspire us in our daily lives. They can become part of our spiritual communities and gently help us as we make decisions on our journeys. Parents, spouses, children, and friends can become true spiritual companions after they have died. Sometimes they can become even more intimate to us after death than when they were with us in life. Remembering the dead is choosing their ongoing companionship.
After Mack died, I began to take notice of the Day of the Dead, or Día de Muertos, and their bold and bright depictions of death making their way from Mexico onto our store shelves in central Pennsylvania. Days of the Dead refer to the Catholic and some protestant church celebrations around Halloween (Oct 31), All Saints Day (November 1) and All Souls Day (November 2) or the Day of the Dead.
At first I thought the images were a bit jarring of children dancing with caricatures of death, faces painted as skeletons, happily eating skull sugar molds and chicken stew with bones gathered in candlelit cemeteries. But, I have come to appreciate this starkness is a welcomed reminder of our own mortality: life is brief, death will come to us all, so live!
As I continue to learn to live with the death of Mack, I have become ever more convinced that we need to give permission to ourselves and our loved ones to speak the names of our dead and to celebrate their contribution to life long after they die. It does not take long when speaking to others in mourning that they too have shared moments, dreams, visions and other gestures of love from the dead that give them tremendous peace.
“I don’t tell anyone in case people think I’m weird,” a friend whispered to me about her brother, Grant.
To my student who spoke of her high school classmate’s recent suicide.
“What is her name?” I asked.
“Susan,” she said. “Susan. I haven’t said her name since she died. It feels good to say her name.”
To Susan, Grant, Mack and all of our loved ones who have died before us but remain with us, as Sylvia Plath describes, and grow in us like a tree. As we enter into the season of remembrance may we invite them to bear fruit and provide shade to our souls in the most surprising ways.