Saturday, October 29, 2011

All Souls' Day

Halloween 2010, Rutledge, PA

 Last Tuesday I was reading in the chair along the windowed wall of our master bedroom, feet up, the grey outside casting a tranquil light in a room of white linens and faux mahogany. Fei Fei was on the bed, homework complete, barefoot and weaving: using a lap loom of sorts she had created from cardboard, with thumbtacks anchoring the yarn. From her fingers came rows of pale yellow, turquoise, dark brown and lime green, the contrasts striking.  “I love those colors,” I told her. “It’s the only yarn we have,” she replied. 

She had a school calendar next to her on the bed. I have no idea why she brought it in. It was opened to October and I could see two sentences written in blue ink across the bottom of the page: “My birthday month”... “Mark’s birthday month too.”

I wondered what I’d see if she had opened the calendar to November.  Would it read, “Momma’s birthday month”...”And Mark’s death month too”?

She saw me eyeing her calendar and suddenly said, “I kind of wish Uncle Mark were a ghost, like Myrtle in Harry Potter. Then we could see him and talk to him.”  I didn’t reply at first. I was surprised. I’d have thought she’d be afraid of a ghost. “Except,” she was careful to add, “I wouldn’t want him to celebrate his death day, like Nearly-headless Nick  did (referring to a character in the books). I’d only want him to celebrate his birthday.” 

“I wish I could see and talk to Mark too,” I finally said, “I miss my brother,” but realized that in my attempt to honor what she had shared I hadn’t wholly said what I thought. I tried again, “Well... we can talk to him, you know. Avery talks to him all the time.”  “That’s not the same,” Fei Fei countered, “And we can’t see him.”

My heart catches.  “Yeah...I wish I could see him too.”

Fei Fei’s silent now, back at her weaving. But I’m not done yet. I’m thinking about the ghost comment. One night this past July at Mark and Maria’s home I was the last to go to bed. I stepped into the pitch-dark garage to put lunch supplies in the extra refrigerator and suddenly and inexplicably felt chilled with fear at what might lurk there. “Don’t mess with me now, Mark,” I thought, grimly chuckling to myself as I finally found the wall switch and was rescued by a simple bulb.  It would be just like my broski to pull some kind of a ghostly prank, pelting me with wet nerf balls as I took tentative steps in the dark around Mason’s skateboards. I’ve played Marco Polo with Mark as recently as four summers ago, with a gaggle of kids in his backyard pool.  I know how he plays!  I hadn’t thought of my brother living the life of a prankster poltergeist until that moment, and I haven’t since. That possibility just doesn’t seem to fit. And looking back now, I think I called on him in his garage in that moment of fear more for protection than in anticipation of sibling jostling.

I finally say to Fei Fei, “I’m kind of glad he’s not a ghost, even though it would be nice to see him clearer and feel him.  I think he’s too at peace, too close to God to be a ghost.”

She is still weaving. The room is beginning to dim now and I ask her if she wants the light on. “No,” she says, “This light is perfect.”

“You know, you can talk to him if you want to,” I say, “I wish I could talk to him more.  But it’s hard for talk to him.” 

I know Momma,” she says, not in an irritated way, but with a stress on the I, like she really knows she can talk to Mark and wants to reassure me of this. As if she suspects it is Momma who doesn’t know.

But my suggestion hangs there, unfinished. I guess it suddenly occurs to me that my children have their own relationships with the dead, relationships I can’t fully mediate, and probably don’t want to. I have a hard time imagining what Fei Fei might say to her uncle. Would they talk about “Dirty Jobs” or “Chopped” or any of the myriad other programs she shared sitting next to him with his tubes and machines, exuding her calm and acceptance like she so often did beside him?  Would they talk about Harry Potter? He loved the series as she does now.  Perhaps I should have told her she can still sit next to him if she would like to, to be with him in the way that was so comfortable for him and for her.  But I suspect that this, too, is something she already knows. I remember one trip in particular to see her uncle, where she sat for long stretches of time, knitting on the couch near him.  She clearly misses him, yet I still have a hard time identifying the scope and import of their relationship.

Later, at bedtime, Fei Fei and I continue reading Harry Potter, Book Four, The Goblet of Fire. I’ve read the entire series long before her, in tandem with my brother as each book came out, one summer at a time, he in California and me in the hammock strung between two Ponderosa Pines behind Jazz’s folks’ house in Missoula.  When we started Book Four I warned Fei Fei that this could be the last one we read for a couple of years.  I recalled that it’s in this book when things get very serious and quite scary, and I’m not sure Fei Fei is ready for what comes next.  Now I’m wondering if it’s more me than Fei Fei who would need to take a pause.

