Passages, Mourning and Halloween

Sean At 18  We don’t have many pictures of him


Ever since my younger brother died in 2008, Halloween has been a difficult season for me.  We don’t know his exact death date.  He had schizophrenia and was often uncommunicative for weeks at a time.  His last call on his cell phone record was October 25th.  He wasn’t found until November 11th.  He was 44 years old.  He lived alone. Even though his family, especially my mother and older sister, tried very hard to help him out, he resisted and preferred a life of isolation.  We knew not to push him too hard to do anything.  At one point, he disappeared for about 13 years.  He resurfaced 4 years before his death.
He was very strong-minded for a man who heard paranoid voices in his head since he was a teenager. He worked as an electrician.  He went to work and went home.  He had a perception of himself as being very small and was always drinking protein powder and lifting weights.  I asked him one time if he ever wanted to socialize more.  “If I go straight home, I stay out of trouble.”
My brother was scary.  Even though he thought he was small, he was about 6’2” and built like a truck, broad and muscular.  He always wore several layers of clothes to cover up how small he thought he was.  He was quiet most of the time, but if you ever heard one of his episodes where he would start responding to the voices, start talking about how the people in the television were out to kill him and how one day he would get back at all the people who had hurt him, you would be more than justified at fearing him.
He had a very difficult childhood.  My father was abusive and both my parents were alcoholics.  But my brother had a enough self discipline to maintain a job without anyone thinking he was anything other than weird for being so quiet and never socializing.
We don’t know for sure what he died of.  He was sick with the flu and my sister took him medicine and begged him to go to a doctor, but he was paranoid of doctors.  When they found him, one of the men who collected his body called us and told us to go to the apartment before the hazardous-materials team got there.  My brother had left money strewn all around the apartment.  When he came home from work, he’d just throw his cash out of his pockets as if it were some kind of contaminant.
One of the main worries we had was how we were going to afford bury him.  We all were living from paycheck to paycheck.  My mom was on Social Security and getting less than $600 a month.
My two sisters and my brother-in-law and I found enough money in my brother’s apartment to cover the burial expenses.  It was such a sad sojourn, that act of hunting and gathering. We wore face masks.  He lived a spartan life.  Weights in the living room.  A mattress on the floor.  A table to eat at.  The smell of decay was sharp and thick.  We saw where he was died. We collected his few personal things and the money hidden everywhere.  There was enough to pay for the burial.
It was traumatizing, but it showed me how hard my brother worked to maintain a sense of sanity and to not bother anyone.  It  also ingrained in me a profound respect for the human body, for decay, for the passage we all make from physical matter to spiritual beings.
I mourned his death, but more so, I mourned his illness that isolated him so much. That is what haunts me.  Later we found out he had almost $80,000. in his bank account.  He never spent money outside of what he needed.  The money left was a gift to a family who he never really let close to him, but we would have much rather him have spent it on getting mental help.
Halloween used to be a favorite time, and I loved the whole macabre celebration.  Now I feel removed from it.  It’s a more sacred time and I don’t like seeing the glorification of insanity, wounds and zombies.
Each year since his death, though, I get a little more light-hearted about it. He has helped.  He visits me in my dreams.  When he was young he always played guitar and was quite good at it.  After he got ill, he wrote music with square notes and mathematical formulas that sounded very discordant.  In my dreams, he always has a guitar and is surrounded by melodies like bird songs.
Living around children helps me get through Halloween, too.  I give out candy.  Sometimes I wear a witch hat.  I still love jack-o-lanterns.  But I don’t think I’ll ever be able to go to a haunted house or participate in a zombie fest.  And sometimes seeing a particularly graphic costume will send me spiraling into grief.  But it isn’t always a costume that can set me to mourning.
I began to sink into depression over my brother a few days ago.  On the way home from the library, while I waited for the bus, a very dirty and skinny man came to wait with me.  He was muttering and talking to himself, gesturing and making pointed comments in some language of his own.  I began to think of the sorry state of mental health care in our abundant country and the terrible time we had trying to get help for my brother.
When I got home, I started drawing a face and I began a few hours of very passionate paint splattering and mourning.  I realized I was trying to draw my brother.  I’d been trying to do an homage to him since he died, but never could bring myself to it.


