My school is a place where we celebrate everything.
Christmas, Diwali, Passover….you name it. I love that we celebrate all of the many wonderful traditions that students do at home. This year, a teacher from my department decided that we should do a Day of the Dead altar, something from his culture. He invited us all to participate by bringing a framed photo of a dead loved one, as well as an object that person loved.
The display was covered in orange flowers and slowly a few photos appeared. After a few days, I decided I wanted to add my own photo, so I went back to my desk to see what I had.
My desk might seem like a strange place to outsiders, though it doesn’t feel that strange to me. I have photos up of Shawn and Chris, both of them with the kids at different ages, and any student who comes to talk to me sees these images. I doubt they think much about them (I mean, I never thought about my teacher’s lives in high school!) but anyway, that’s what I have up for them to see. One of the photos I have is a framed photo of Shawn, one where Tommy is looking at him.
I picked up this photo for the display, and then I thought about what object might describe Shawn. Um….a CrossFit poster? A guitar? A book on National Security? I had nothing like that in my office. But as I thumbed through my shelves, I came across something that fit: a pocket constitution.
Shawn loved being an American. Like many immigrants, his chosen country was one he loved to the core, even if he knew there were changes that needed to be made. He was thrilled to live here, thrilled to work in the US government, and thrilled to have American kids.
I went and put the photo and the constitution on the display, and then took a look at some of the other things there. I said a silent prayer in my head and then turned to walk back to class.
I saw my colleague in the hallway, the one who had initially put up the altar, and told him I added to it. I expected him to say, “Oh, that’s great” and keep walking.
Instead, he said, “I’d love to have you show it to me.”
We walked back to the alter, and I told him about Shawn. He listened thoughtfully. And it was a tiny thing, but it was so lovely, I almost cried. Not because I was sad, not really. “Thanks for asking about Shawn,” I said, after I finished. “This is how it should be when we talk about those who’ve died. Not so hushed, but celebrated.”
He nodded and smiled at me.
The next day I needed to go to Costco. It was pouring down rain but my dad still wanted to come with me. “I’m not going to take a walk anyway,” he said, “so I need something to do.”
I told him I’d be going to the cemetery first. He just nodded. I think he figured I might.
I wasn’t quite sure why I wanted to go to the cemetery, but something about the Day of the Dead altar made me feel like I wanted to visit the place where I’d always gone to remember Shawn.
When we got to the cemetery, the wind was blowing the rain sideways. “I’m going to sit in the car,” my dad said as we parked. “It’s raining.”
I could see that. I laughed a little at how unsentimental my dad can be at times. “I’ll just be a little bit,” I said.
I got out and walked to Shawn’s grave. It was mostly clean, though I cleared away a bit of debris. There was his name, with mine below it.
I thought for a while about how I’d once come to his grave convinced that I’d die alone as an old woman and be buried here with him. That gave me comfort back then. But now, life is different. I am in love with someone else. I will grow old with Chris, not Shawn.
And my name is still there.
I looked up at the trees surrounding me, the ones I’ve seen covered in snow and also in cherry blossoms. The leaves were turning. Another season at the cemetery that I was watching go by.
“I got married,” I said out loud.
I felt emotion sweep over me. It was sadness, yes. But it was something else too.
“The kids are happy,” I said, out loud again. “And I am happy, too.”
I am happy. Yes that’s because I have had a lot of luck and because I’ve taken some emotional effort to get to a place where I can say those words. But it’s also because of Shawn. He could have left this world angry or jealous or scared about how I was going to make it. But he didn’t. He believed that I’d be okay, that I could guide the kids through life without him, and that – most important – the four of us could find a way to be happy, without him.
I paused for a moment and thought about Shawn. I thought back to the pocket constitution I’d left at the altar at my school and the way that Shawn loved playing his guitar and I thought about how his laugh sounded when he found something hilarious. I could feel him, in that moment.
I hoped he could feel me too, somewhere. Maybe he knows, somehow, that my days are joyful.
Maybe, he had always known that life would turn out for me in the way that it did. Or maybe he didn’t, and he just put that hope out to the universe. Maybe it was just luck.
I turned back to his gravestone, and spoke again. “I am happy, like you wanted.”