But for tonight we continue to read about a fearsome task in a tournament of young wizards.  I had forgotten most of the plot, but suddenly it happens, each champion is expected to rescue the thing he or she can’t be without, which for each of them is a loved one.  Reading aloud, I find myself nearly choking on the words, it hits me so hard, the description of two of the characters almost losing younger siblings.  The plot is flawed, but the emotional tenor is close to perfect. Rowling gets it: the import and complexity of sibling relations to these characters and to her young readers.  My face is suddenly wet and Fei Fei asks why. I explain, “Because they almost lost their brothers and sisters.  And I’m glad they didn’t.”  Fei Fei pats my knee, a bit impatiently: it is nearly time for “lights out” and these days I’m a stickler for “lights out.” There is no time for grief if we are to finish this chapter. “Keep reading Momma,” she urges, and I do.

Later that night, stepping out of the shower.  I recall our conversation from earlier in the afternoon.  I wonder again why I don’t talk to Mark more.  I realize I’m afraid to let him in without knowing the rules.  Is communication with a deceased loved one a window one can open and shut at will?  I want him here with me in the present; I want to feel he is, at minimum, a companion, at best a kind of guardian angel.  At times I do speak to him, share a grimace with him or a hearty guffaw.  There are moments when I converse with God and the saints fervently about him. But do I want him to see me glancing vainly at myself in the foggy mirror of my bathroom, or catch me misidentifying a Chinese character on a slide, as I did during a lecture I gave today, and my embarrassed attempt to cover the limits of my knowledge?  Do I want to expose so much to him?  He had his purgatory on earth—this I witnessed. His ego and will, my faith tells me, are wiped clean now, transformed or consumed by a brighter fire. He will not judge me and I will not disappoint or surprise him. He is pure love and can be present to me as such. Yet I shy from this, I shy from relinquishing my status and stature as older sister, my know-it-all facade, my veneer of goodness and righteousness.  He may now be perfect, but there’s room here for my growth.   How much does a sibling relationship grow after one of the pair is gone?  Do I love enough?  Have I grown enough?  What work is left for me in this relationship?  Where might I let his love work in my world?


Wednesday, a new day, and the girls are working on Halloween decorations while listening to Emmylou Harris: All I Intended to Be.  They adore this CD with Emmylou’s soulful interpretations of loss and death.  They have—on black poster board—glued white silhouette cutouts of churches with high steeples, ghosts and gravestones.  ZZ calls to me in the kitchen, where I have just discovered that I’ve added too much salt to what might have been a perfect egg salad.  “Momma,” she yells from around the corner, “When I die can you please bury me in a church graveyard?”


The disappointing egg salad is suddenly unimportant and seems strikingly out of season.  I step out of the kitchen and join my daughters, sitting on the carpeted floor amidst their scraps of paper and scattered pencils.  “You really want to be buried in a graveyard, like in a coffin and everything?” “Yeah,” ZZ nods, and Fei Fei pipes in, “Yeah, me too!”  I fail to see the romance in this vision that they evidently share.

“You know...” I muster, slowly, a bit cautiously, “You can still be buried if you’re cremated.  Lots of people are buried in cemeteries after they’ve been cremated.” I don’t know why I am suddenly fixated on cremation, but I need to move quickly away from an image of their bodies in small coffins. 

They both wave their uncapped glue sticks in the air, idly, as they consider this.  “No,” ZZ finally says, emphatically, “I’ve changed my mind.  I want to stay with you Momma, cremated and in a box.”

For a split second I share a silent chuckle with my broski, who was a fan of the series, “Six Feet Under.”  He would have found this entire conversation, to this point anyway, highly amusing.

Fei Fei sets about gluing another tombstone on her well-populated panorama, which I now notice includes a pirate.  “Here’s what I want,” she says energetically, like she’s just thought up the perfect plan. “I want to be cremated and you keep half my ashes in a box and scatter half of them in the ocean in Hawaii.  I’ve always wanted to go to Hawaii...or some other tropical island...” she trails, dreamily.

I did not know of this secret wish of hers—she spends a couple of weeks most summers and some piece of winters on beaches in Southern California.  Who would have thought she dreams of tropical islands?  I make a mental note: take this child (living and breathing, splashing and swimming, and yes, weaving and knitting) to Hawaii. 

“Momma,” she suddenly says very seriously, “I want to be buried with Uncle Mark.” 

“But he’s not going to be buried, honey,” I reason, “He wants his ashes scattered in the ocean in Hawaii.”

My heart is racing.  I want to throw out some correctives, to shape expectations and possibilities.  What I want to say is, “A little mercy, please! Don’t you know you are forbidden to talk of your own deaths with your own Momma!” Or at least, “You will be buried long after your Uncle Mark’s ashes are scattered, and long after your mother is buried.” But I don’t say any of this. Play this one out....I warn myself...keep your cool and let them play this one out.

