Saturday, October 31, 2015

Hallows

There is a certain way the burn/pediatric ICU smells, and I don't think I'll ever forget it. It's not a bad smell but it is unique. During my internship as a hospital chaplain that was the only floor I was afraid of. Every patient there represented something I deeply feared. But I have happy memories there, too. I kissed Andrew on New Year's, 2012 in an empty room, watching the Space Needle fireworks. Amazing, precious, and tender things happen on that floor.

Today I took the girls to visit their dad at work, and Andrew took us across the hall to the burn/peds ICU because they had candy, and maybe also because the nurses there take a particular delight in walking, talking, healthy little kids. But S, my sensitive child, hid her face and didn't want to stay. She is afraid of hospitals and doctors, even though nothing traumatic has ever happened to her in one. My tiny Jack Skellington hid her face in her daddy's chest, and not even the promise of candy could convince her to emerge.

Halloween is supposed to be a trinity of days where we face our fears, and remember our dead. The ancient pagan Celts called it Samhain and they believed that on Samhain the dead returned to walk among the living. They would welcome them home by lighting fires and candles, and leaving treats on the window sills.

We're not so good with death, in modern USA culture. But ignoring our mortality doesn't make it less scary. It may even have the opposite effect. Nobody talks about death, and so it becomes an unspeakable thing that is even more terrifying.

We've been talking about death in our family a lot this year. Andrew's grandfather's health has been failing for years, and this year was his last. He died a couple of weeks ago at home, surrounded by his wife and children. My mother-in-law told me that it was beautiful, which is not how people usually talk about death and dying. In my hospital internship I saw a lot of people at the moment of death, though, and I think I know what she means.

Early in 2015, the girls' first mother died. I have always called her Z here, on this blog. Z's death was devastating to me. It was sudden and unexpected. I still don't know how to talk about it. So many of the hopes I have held for the future died with her - hope that someday she would see the beautiful children she lost, meet them, give them answers for all the someday questions they will have that I don't know the answers to. I wanted a better, happier ending for the story of Z and our children.

We told the girls pretty soon after we got the news, and they have incorporated this new information fairly smoothly into their lives. It has given me a chance to talk about death with them, and to explore some of the bigger questions of their lives. I hope that talking about this stuff now will mean that we can also talk about it later, as their understandings and feelings develop.

So in my faith tradition Halloween has sort of fallen by the wayside, co-opted by costumes and candy. But tomorrow is All Saints and after it All Souls, and I framed pictures of Z, and of Pop, to take to church with us. We'll put them on an altar alongside photos and objects that others bring, to mark, remember, and welcome home their beloved dead. We will light candles, pray, and keep again the tradition of celebrating the loves we hold that death cannot touch.

Like death itself, remembering the dead is sacred work. Both are hallowed by tears and love and sadness and hope. And perhaps one helps us get ready to someday face the other.