m. david lopez
"Test results are back. All negative. Looks good!"
It was supposed to be great news, but there was no relief or calm or clearmindness. A reflex of expecting the worst news, I guess, and long days of anticipation turned into sobs. You'd think that this good news would be celebrated, but my mind wouldn't have it. It went to a world of what-ifs and dead-ends. A new type of infection spread itself:
"What if I'd gotten a different result?"
"And if I'd gotten sick?"
"How would I have told my family?"
"What if I couldn't work anymore?"
"What if I had died -- -- and what about when I die?"
Like a bad song you can't stop humming, the reminder that I'll die plays itself in a loop. Drowning thoughts of what it means to not exist. And where I'll go. And what will be.
Driving, on the way to work - You won't be around forever. In the middle of the day writing on the whiteboard - I'm gonna die. Interrupting me while watching my shows - You'll be dead someday.
My days were drained of color. The orange faded. Yellows now seemed a pale vanilla. Browns looked like off-black. Even music was unable to lift this fog. Food was in perpetual need of salt; naps helped me hide from thoughts on dying. Parties cut short. Books never finished. The dread made sunny days gloomy and wrecked so many pretty ones. The brain and the gut announce the heavy headline: You're going to die one day.
Sleep is interrupted into tiresome shifts. Waking at 4 am Sundays to stare at the man on TV in his flannel shirt rebuilding a banister or sanding old wood, knowing this for what it is: a distraction, unable to muster an interest in this old house or my own apartment. Public affairs shows with people in suits talking about this cause or that effect. The economy blah stock market blah blah box office blah blah blah.
A bolt comes- un relampago - and the breath slows, the heart pauses and then reboots itself into a random pattern, a little off, then faster, slowing, pulse a little off, its beat out of time because, well... you know. I'm gonna die one day.
I find the therapy sessions cold but helpful. "A mild PTSD response to your test results," the clinician intoned. A few sessions is all I could stand before I sought help elsewhere.
During a weekly family carne asada, I shared my fear of death to my folks. My dad, not the sharing-deep-feelings-type, waited until I finished describing this daily despair. He shrugged and held his palms towards me.
"Claro que nos vamos a morir." Of course we're all gonna die. "Todos. Yo. Tu mama. Tu. Y que?" All of us. Me. Your mom. You. So what?
Simple brazen logic. He was right. This slap to the brain began a series of brakes I used to stop the free fall. Stabilizing myself, I set out to find release from this worry. Taking walks and warming in the sunlight. Sharing with others about the anxiety. Journaling plans for the longer term. Looking out to the brown hills of the San Fernando Valley, knowing the land was here before me and would be here after. These things started to settle me, and my father's reminder got me to follow the facts and accept the unsatisfying end: I would die one day.
And then November rolled around. My first Día de Muertos altar was a simple one - tables and boxes at varying heights. Colorful fabrics of bright yellow, hot pink and neon green. - no usual staid black and sad purple cloth for this one. Trips to Guadalajara and encargos to relatives helped grow the collection of smiling ceramic skulls, skeletons in the shape of a cross and colored tiles showing los muertos at work, at the beach, at a bar. In these representations, the cute skeleton figures ride bikes, play tennis, sing songs, attend school, and read books. Just like the living!
Long live the Dead! Que vivan los muertos!
The tradition of the Altar holds our loved ones reunite with us for that day and are drawn to their favorite things from Earth. I place some candles, cempazuchitl flowers, also known as Mexican marigolds, a coffee cup, a special delicacy known as pan de muerto (bread in the shape of bones) and a plate of rice and a shot of tequila. At the center of the Altar stands La Catrina, the un-mortal matriarch of the day, in her long embroidered gown, stiff collar and red lips.
The Altar grows each year, and sharing it with my students at our school helps soothe the fear. We paint half of our faces with a friendly skull design and bits of color and we leave the other half of our faces alone. This symbolizes the mingling of the living and the dead; that we are living to eventually die. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, as the saying goes.
Photos of aunties and grandparents and fathers and mothers no longer with us complete the ritual. The pics show snippets of lives from happier days - brown-toned anniversaries, beach vacation Polaroids, blurry selfies. Recent prints from social media; an X-ray scan of a baby who didn't get to met her parents. Pictures of pets and a handsome Mexican actor from black and white flicks. And in a brown box frame, a picture of yours truly holding a piñata during my 8th birthday. Beside it I place a clock to drive the point home: Tick tock, tick tock. Because I'm going to die one day.
I read once that death only happens to other people. This display of memories puts a lie to that. Because here's death - in my face, sculpted in miniature, as colorful as calaveras, and as comforting as cafe con leche.
Contrasting death to appreciate life - the better therapy. You need the one to know the other. November 2nd looms again, ready to remind me these days are tick tick ticking away. And that, one day, I'll be gone. "Of course," says my dad. "So what?"
Death now to me is as inevitable as traffic, long lines at Costco, income taxes - as uninvited as gray hair and unwelcome as wrinkles.
The Altar and its colorful fabrics and smiling figurines ease the fear of death. Like a bright sponge, it sops up the inky fear. I no longer think about Death as an existential dread, and accept it for the price of being alive. With the joys there will come sorrows. With the light comes the dark. This contrast is where Life happens - and trust me, Life happens! This compact was made at birth - heres' the thing - this is the tradeoff: It will all end one day. The stopwatch starts - happy birth day - and you're off! Your days are a library book on loan.
Enjoy, and make it a great Life.
Once afraid of Death, David Lopez looks forward to haunting his old grounds, inspecting his tomb, and tickling the feet of those that owe him. Lopez has been teaching since 2002, and hopes to kick the bucket in the middle of a great lesson on hyperbole - exaggerating for comic effect. Those students will never forget that lesson.