Last spring, I was reading an article in the New Yorker titled “Family Medicine.” In this piece, James Marcus chronicled the decline of his father following an injury from one too many falls. I saved the clipping last spring in hopes that I would be able to hold onto it and write about it today. Little did I know where I would be on November 2, 2019—All Soul’s Day, also observed as El Dia de los Muertos, in Guatemala.
Describing his father’s condition following an invasive medical procedure to relieve swelling in his brain, Marcus writes:
He never really did return. For the final weeks of his life, he remained in a fog, from which he very occasionally emerged for a minute or two, and never when I was there. One day, when my mother was sitting by his bed, he woke up. He told her that he had been visited the previous afternoon by Uncle Eddie, his adored role model whom the F.B.I. had tried to recruit nearly a century before, and who had lived in a gilded apartment on East Tenth Street with a secret office behind a faux bookshelf.
“Aaron, your uncle died fifty years ago,” she said.
“I know,” he said. “But nonetheless.”
There, in a single word, is the best argument on behalf of the afterlife that I have ever heard. The dead may walk among us simply because we insist that they do. They just keep circulating, those beloved, resented, lamented figures, our better selves and interlocutors of choice, with whom the conversation never ends.
This writer gave voice to a sensibility about the departed I have always possessed: that they are very much with us.
Here in Central America and elsewhere in the world, millions of people are setting up ofrendas and visiting their ancestors’ gravesites—cleaning them up and decorating them with cempazuchitl and other colorful flowers; bringing along ancestors‘ favorite dishes; and communing with their dead in ritual and song throughout the day and evening. As I find myself immersed in the commemoration of the dead by a culture far more ancient than my own, I experience the hope found in remembering those who have passed beyond the veil—simply, if for no other reason, because I choose to remember them.
I remember you, mother. How you cared for me and our sons. How you had fresh biscuits for us as soon as we walked through the door. Your chicken and dumplings. Your rich alto voice. You sitting in your chair reading your Bible. How you tirelessly companioned so many “little old people.”
I remember you, mom. How you gave me up hoping I would have a better life than you underestimated you could provide on your own. The smell of the the food you learned to love in Bangaladesh. How you tickled me and made me laugh. The way you watched with tears in your eyes as Michael and I played as we might have as children.
I remember you Aunt Nell and Aunt Becky. How delicious your kitchens smelled and pies tasted. How you treated me as your own. How you loved God so deeply. How you lived your lives for others and loved your children fiercely.
I remember you Óscar Romero and Stanley Rother. How you followed through with your callings. All the way. How you loved your people. How you responded to the injustice around you. How the children loved you.
Again, quoting Marcus describing an experience following his father’s death,
“…ideas began coming into my head—in complete sentences, even paragraphs. I had the powerful sensation that these things were being transmitted to me and that I mustn’t forget them at any cost. Was it my father’s voice that I was hearing?…. Could he have been speaking to me by the canal?”
I know what he means. This past summer, I had what I can only describe as a mystical experience where I heard my mother speak to me.
One spring after she died, I took a windchime to her plot at the remote country cemetery. I left it, telling her it was so she wouldn’t feel all alone out there. Since I left Texas, I’ve felt guilty having not been able to go back.
One day this past August, I rode my bike up to a windchime that had been hung on a fence in the desert. I got off my bike and sat down for a moment. Or a lifetime.
As I listened to the wind rustle the chimes, I was taken to that plot out by the old oak tree.
I remembered how I had left her there one cold December, lonely I feared.
And in a voice that was not hers but was also completely hers formed through the music of the chimes, she spoke to me.
She told me she was fine.
That she was so happy and proud of me.
I told her I was sorry I had not been to visit her for so long.
She told me it was ok because she knew the windchime was not for her so she wouldn’t be alone.
“It’s for you,” she said. “So you won’t be.”
I cried for a long time amid this desert symphony of wind and sand and my mother’s voice.
At some point, she sang:
Do this for me, for my memory:
Tell this to your children.
Impress it upon their hearts.
Don’t let them forget me.
Don’t forget me.
I am in the music of the windchimes.
My laughter is carried in the music of the windchimes.
As long as you remember me, I remain with you.
At some point, I got up, got back on my bike, and rode back into the desert with what I can only describe as blessed assurance.
Today when the veil is especially thin, I choose to remember my ancestors, to beckon they draw near to me, visit me a little while, and know they are not forgotten before they return.
In this way, I experience my mothers nearer to me than they could ever be before. I have heard saints whisper to me because I dare call their names and ask them to pray for me. I experience the spiritual solidarity of revolutionaries, resisters, and radicals who occupy for me the roles of ancestor and stand alongside me and those that stand alongside.
In this way, I am assured that those I love, admire, and care for deeply will always walk with me no matter what side of the veil we occupy.
And in this way, I know that I, too, will live on, because my sons and their sons will insist that I remain in conversation with them—preserved in the form of my very best self, beloved; gone, but ever with them…
Scenes from San Pedro, Guatemala
Note: Gratitude to Matice Moore who during seminary made the language of ancestors available and accessible to me. I remain so grateful to you.