All Souls’ Day

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are they for whom death is not an abstraction. Blessed are they who have buried their loved ones, for whom tears are as real as an ocean. Blessed are they who have loved enough to know what loss feels like. … Blessed are those who “still aren’t over it yet.” Blessed are they who laughed again when for so long they thought they never would. … Blessed are those who mourn. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.”

(Some Modern Beatitudes, A Sermon for All Saints Sunday, by Nadia Bolz-Weber)

***

My son wants to visit his father’s gravesite today, which seems appropriate for All Saints Sunday, a day to honor the lives of those loved ones who have died. But the excursion is not as altruistic as it sounds. He has the opportunity to do an extra credit project — for Spanish or Religion, I can’t remember which — in observance of El Dia de Los Muertos. He has been given the option either to go to the gravesite of a deceased relative or to attend the festivities based on the Mexican-catholic tradition celebrating El Dia de Los Muertos at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. That scene is as colorful as you might imagine. The shy boy thinks it will be easier to go to his father’s gravesite.

The thing is, the boy has only been to his father’s gravesite once before. To say the experience was excruciating would be a gross understatement. Oh, and there’s this: Sam was neither Mexican nor catholic; he was a cuban Jew.

But it’s for school, and it will be a time for the boy to face into some serious business, and snacks will be involved. So I’m in. Because that’s the kind of mother I am.

His assignment is to decorate the gravesite Dia de Los Muertos-style, so we have come prepared with orange flowers, two family photographs, chocolate and a “double double” cheeseburger from In ’n Out. With fries. Sam loved fries, especially cold ones.

Needless to say, we are the only ones at the Jewish cemetery bearing snacks.

The first time the boy came to this spot was just about a year after his father’s death, for the unveiling of the memorial tablet. The boy was determined not to go that day. He wanted to stay at school instead. I promised him that I would never force him to go again, but I insisted that he join us for the ceremonial unveiling. I wanted him to participate and to see that the place is beautiful and peaceful, with a view of the city his father loved. It’s not morbid or scary like a bad horror movie.

But it is exquisitely sad for a little boy to have to visit his father in this place.

Sam’s name was etched in bronze on a tablet set in the grass, with his years of birth and death, and a quote from a poem I found comforting: “Let it not be a death but completeness.” I chose the word loved, as in “Loved husband and father” because one of the boys thought the word “beloved” sounded so ugly. He heard the word for the first time at his father’s funeral, but he didn’t know what “beloved” meant. No wonder the child thought it sounded ugly.

A few friends and family had gathered for the unveiling ceremony. It was brutally hot, and the young tree close by granted very little shade. The rabbi was late, predictably stuck in traffic on the 405 freeway. On that day, my broken-hearted baby stomped on his father’s memorial tablet. Multiple times. My poor father-in-law flinched, visibly shaken, because his broken-hearted baby had just been the recipient of the stomp. He told me to stop the stomping. I refused, because I thought it was the perfect expression of little boy grief. For the record, it’s not just the kids, I’ve thrown rocks at that tablet myself.

One good thing about this space is that it’s big enough to hold the full range of our feelings, from loved or beloved to reviled and to loved again.

And now we return to the cemetery. It has been several years since I have been here, and even longer for the boy. Initially, we cannot find Sam because there’s been a bit of construction in the interim. Neither of us asks directions, but it only takes a few minutes to find him. We are drawn to the spot by feel.

My son sets out his offerings. I snap a few pictures. We sit together in silence for a while. It is no small achievement for the boy to have arrived here today. This is the child who refused to say the “D” words — dead or dad — for two years after his father committed suicide.

Today my boy does not stomp on the site.

He sits quietly.

He thinks for a long while.

I inhale and exhale. I don’t want to rush. I try not to cry.

Eventually he indicates that he is ready to go.

I ask him whether there’s anything he’d like to say to dad before we leave. He says No. I give him a few suggestions of phrases I’ve said to his father in the course of grieving his death: “I love you? I miss you? What on earth were you thinking? Fuck you?” My boy looks at me and sighs. He smiles and shakes his head. I’m not sure whether this means he really has nothing to say out loud to his dead father or whether he is simultaneously amused and annoyed at his mother’s preternatural impulse to say everything out loud. He wipes the tear forming in the corner of his eye, and we stand up to leave.

The nearby tree has grown several feet and casts a wide shadow, yielding a comfortable refuge from the heat, the bronze tablet has been weathered and darkened, and the young man is thriving in ways that a father hopes for his son.

I think it might have been easier to go to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. To get lost in the general revelry and anonymity with the crowds and costumes and music. Instead, my son has chosen to look squarely into the face of his own grief. He is brave beyond measure. He has found his way to beauty, gratitude and peace in this place of mourning, and, I dare to say, he has been blessed.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And blessings.

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