Perhaps it’s because we never know what happens to us after dying that makes the topic of death so intriguing. I never thought much of death until I was five years old. I remember asking my mother why the whole city of Guadalupe celebrated my birthday for three days, from October thirty-first to November second. She told me they weren’t celebrating my birthday, but rather Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), a holiday to remember all who were gone. I thought about death then but never understood what it really meant. The joyful celebrations every year brushed over the real truth of death. But, four years later, I discovered the true meaning of death. Two days after my ninth birthday on October thirty-first, my abuela (grandmother) died.
“Happy birthday, Josephina!” My papa, mama, and hermana (sister) burst into my room, yelling joyfully. I pressed my fingers into my hazy eyes as a grin spread on my face. I had completely forgotten overnight that my birthday was today. No wonder I had gotten to sleep in so late.
“My thirteen-year-old baby,” my mama cooed as she planted a kiss on top of my hair.
“Not quite a baby anymore,” my papa grinned broadly, his uneven, jolly smile infectious to us all.
“Mama and I made pan de muerto (a special bread for Day of the Dead) and we can eat it for breakfast!” my six-year-old hermana, Abril, belted out while bounding around the room.
Abril pulled me out of bed in my pajamas, and we ran downstairs, where sure enough there was a large, dense, golden-brown loaf of sweet-smelling bread on the kitchen counter. I frowned, since it was shaped like a skull with orange candies for eyes. It was a reminder to me that since it was October thirty-first, we would not only be celebrating my birthday but remembering my abuela’s death.
Mama came down and sliced thick pieces of the bread. Steam curled out of the bread as the knife sawed back and forth. Papa poured us glasses of creamy milk, and we took our breakfast out to the patio facing the street.
The air was crisp and clean, yet the sky was such a clear blue it was like looking at the Gulf of Mexico on a sunny day. I closed my eyes and savored the warm bread crumbling in my mouth.
“Oh this is great, Mama.” I smiled, opening my eyes. Mama hugged me again.
I could see my neighbors in houses across the street setting up their altars. Again, I frowned, because I was reminded that I would have to set up an altar for my own abuela when I went back inside.
“Honey, I know you don’t like remembering that Abuela died, but life sometimes shoves things at us that we don’t like. And the wisest thing we can do is rise to the opportunity to make things better.”
“And how do we make things better?” I sighed.
“We fill our lives with love, passion, laughter, beauty, and joy,” Mama said seriously. And I smiled. It was like her words breathed some life back into me.
After finishing our bread and milk, we headed inside. Papa went to the market to buy food and supplies. In the meantime, Mama, Abril, and I started to set up Abuela’s altar. We laid out a beautiful lace runner on a wooden platform, the base of the altar. It was crocheted with ivory silk thread that was thin as a strand of angel hair. The coy faces of skulls danced up from it, adding zest to the delicate beauty. We then set out Abuela’s pearl necklace and arranged it around a beautiful black-and-white photograph of her. She had been fifty in the picture, yet she looked so young and serene. Her long, thick black hair cascaded over her left shoulder in a braid. Her eyes were a stunning shade of hazel, surrounded by long, dense lashes. She looked firm yet so inwardly kind, which reflected how she used to be all the time. I smiled as I touched the picture. Our memories of her still lived.
Papa came home with bags full of goods. He took out some lovely purple, lavender-scented candles, along with five baskets packed with sweet marigolds. He brought crisp apples that were rich red in color, Abuela’s favorite food. He also brought in Abril’s favorite—colorful sugar skulls. We lined the altar with the candles and apples and put a sugar skull on either side of Abuela’s photograph. As a finishing touch, we sprinkled marigolds over everything and hung a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the wall above the altar. It was simply beautiful.
That night, we lit the candles on the altar.
“I miss you so much,” I whispered, staring at her photo.
“Abuela would be so proud of you. You’re growing up so fast.” Papa patted my shoulder. I smiled. I remembered what Mama said about filling your life with love.
“Love still exists, even when a person dies,” I contemplated. “So I haven’t lost Abuela. Her spirit still lives.”
“Very true,” Mama said quietly. “The altar is filled with our love combined. It is a gift to her spirit.”
Eventually, around eleven, Abril dozed off.
“You should get some sleep too, Josephina,” Mama said, stroking my hair.
“I want to stay up. I just feel like talking with you in front of the altar. It’s relaxing.” Mama smiled.
“And it’s my birthday, too!” I smiled sheepishly.
Mama and I stayed up all night, talking seriously at some points and laughing until it hurt at others. I finally fell asleep at eight in the morning on November first. I woke up at seven in the evening when I heard Papa making dinner.
“I slept through the whole day!” I wailed when I burst into the kitchen, where Mama and Papa were.
“Most of the celebrating doesn’t start until tomorrow, Josephina,” my papa smiled. “You just needed a little recharging for tomorrow.”
That night I slept restlessly. I couldn’t wait to go decorate Abuela’s grave and show her I was loyal. And for once since she had died, I couldn’t wait for the festivities, because to dwell on death doesn’t make for a happy life.
Papa, Mama, Josephina, and I all headed down to the gravesite. I remembered how Abuela had always waved and greeted people on Dia de los Muertos, and I felt joy zip through me as I did the same. I saw Papa grinning at me proudly.
We reached Abuela’s grave, and I felt a bit of anxiety. I started to remember her telling me how she felt so tired one day. In my head, the whole sequence of events played. Abuela lying in bed, Abuela not getting up, Abuela not wanting to eat, Abuela getting thinner and thinner, Abuela not having the energy to even kiss me.
“Mama, why wasn’t Abuela the same when she got sick?” I asked, feeling childish.
“Her soul was leaving her body, sucking out who Abuela truly was and leaving emptiness.”
I imagined Abuela’s soul ready to soar from the heavens to visit us on this day, November second, the day of her death and Dia de los Muertos.
“I wish I could see Abuela’s soul when it comes down from heaven today,” Abril pouted.
“The Aztecs who lived here before us believed that the monarch butterflies that come here in the fall carried the spirits of the dead,” Papa remarked seriously.
I felt my insides light up. “So we see the dead, just in the form of a butterfly?” I asked, again feeling childish.
“I believe that.” Mama smiled peacefully.
We decorated Abuela’s grave with an arch of bright marigolds. As evening approached, bands started playing festive music, and all around the graveyard, candles and lanterns began to cast their golden rays into the royal-blue dusk. I lighted incense, hoping that the smell would guide Abuela down to earth.
At that moment, I felt a light tickling sensation on my arm. A brilliant orange monarch butterfly had alighted itself on my skin. And I swear, in the black markings on its wings, a word was spelled out. I blinked. The word was still there. Love.
“Welcome home, Abuela,” I whispered.