Tag Archives: Death

Dia de los Muertos

I love death.

I know, I know.  It is one of ninety-nine (or more) things that makes me strange – or as I prefer to say, “quirky.”  I don’t mean that I like death in such a way that I am looking forward to my own, or I enjoy the death of others.  To say that I love death is more to say I am fascinated with it, that I am more or less comfortable with it, that I think it should be as much a cause for celebration as it is for sorrowful mourning.

I had friends in town for the weekend and we were looking to fill our 48 hours together with the most unique brands of fun we could find.  In light of that, the annual Milwaukee Dia de los Muertos celebration at Walker Square Park seemed like a good choice.  A group of six of us assembled at the park and took it all in.  The smells of burning wood and incense filled the air.  Many people, young and old alike, were dressed in fancy garb and had their faces painted.  A circle of drummers kept the beat going. Sugar skulls and ofrendas provided colorful, heartfelt and at times somber visual reminders of what the day was about.  It all culminated in a tantalizing sensory overload.

This small, grass roots event was started four years ago by a group of people who just decided it needed to be done.  They believed, and rightly so, that it was a way to bring people into a community that is misunderstood and to unite the city’s citizens with a common thread. After all, what thread is more common to all of us than death?  Many of us, myself included, have already suffered a great many losses and had to find our way through the grief – a grief we may very well carry with us to this day.  All of us, myself included, will have to face our own departure one day.  Death, it seems, is the great equalizer.

As the parade was about to start, a few people shared words of wisdom. One of them, a quiet, soulful man, stood at the front of the crowd and gently told his story of his people who had passed.  In his story, he referenced the feeling he carries with him that his grandparents are always with him.  As he said this, he motioned his hand toward the sky, and at that precise moment two hawks flew in and landed on the tree above his head.   A gasp was let out by the crowd in unison, and tears filled many of our eyes.  It’s a moment that doesn’t even translate well in writing; it was a true “you-had-to-be-there moment.”

We then all walked in the parade together, something that hadn’t necessarily been planned but was the right thing to do.  It occurred to me as we walked that we are all in this together, this thing called life.  And while death is just one part of that, it is the part that reminds us of how important it is to live.

One Happy Memory

It was almost exactly a year ago when I received word through my extended family that my step-mother Jan had been checked into a hospice facility.  Word of this news came to me via email, from my cousin to my uncle and then to me, and within just a couple of hours a second email arrived saying that she had already passed.  When we first received the emails, my sister and I didn’t quite know what to say or to do about it.  We hadn’t had but maybe two or three instances of contact with Jan in the 16 years since our father had passed.

In the days that followed, my sister and I hopped onto a roller coaster of raw, gut-wrenching emotion.  There was a reason that we hadn’t maintained a relationship with Jan, a reason that there had only been those two or three instances of contact in all those years.  Those reasons were safely tucked between my sister and me.  Somewhere along the way, we took a vow of silence and made a deep and unwavering commitment to stay on the high road.  Besides the fact that it seemed to be the most right, most respectful thing to do, we had moved on.  We had each built happy, healthy, passionate lives for ourselves and that was the focus of our energy.

But there’s nothing like an impending funeral to get one’s buried emotions all stirred up.  The first stage of emotion was indifference.  Oh well, we thought.  I hope she finds peace on the other side.  But then the phone calls started coming in.  Jan’s family was reaching out to us, asking us to come to the funeral.  Telling us we were in the will.  Giving us details of her last months and days.  Our peaceful indifference dissipated.

From there we moved on to what could only be described as straight up dilemma.  I pulled up the obituary online.  I was shocked – utterly shocked – that my sister and I were listed as surviving family members in the obituary.  Granted, our names were wrong, with me being listed as Jennifer Swearingen and my sister as Jessica Wiener, but this was just a funny (and sad) marker of how lacking the connection was.  I called my best friend and told her the story, and told her that I hoped when I died, no one would be surprised to see their (wrong) name in my obituary.  It was all very telling.

For the next couple of days, there was a lot of back and forth between me and my sister.  At the outset, I had promised myself that I would follow my sister’s lead.  I was 19 years old when Dad and Jan had married and was already moved out of the house, but my sister was only 9.  She had the longest and deepest connection to Jan of the two of us.  I had to let her do whatever was right for her.  Initially Jess took a firm stance:  “We’re not going.”  Okay, I thought…but I wasn’t so sure it was the right answer.

