The candle’s flame sputters and then dies in a ribbon of white smoke, the smell of burnt wax mingling with the scents of pan dulce and tequila. Faces of people, long gone now but never forgotten, peer out from behind glasses of milk, cans of Coke and marigolds. A pack of Marlboro Reds, a can of Bud Light, a package of M&Ms, and plates of salt and apples complete la ofrenda, the offering, for the traveling souls of our loved ones.
My mother traveled from this world into the next many years ago. I was there when it occurred – if such a thing occurs in a when – but not by my choice. We had decided that morning to end life support since there was no hope of recovery, and family members said watching her slip from this life would be something I would regret passing up the chance to experience.
Instead, I regret yielding to pressure to see something I never wanted to see. Hoped I’d never see. But that’s a story for another time.
Since the funeral, I’ve been to her grave just twice. Once to make sure everything was spelled and punctuated correctly on the headstone, and once because my partner thought a visit would be good for me.
My mother taught me from a very young age that she wouldn’t be under that headstone when her time came. A devout Protestant, she believed her soul would leave behind the broken mortal shell – in her case, a body wrecked by cancer – and take its place at the feet of Jesus in heaven.
The Aztecs had a not-dissimilar belief. They believed the soul left the body upon death, living on and traveling throughout different realms for eternity. When the Spanish conquistadors invaded what is now Mexico, the Aztecs’ views on the afterlife commingled with Catholic beliefs of heaven, purgatory and hell and la ofrenda as we know it today took shape.
For a long time, I resented my mother’s death. I felt cheated of years of her guidance, her wisdom and her love. In the years after, I felt anger every time I thought of something I needed from her, wanted to ask her, wished I knew her recipe for the only potato salad I’ve ever loved. I resented…everything.
But time goes on, life goes on, healing comes. Wounds of loss heal as best as such wounds can. They don’t close completely, but I found a way to cope. Work around the wound. Go on living.
And after some time, many years, I discovered I could celebrate not just her life but also the next phase of her journey. Wherever that journey takes her.
I also learned to celebrate mine, and where it takes me.
Every day I hope wherever my mom is on that journey that she’s well, happy and at peace. And I hope, on this dia de los Muertos – and the 502nd anniversary of the day theologian Martin Luther nailed his list of 95 grievances to the door of a Catholic church in Wittenberg, Germany, to launch the Protestant reformation she celebrated every October 31st – that my mother can laugh and appreciate being honored with our ofrenda. Today on the island in my kitchen, but every day in my heart.
Enjoy the M&Ms, cherry Coke and chocolate milk, Mama – and travel well.