Her fascination with death startled me.
I made some odd noise that day we passed by the bloated dead dog on the side of the road along our well-worn route from daycare to home. He was stiff and frozen in time with his tongue wagged out, marble-like eyes wide open and four spindly legs pointed to the sky.
If I would have just kept my mouth shut, she would have never known. But I made some kind of guttural sound that piqued her interest. She was only 4, riding in her rear car seat where she didn’t have much of any view. She was usually fiddling with something, distracted by her own interests.
Child: “What? What is it?”
Child: “You saw something. What was it?”
Me: “It was just a dead dog.”
Child: “I want to see. Stopppppppppppp!”
Me: “We’ve already passed it.”
Child: “Go back. Turn around. I want to see the dead dog!”
Me, emphatically, stepping on the gas: “We are not going back.”
Child: “Why won’t you let me see the dead dog? I want to see it.”
In that moment, I had no good answers other than I wasn’t going back to peer over death and examine the dead dog up close. No can do. End of subject.
Days later, I was asking myself the same question she had asked: why wouldn’t I go back and look at the dead dog? Why I was so scared to see death up close?
She wasn’t frightened; she was fascinated. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen her obsess over death. Sometimes she would pick up and study a dead roly-poly, left in a crack of the living room floorboard, that didn’t get sucked up by the vacuum. Another time she was intrigued by a pregnant possum hit by a car the night before, scattering a dozen dead, unborn baby possums across the road.
It didn’t really matter. She had her magnifying glass out, ready to examine death. I, on the other hand, was always trying to view death through my rear view mirror, gunning the engine and peeling out as fast as I could.
Maybe it was because I remembered back when I was 14 and had a front row seat to death.
I remembered watching my dad fade as the cancer ate his body. Every day, there was a little less of him.
When he finally died, I was unprepared for much of what no one ever talks about because in our culture, we steer clear of death and things that die. That’s why I recall a mind-out-of-body experience when my mother dragged me and my brother and sister to pick out a coffin for my dad.
I don’t think she really dragged us. I’m sure, looking back, the last thing my mom wanted to do was go coffin shopping alone. It was like a black market you never knew existed. Coffins lined from wall to wall. Elaborate coffins. Simple coffins. Coffins of all sizes.
There we were, the four of us, milling around a bunch of boxes, trying to figure out which one was best for my dad. I was 16 and terrified.
Years later, I’m no longer tiptoeing around death. Or not as much. I’ve found ways to accept and even embrace death. I think it’s why Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, has become my all-time favorite holiday. I pay homage to my dad, all my ancestors who walked this planet before me, all the relationships and marriages and things that had so much potential but died for one reason or another.
It’s the bones of life I now honor.
It’s why bleached out animal bones from a seaside walk, skeletons of cholla cactus from the desert and coal black glossy obsidian from a once-spewing volcano in Iceland sit on shelves, sills and tables throughout the house, reminding me of the beauty in death and ancient things. A whitened elk skull, antlers and all, hangs in front of a window.
It’s also why a stone planter in our den becomes a shrine every fall – filled with old black and white family photos, odds and ends once treasured, including thimbles from my Granny Dixon’s sewing box, animals my dad carved from wood as a kid and baseballs my husband’s dad hit out of the park in the 1930s as a minor league player.
Our Day of the Dead shrine is scattered with rocks and seashells we’ve collected from hikes and travels over the years. There’s a hodgepodge of candles, flowers, tribal masks and Himalayan prayer flags.
It’s my personal apacheta, a cairn of sorts, marking the path of the dying and living of life – a cycle with no ending and no beginning. Just a loop of living. A reminder that we start out with nothing and eventually circle back to nothing, but in the time between we best honor our ancestors and ourselves by living and loving fully.