The next day I emailed my sister and I said this:  “Look, I promised myself I would follow your lead.  And I promise you, I will.  But I just have to say this.  It is a little strange to me to be listed in someone’s obituary and their will and not go to their funeral.  As I’ve thought this through, over and over again, it occurred to me that this could be our last act of grace for Jan.  But really, we’d be doing it for our Dad.  The one thing that all three of us had in common was that we loved Dad.”

It took a few hours, but Jess wrestled with all of it and responded:  “I don’t know if there is a heaven, but if there is, and if by some chance I make my way in, and if when I get there I see Dad, I’d feel pretty small if this was the one thing I did that let him down.  Let’s pack our bags and go.”

It was actually on the evening of Valentine’s Day when my sister and I loaded up the Rav4 and headed south to Iowa.  True to form in times of turmoil, I had a massive stomach ache.  I always carry my stress in my stomach, and this was a whopper.  Jess poked fun at me.  “Why do you have to be such a feeler?  You are such a feeler.”  I poked back.  “Why are you always so numb to all of your feelings?  You bury everything so deep.”  The words hung in the air for awhile and became a fading echo; we both knew why she had learned to bury her feelings like this.  The why behind it was the reason we were heading to Iowa.

During the four hour car ride, I set out for us to find our happy memories of Jan.  Isn’t that what you do when someone passes on?  Well, we had a lot of memories – a lot of them.  There was no question we had experienced joy in the presence of Jan, most notably when our dad and his crazy storytelling was involved.  But we could not recall a time where we experienced joy because of Jan.  When we made it to Rock Island, about 30 minutes from our destination, I turned to Jess and said, “Okay girl, this is it.  We have 30 minutes to come up with one happy memory.”  Jess paused for a moment and looked thoughtfully out the window.  She turned back to me and said sweetly, sorrowfully, “I can’t.”

The following morning Jess and I got up and got ready for the funeral.  This time, both of us had stomach aches.  I’ll admit, I was kind of a nervous wreck.  Who would be there?  How would they respond to us?  What kind of emotions would the day bring?  We pulled into the church parking lot, and I paused and gave Jess a fist bump.  “We’ve got this, kid.  You and me.  Worst case scenario, we go in, no one talks to us, we sit in the back of the church and we quietly leave.  At the end of it, we still have each other, and we did the right thing.  We can do this.”

But it wasn’t like that at all.  The moment we walked in, a swarm of step-relatives and even one of our own cousins embraced us.  Were we the prodigal daughters?  Perhaps, but in that moment it didn’t seem to matter.  As is true with many funerals, there were pictures everywhere.  More than half of the pictures were pictures of our family, of us.  Granted, they were old pictures.  Even so, it was another telling marker.  Jan’s life with our dad, which of course included us, was her life.  She loved that man.  Even though she was only married to him for nine years before he passed away, it almost seemed as if her life began when she met him and ended when he died.  Her life was depicted as a time capsule.

Jan’s family insisted that we walk in with the family and sit with them during the services, a gesture that was simultaneously sweet and awkward.  The services were very nice, and we were told Jan had chosen several of the scriptures and songs for her own funeral.  There were scriptures about forgiveness and redemption.  There were stories of her acts of kindness to other church members.  Maybe, I thought, just maybe she had grappled with the harsh complexity of our relationship just as we had and tried to reconcile it.  Anything is possible.

After the service, we lined our cars up to make our way to the cemetery for the internment.  Now usually the cemetery would be maybe a half mile away and it will be a slow but quick procession.  Not so on this day.  Unbeknownst to us, we made our way out of the church parking lot and proceeded together, ever so slowly on this bright, brisk February day, about 15 miles to an old country cemetery.  It was situated out on a gravel road between a sea of corn fields and pastures.  Upon arrival, we learned that the cemetery was actually a family cemetery of Jan’s family.  There were maybe 50 or 60 people buried there,and they were all linked to Jan.  Her parents, her grandparents, and some of her siblings who preceded her in death.

The wind was brisk and unrelenting, so the graveside service was quick and to the point.  When the services had ended, family members of Jan pointed out graves of their loved ones and the stories that accompanied them.  The stories filled in some of the gaps, explained some of the pain that Jan and her family must have surely felt.  Pain that maybe went unresolved, and as I like to say, came out sideways as a result.  A wave of understanding washed over me.

Another thing that washed over me, standing in that little country graveyard, was I think what they call forgiveness.  Look, I can’t sugar coat it.  The relationship we had with Jan wasn’t good.  But I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that I was part of that equation.  And there were complicating factors.  Jan married a man who she loved deeply, but who had his own serious health issues.  He also had two grieving daughters who had not gotten over the loss of their mom.  In short, she married a man with an impossible set of circumstances.  On top of that, she had some issues of her own, but maybe, just maybe, that was the byproduct of her own upbringing, her own unresolved pain.  You throw all of this into a big old steaming cauldron, and out comes a bad chemical experiment.