“OK then,” Fei Fei drops the whole “burying” idea and returns to her original line of thought, “I’ll have half of me stay in a box with you and half of me scattered in the ocean with Uncle Mark.”  She looks up at me with an expression I’ve seen before when she really wants something and is shaping her argument,  “I didn’t get a chance to know Uncle Mark for long and some day I may hardly remember him.”  She shrugs her shoulders, apologetically. “This way I will be with him forever.”  There, she’s finished.

“I want to stay with Momma forever,” interjects Zhou Zhou, loyal and solemn.  “Momma, keep me in a box with you forever and ever.” I know, as she says this, I can expect a visit from her deep into tonight, standing at the foot of our bed clutching blankie and Momo, before she climbs under the covers between us and pulls my arm over her shoulders, locking herself fast to me, spooned.  As much as she may rehearse death, it terrifies her like the rest of us.  Tonight she’ll awaken for certain and come seeking a piece of forever.

They are no longer playing: this is serious.  “Hey,” I say, “What I hope is that I live a long long time.  And I’ve told Daddy that when I die I want to be cremated and then interred at a really beautiful place called Mission San Luis Rey, near San Diego.  It’s a beautiful, peaceful place.  I used to go to mass there sometimes with Grandma and Papa and loved to hear the monks sing. Grandma and Papa want to be buried there too, and I want you girls to have a beautiful place you can go visit and be with us...kind of like a graveyard with a church, for when you feel you may need a special place.”

Fei Fei is now gluing one last ghost onto her panorama and I remember her wish to see her uncle as a ghost. “You know,” I say, “After I die, you don’t even have to go to a place to see me.  I want to be with you whenever you want, to find me in your hearts always.”

Zhou Zhou is wielding a pencil now, writing on her churchyard’s tombstones, but Fei Fei looks very interested. 

“Have I been there before?” she asks.

 “In your heart?” I tease. 

“No, to that mission place!”

“No.  But if you want to, we can go there this winter when we’re in San Diego.  We can go to mass there and you can see why I like the place so much.”

“O.K,” Fei Fei says, “And then can we go to the beach?!!!”

“Yes!” I say, “Or...if you want to just go to the beach, we can just go the beach!” 

I like thinking of her and me at the beach.  I like to imagine that some day she will find both me and her uncle on shores of white sand.


When Jazz returns home that evening, Zhou Zhou presents him with a gift: her black poster board with its white cut-outs.  His face grows solemn as he reads her inscriptions, which tell a story she was writing on and off during our conversation.  Jazz sets the poster board down and embraces her.  Later I look at the writing that I’ve failed to see until now, and notice the fact that her graveyard only has two tombstones.  One is labeled “Mark Plum” and the other is labeled “Scott Shields”—our neighbor in Rutledge, former mayor, and father to the girls’ same-aged playmates, who died tragically last spring in a skydiving accident.

And it hits me, the difference between this Halloween and last. Last year my girls knew no one who had died; this year they know two departed souls.
My brother passed away, on November 2nd, three days after last Halloween. Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, All Souls Day.  Inspired by my daughters’ artistry, I begin to collect things for an altar:  a shell from a beach in Encinitas, a pair of field glasses Mark once gave to Jazz, a rosary he brought me from Lourdes.  I make a note to myself to look for nerf balls at a sporting goods store in Nanjing.  I contemplate doctoring up my egg salad—adding more wild hen eggs with their bright orange yolks; celebrating my brother, newborn and salted.

Waiting for pancakes, FF birthday sleepover, Nanjing 2011


  1. Tears are falling as I read this... I recall having similar conversations about death with Tori when she was little, of course without having anyone close who had passed at that time. I don't think the boys and I ever had these talks when they were younger. It is a rough conversation at anytime, but harder I am sure since the girls have experienced someone they were close to passing. How wonderfully you handled this topic with the girls! As the anniversary of Mark's death approaches I find myself wishing I too could see him and talk to him a la Harry Potter's Myrtle(ghost or not)... Just to have more time with him...
    Thank you for putting into your beautiful words how I think the whole family must be feeling as this anniversary approaches...Mark is truly missed...
    Love you Sis!

  2. Beautiful post, Plum. I'm teary eyed too. I loved these lines: "What work is left for me in this relationship? Where might I let his love work in my world?" I suddenly felt inspired again by Mark's courage and strength.

  3. I was at Sing today at The School in Rose Valley, replete with rollicking renditions of "The Rattling Bog," and a crazy song about a whale who eats everything. Then our voices turned, as they always do, to the round that we sing to finish our time together, and walk out into the day, "Go Now in Peace." I sang and closed my eyes and looked up and saw Isa looking at me from across the room. I'd been thinking about Mark for several weeks, and pretty intensely last night, your morning. This post, Plum, about his soul as pure love, is inspiring. Pure love is inspiring? How do we bring this awareness and purity into our relationships with others, and ourselves. I'm lighting a new candle in my little altar to Mark, thinking anew about his strength. And my commitment to gratitude. Love to you and your sweet sweet girls.