This past weekend was the Day of the Dead, a lovely Mexican tradition in which people visit the graves of their loved ones and bring a picnic to share with the souls of the departed. Patti and I loved this holiday — it combined our morbid fascination with graveyards and mortuaries with a sense of humor and cartoony festivities. I wrote about this three years ago, when thoughts of death had suddenly assumed a new and less whimsical tone.
Last Saturday, Jenny and I joined thousands of other Angelinos at the Hollywood Forever cemetery to commemorate the Día de los Muertos. It’s a huge party. There’s a contest for who can build the most impressive memorial shrine and everyone has their faces painted to look like grinning skulls encrusted with jewels and flowers.
I love that this holiday turns the traditional gloominess surrounding death on its head. Instead of an occasion for grief, it is a celebration of the lives of the deceased. The Mexicans believe that a person dies a second death when their memory is forgotten and that makes a lot of sense to me. Immortality means you had an enduring effect on the world, that the things you did for people while you were here will be carried around in their hearts. If you set an example for others to follow, you never really pass away. I see that in Patti — because people have such vivid and positive memories of her, she lives on.
These days, I live a life that is three thousand miles from many of the memories Patti and I shared. I am not walking the streets she did, no longer live in her house or sleep in her bed or see the people who knew her so well. I worried about that when we Jenny and I first talked about coming West, that Patti’s memory would somehow fade when I was far from the physical world she lived in.
Now I know that’s not true, because I brought Patti with me.
I brought her photo in a frame that I see every day but more importantly, I brought the part of me she created over the quarter of a century we spent together. I also believe that Patti wanted me to grow and change and have adventures. She told me so a million times, a million times I did not hear because I was encrusted in my habits and fears. Now, when I feel the pieces scrape and shift inside me, I know that she would approve. She would be so happy that I am here, with Jenny, in this mini house, painting in this garage.
Patti was the one who taught me how to love, how to go beyond my self-absorption and love another unconditionally. If she hadn’t taught me the importance of true love, I could not truly love Jenny as I do today. But loving again does not diminish my first love. And conversely, the bottomless well of love I had to share in my past with Patti does not mean a drop less in my future with Jenny. There’s plenty to go around. The more love you give, the more love you have. And the hardest part is learning to share that endless love with yourself, to be kind and generous with who you are.
Recently, a Facebook friend who had suffered a recent loss, sent me a few questions about my experience with death. I’ve been waiting for a reason to share them with you and DIa de los Muertos seems as good a one as any.
-How did you survive your worst sort of days?
I guess I had no choice. I had a loving wife and small son and what other option was there but to persevere? I didn’t believe in God. I didn’t believe in karma or fate. Life was shitty and I could either deal with it or check out. In retrospect, I think that my love for my wife was a key factor to my will to continue. We planned a life together and her accident was not going to stop us from being together and having a meaningful time of it. When she died, I no longer had that to hold me together, But I had my son and my commitment to be there for him. And I had my memory of Patti and her example, the fact that she had survived a huge blow and had carried on for so long. She loved life and she loved people and I tried to absorb some of that spirit, to look on the bright side, to count my blessings, to continue to be creative. I used my art to gain perspective on the blows that were dealt me, to get them out of my head and on to the page, so I could start to put the loss behind me, and have some thing to live for. And I reached out to other people, I shared my story, I tried to make my life meaningful, and of service to others.
-Days when getting out of bed seemed impossible what motivated you?
After Patti had her accident, I got out of bed to change Jack’s diapers. He was nine months old. Life was going on. The sun was still rising and setting. There were new things to experience. I wanted each day to be better than what had preceded it and slowly but surely it did.
-What do you say to people who say things that they think are very helpful and seems to create a deeper hole in your soul?
I am glad they are trying to help and I think them for it. In each person’s story there is something useful. But I know that only I can truly understand what I have gone through. Platitudes can be so annoying and distancing but I try to concentrate on the love that is behind them. The fact is, people don’t really know what to say. And often it is surprising how certain people react to tragedy and change. I was amazed when people I thought had seen it all disappeared when we needed them. And I was equally amazed at people who I thought barely knew me stepped forward, rolled up their sleeves, and helped me so much. Do not underestimate the importance of other people’s love and comfort. But don’t be disappointed if they don’t know how exactly to help.
-being blindsided… Moments or days where you almost feel normal and a smell or a texture brings you to your knees in grief.
Yup. That’s very familiar. Grief appeared and knocked me on my ass when I thought I was long out of the woods. And it isn’t necessarily prompted by a smell or a sound, it can just pop up out of the blue. The flip side of this is that in time those little moments turn from painful to sweet, a lovely reminder of what one has lost, of how much it meant, of how dear it still is. I can smell perfume, hear an Ohio accent, and be transported back into Patti’s arms. What was once unbearable becomes cherished. Give. It. Time.
-Does it get better, Danny?
If it didn’t our species would have long vanished in a never-ending rain of pain. Every day you make progress. Sometimes you slip, sometimes you jump forward. It is a wound and if it doesn’t kill you, you emerge wiser and happier. As the Buddha told us, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”
- What helped and helps you the most as you continue moving forward?
In so many ways, my life today is better than ever. It is the life Patti always wanted for me. I have changed almost every aspect of my work and my home and am now on new adventures. My life is going on. It took three and a half years to get here. It was worth the trip. Thank you, Pat.
— Anything other words of experience you can think to offer?
I got a lot out of The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss by George A. Bonnano. He points out that 95% or so of people emerge from grief in a year or less. And of course, I got a huge amount of help and wisdom from my grief counselor and from my lovely and wise girlfriend, Jenny James.