I started mourning in full, crying, drawing, erasing, crying, painting.  I got out almost all my art supplies and even my sand paper — putting on color, sanding it off.   I knew I’d gone a little off kilter, but it felt okay.  Sometimes madness is the only possible response.
Finally a face stared back at me.  With a subtle grin.  My brother emerged from all that chaos to say, I think, Lighten up.  And I did.
Autumn Visit
I told a friend about my brother’s death.  She is in her 30s and has 3 young children. She is celebrating the Day of the Dead in addition to Halloween.  She invited me to a Sugar Skull event on next Tuesday, and I felt like I could get through that.  I tried to remember a favorite food of my brother, but he really only ate to build up his body.  I will make a sugar skull for him anyway.
Today, I worked on the homage painting that has been in the back of my mind for the last 5 years.  Just a simple watercolor of him flying off to a saner, more sacred place.  I drew him with an Oud-like instrument, the first guitar invented.  There’s some gold glazing that doesn’t show up in the scan of the painting.
I know I will carry  love and confusion throughout my life.  Mourning is something we must do if we are to feel love and compassion.  If we are to keep our loved ones close in our hearts.
Soon, I’ll build a little altar for the Day of the Dead – for my brother, for my mother, for my grandmother, for all the souls that have struggled through this life and made it to the other side.  I pray they continue to haunt me, trouble and inspire me, until I join them in the great mystery beyond life.

"All The Messy Glory"

Sometimes the perfect book comes along at the perfect time.  When I was in Memphis for my mom’s funeral last week, I stayed with a dear friend who is a children’s librarian.  She urged me to read Each Little Bird that Sings, by Deborah Wiles.  It’s the story of 10 year old Comfort Snowberger, who lives with her eccentric and endearing family in a funeral home in Snapfinger, Mississippi.

The Snowbergers have a good honest relationship with death, and Comfort has attended 247 funerals.  She reports on the funerals, hoping one day to get in the local paper for her obituaries which are much more exciting than the boring things that do get published.  She feels it is her duty to keep everyone’s spirits up.  It’s her contribution to the general family attitude of  being of service. 

However, Comfort is finding it too hard to be of service to her bratty cousin Peach.  She hates him and his whiny ways.  She also finds out that her best friend, Declaration, is in the process of dumping her for cooler girls.  Declaration is being mean and  has begun to taunt her for being around dead people all the time.  Her best friend, it seems, is her dog, Dismay. 

Then Uncle Edisto dies.  Then Aunt Florence.  These elders of the family take with them the wonderful sense of security that Comfort has grown up around.  That’s 249 funerals.  Who will be number 250?  Aunt Florence promised a sign for Peach at her funeral.  What happens takes Comfort so close to the reality of death that it impacts the whole family.  It portrays the changing nature of  friendship in a delicate but realistic way.  Life altering events, in fact, alter lives. 

This book was engaging and funny and sad.  It was also a reassuring companion as I navigated my mother’s funeral.  It helped me appreciate the deeper meaning of the hymns and the sermons and the rituals we went through to honor my mother. 

When we were young, our family was torn apart by divorce, alcoholism and poverty.  We never really got proper training in how to handle funerals, weddings or any other public rituals.  I never know what to do.  My mother had the foresight and faith to arrange her own Christian funeral, and my sister, who took care of Mom, dealt with all the final details.  All I had to do was go, mourn and commune with family and friends. 

My friend who gave me the book, it turns out, went to funerals all the time with her family.  One of the reasons she loved Each Little Bird that Sings, is that it reminded her so much of her childhood experience with beautiful funerals and the camaraderie that can happen around them.  Her family would decorate and clean the graves of family members and loved ones. They took extra flowers to decorate graves for neighbors who could no longer make the trip to the cemetery. 

I never really saw myself as a person to visit graveyards, but sure enough, now I want to visit my brother, my grandmother and my mother every time I go to Memphis.  The funeral provided a closure, but it also provided a gateway.  The small plots of ground that contains my family’s bones seem like passageways now — I can’t quite make it through to them, but I know they are there, removed from what Uncle Edisto refers to as the “messy glory” of life, but not gone from my messy life.

Each Little Bird That Sings has all the charm and culture of a small Mississippi town, or any rural town.  The names and phrasings and insights and humor seem unique to the South and this book highlights all the goodness that can be a part of Southern life.  Even though Memphis is a big city, it’s on the border of Mississippi and in the Mississippi River delta.  Reading this novel took me back home in so many ways that when I got back to Portland, Oregon, the first thing I did was order my own copy.  

Here’s a link to an excerpt on NPR:

From her website:
Deborah Wiles is the author of two picture books, ONE WIDE SKY and FREEDOM SUMMER, and four middle-grade novels:  LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER, EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS (a 2005 National Book Award Finalist), THE AURORA COUNTY ALL-STARS, and her new novel, COUNTDOWN, book one of The Sixties Trilogy for Young Readers.
Her work has received the Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award, the PEN/Phyllis Reynolds Naylor Working Writer Fellowship, and the E.B. White Read-Aloud Award. She has taught writing workshops to thousands of children and teachers all over the country. She teaches in the MFA in Writing for Children Program at Vermont College and lives in Atlanta, where she grows the world’s most beautiful zinnias, climbs Stone Mountain, and avoids the Atlanta traffic.