I realized, as I began to reconcile all of this, it doesn’t mean that you have to assign “good” or “bad” to anyone.  I think what I realized on that day, more than any other day in my life, is that every one of us, every single one, is made of both good and bad parts.  Things we celebrate, and things we hide.  Joy and pain.  Happiness and sorrow.  Triumph and failure.  We are all, at the end of the day, a mixed bag – no one person necessarily being better in totality than the other.

We enjoyed a dinner back at the church with Jan’s relatives and shared a few stories, a few laughs, a few hugs.  We got in the car and acknowledged to each other – this was good.  It was unexpectedly cathartic and healing and good.  The four hour car ride home was quiet, contemplative, exhausted.  But it was also peaceful.  There was no longer a desperate push to find our one happy memory.  We had found it in an old Iowa country graveyard.


I was sitting on the subway in D.C. when the email came through:  Aunt Alice had passed peacefully in her sleep a few hours before.  I wasn’t surprised, per se, for the last time I had seen her a few months prior, it was clear that our sweet Aunt Alice was weak and tired and dwindling in spirit.  Sure, she was still the same great auntie I had always known and loved, and yet, I suppose she wasn’t.  She was 96, after all, and had led a full and lovely life. She deserved to be tired.

Aunt Alice always had a special place in the hearts of the Swearingen cousins.  Though she was one of the many siblings of our grandma, she wasn’t just any old run of the mill sibling.  No, she was the carbon copy of our Grandma Kathryn.  There was really no denying it.  It was her laugh, her touch, her smile, her everything.  Alice loved to tell a story how, one day while out running errands, someone in town looked down at her sandaled feet and said, “Why Alice, you even have Kathryn’s feet!”  It’s true.  She even had Kathryn’s feet.  She had Kathryn’s everything.

Having lost our Grandma Kathryn much too soon more than thirty years ago, we quickly attached ourselves to Aunt Alice to keep the memory of our grandma alive.  And you know what?  It worked.  We reveled in her ability to tell a story in the funniest way that maybe took a few gratuitous detours along the way.  We basked in the way she could laugh heartily, most frequently at herself.  We welcomed the way that she gave so freely of her affection.  It was all there. It was all Grandma Kathryn.

About three or four years ago, my sister and I made our annual pilgrimage to Morton, Illinois to see Aunt Alice and other assorted family members.  Aunt Alice asked us to go with her for her daily trip to the nursing home to see her sister Babe, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s many years prior.  On the way there, Aunt Alice told us that someone once asked her, “Why do you go see Babe every day?  It’s not like she knows you do it.”  To which Alice softly replied, “Yes, but I know.”

And that stuck with me.  That’s the kind of family I come from.  The kind that sticks together no matter what.  The kind that overlooks the challenges and celebrates the togetherness at every opportunity.  A family of siblings who all lived in the same small town for their whole lives and were each other’s most important social connection.  “Didn’t somebody in this family have a secret?” I once asked Aunt Alice.  “Oh, I suppose so” she said with a quick chuckle, “…but not for very long!”  This family’s unique brand of togetherness and transparency led to an accountability that doesn’t exist for every family.  It taught us how to conduct ourselves in the world and with each other.   It taught us that family may not be all you have, but family is the most important thing you have.  It taught us that, even if she doesn’t know it, you still go visit your sister with Alzheimer’s in the nursing home faithfully every day.  Because you know.

That evening after I learned of her passing, I went out to dinner with a colleague and we decided to walk back to the hotel afterwards.  Along the way, we happened upon the National Cathedral.  It is an incredible piece of architecture and we eventually found our way inside.  Immediately upon entering, we heard someone at the front of the church playing the flute.  They weren’t just playing the flute, though.  They were playing “Amazing Grace.”  A little stunned, but then again not, I plopped myself down on a pew and said a prayer for my sweet Aunt Alice who had taught me so much.  My prayer, really, was mostly to say thanks.  I lit a candle in her honor and made my way back to my colleague.  He had been admiring all of the stained glass, but was perplexed as to why one panel was illuminated so much more brightly than the others.  We went outside to investigate, and as we turned the corner we stopped cold in our tracks.  There before us was biggest, brightest full moon we had ever seen.  And just to the right of that, a cloud formation that looked like an angel.  We grabbed each others arms and I said something to the effect of, “Oh wow, I think we are having a moment here.”  A moment, indeed.  A perfectly serendipitous moment to remember a remarkable woman from a remarkable family.