To Die is the Privilege of a Lifetime
On October 15th, 2022 I stood at the end of a hospital bed and watched my father die due to an opioid overdose. After being taken off of a ventilator, he slowly exhaled, his face losing color as the lifeforce left his body. Then, as if struck by lightning, his eyes shot open and in perfect orchestration they met my eyes and locked into a gaze. He then closed his eyes gently and left.
It's been nine months since his death which seems auspicious. It’s the amount of time it takes a human being to be ready to enter the world. I feel new through my grief. Disillusioned. Awake. Full of love and clarity in ways that I wasn’t before.
I grieved three losses. The loss of John, my dad. I grieved my unlived life; the life where I had a dad who was kind, warm, and loving. And I grieved for the years of emotional starvation that would live just under the surface of my existence, leaking into everything I’d do, say, think, and feel. I don’t believe the grief or childhood wounding has left me, and I don’t think that it should. In the same way that I wouldn’t try to get rid of a hurting child who was asking to be comforted, I won’t reject those tender child wounds in me. When they show up, I’ll meet them with warmth, holding them, and giving them comfort until it’s time for them to go from me. Within this process of warm and tender holding, the wound is alchemically transmuted and integrated.
Contrary to modern western European cultural views, the grieving process is a community process. Two weeks following my father’s death, I went to Mexico City. The city was alive with death as we were celebrating Día de los Muertos. I was staying in a large blue colonial style house just minutes from the home of Frida Kahlo. A part of Mexico that I visit yearly. My hosts were three elderly women and a younger woman in her 30s. One of the older women was remarkably full of life. She was warm and very interested in chatting me up. She showed me her garden and in Spanish, explained what each plant was and how she cooks them. She also explained that she had gone to the desert to dig up and replant many of the cacti that were in the garden (a common practice in Mexico). She showed me her ofrenda (an alter built to honor dead loved ones) and would often invite me to eat with her as she talked to me about all kinds of things, always in Spanish because she was intent on getting me to speak to speak my mother's tongue.
When I wasn’t with my host, I was wandering the streets while admiring the festivities and intermittently crying. I watched closely and observed the ways that my ancestors grieved. I could feel my woundedness being held by thousands of years of ritual and heartbreak. I could feel deep in my body that my grief is not new nor my own and I’m not alone in it. We’re all connected through our capacity to be wholehearted beings who will be broken open by life. One of the teachings of Día de los Muertos is that a broken heart doesn’t have to be mended, it can be met with warmth and aliveness over and over again.
The week after my trip to Mexico, I attended my father’s memorial. After the memorial, I went to a nearby lake, took a few shots of mezcal, and collected some soil to harvest clay. I harvested the clay at his home and then took it back home and let it sit in a cabinet until today.
Feeling called by the new moon, the reorganization of my inner world, and the closing of my father’s probate, I decided it was time to work the clay into something new. I used a 10,000-year-old hand building method called coiling to call on the ways of my ancestors to make a series of tiny cups. This seems like a perfect culmination. Creating something new out of death feels right. Birth and death aren’t on opposite ends of the spectrum of life, they are intrinsically linked. Intimately related. Two perfect links in a chain that rely on each other. I don’t know if reincarnation exists or if there’s more after this life, but it does seem that we get many births and deaths in this one life.
I’m grateful to be born again today, and when I’m still enough, I can feel the heat of death radiating from somewhere just out of sight. I've died enough times to know that it knocks you sideways, so I can't tell you that I'm ready to die again, but I can say that to die is the privilege of a lifetime.