Wednesday, October 1, 2008
Photo taken Halloween 2007
When I was a child my mother built several rituals into our lives that I still recall with great fondness. One of them was making hot chocolate (from scratch) on winter days. My brothers and I would come in through the front door and immediately remove all our snow-covered outerwear and boots and strip down to the driest layer. If necessary, a change of clothes was waiting nearby. We were anxious to disrobe, tantalized by the smell emanating from the kitchen. We'd rush to the kitchen and watch as my mom skimmed the top layer off the chocolate and then pour each of us a mug. Nothing before or after tasted so much of love.
My mother also recognized every holiday with a treat. It didn't matter how small the holiday -- though she did not observe President's Day, Yom Kippur and other Jewish holidays, or any other religious holidays outside of Christian ones -- a special treat always awaited us at home. Sometimes it was homemade cupcakes with a jellied rabbit candy atop and other times it was a treat from the bakery. I still remember anticipating the treat that awaited me after school on any given holiday.
Like my mother before me, I established my own traditions with my family. Every year Bill and the kids designed a gingerbread house on graph paper while I made the dough. We baked the pieces, and over several nights we assembled the house. As the children grew older I let them oversee the decoration, resisting my urge it make it perfect. I marveled at their creativity as they rifled through the pantry to find ways to embellish their masterpiece. We also had a ritual at Halloween that involved a trip to JoAnn fabrics to pick out their costume pattern and the material. I then spent several weeks preparing for the big night. And I was easily as happy as they were to see the finished product. This year is the first year that I will not be able to do that; fortunately, they chose costumes for which we already had all the necessary parts: Aidan will be Yoda and Amelia plans to be a horse rider. They were very mature about letting this ritual go, making me realize that the ritual was probably all about me all along.
Of all our many rituals, two are sacred. Every night before they go off to sleep I sing them the lullabies that I have sung to them since they were infants. For the first couple years, I held them and rocked them while I sang. Then, I sat on their beds and rubbed their backs as I sang their songs. As my cough worsened, there were nights when they sang the songs instead of me. And, now, they often come to my room for their lullabies if I am too tired to come to their rooms. At some point I need to record myself singing them so that they will have them though the quality of my singing now leaves much to be desired. The second sacred ritual is Friday night movie night. We always made homemade regular and caramel corn and settled down to a movie. Afterwards we had our family "sleep over," in which the kids slept in their sleeping bag on our bedroom floor. The movie part is getting tricky because Amelia's and Aidan's tastes are diverging so who knows how much longer this will last. Sometimes we split up for the movie and reunite for "sleep over."
All this thinking about ritual brought me around to birth and death. When a woman is expecting, there are a number of rituals that anticipate and celebrate the blessed event of birth: picking a nursery theme, having a baby shower, washing the newborn clothing, taking childbirth classes, and preparing the nursery. By the time the baby has arrived, mama is as ready as she is ever going to be (no one is ever truly ready for the life changing event, are they?).
And now I find myself entering the last phase of my life and there are no rituals for the dying. I'm just sort of "winging it." We hosted a healing ceremony in April that was beautiful. Many friends and family members attended the service that my friend Kevin presided over. The weather seemed apropos with a gray sky and the blossoms of our cherry tree raining down all around us. Everyone anointed me with chrism, sacred oil used in Catholic sacraments. In some ways the healing ceremony was my way of "coming out" and admitting to everyone that I held dear that I was very sick and entering the final phase of my life. It was my way of inviting them into this journey and asking them to walk it with me in the ways that they were able. It was the beginning of my long good-bye.
The idea for the birthday gifts for the kids came from my friend Susan who once heard about someone else doing that. It seemed like a grand idea. The journals I kept for the kids were written for the very purpose of serving as my memory of them should I die before they became parents themselves. The CDs were a fleeting thought that really caught my attention and became an enjoyable activity. And the video was the brainchild and gift of a friend. During my many hours alone I try to think about what I would want to have of my mother, and I pick through ideas like shells on the beach, selecting the perfect ones and leaving others behind.
I wonder why we have no rituals surrounding death that involve the dying person. We Catholics have Last Rites (which has been renamed but I cannot remember the new name), but beyond that I am not aware of any cultural rituals for the dying. Tim McGraw suggested skydiving and Rocky Mountain climbing but I am not quite up for that physically. Is death just too individual to come up with a selection of rituals or are we so afraid of death that we elect to deny the reality of it? I'm not sure.
I don't know whether it's my OCD or control freak tendencies, but I have intense need to say good-bye on my terms. I wrote a good-bye letter to be read at my funeral; I wrote it at least three years ago "just in case." I told Bill where it was and emailed it to four trusted friends. I planned the slideshow and the accompanying music that I want played at the funeral. I've decided to be cremated and where I want my ashes interred. At first Bill and I worried that the kids would be upset by the idea of me being cremated but it's what I really want and I need to honor that.
After all, dying is my chance to say good-bye too. It is my opportunity to show others that I loved them and had a richer life for knowing them. And I don't want to let that opportunity pass me by.