Today my father would have turned 77. He died over ten years ago, not quite reaching his 67th birthday. It is somewhat alarming to think that in 16 years’ time I will be the same age as he was when he died.
We are not very good at thinking honestly about death, I don’t think. Yet it is a pervasive and ever-present part of our lives. A lurking reality that we have little control over. Yes, we can make wise choices with regards to smoking and drinking, wearing seatbelts and not swimming in shark infested waters. We can mitigate some of the risk, but death comes to all of us eventually. And it brings with it suffering.
All societies construct elaborate stories about some other next life where death no longer stalks us. Western and Middle Eastern societies tell stories of heaven and angels to help us feel less overwhelmed by loss and the inexplicability of it. Buddhists and Hindus tell tales of reincarnation. In Bali, which mixes these two religions with some animism and ancestor worship, we witnessed a proliferation of statues and temples, and everyday rituals of gratefulness. The little baskets of offerings, called canang sari, were everywhere we went on our recent trip. Flowers, rice and the sweet smell of incense to welcome the gods to the earth. At one point, we rode passed a graveyard where all the tombstones were sheltered by umbrellas, as though the dead need protecting from the weather. In Mexico, the Day of the Dead combines an ancient Aztec custom and a Roman Catholic one (All Souls Day) to celebrate and remember the dead. Parties are held in graveyards, with favourite foods offered to the dearly departed. People dress up as skeletons, and music fills the air. Tombstones are cleaned,songs are sung, stories shared. Rituals in the service of living with the ever present reality of life’s brevity and uncertainty.
Personally, despite my cultural upbringing, I don’t believe this life is a rehearsal for some other, more perfect (or more horrendous) life. I don’t believe this universe and everything in it – all the stars and planets and multitude of galaxies, the hundreds of different species of beetle and jelly fish and fungi, the dinosaurs, and sloths, and all the other human species who walked this earth before us – was created just so that homo sapiens could be put through their paces and uplevel to heaven. But my father did, and that, I suppose, gave him comfort.
For myself, I have to find comfort in different ways. Here I recognise the reality that we are all a miniscule part of a mysterious universe, each of us constructed out of the very fabric of it. We are not inserted into the universe, we are an integral part of the universe. At an elemental level, we are made of stardust, as is everything around us.
At an animal level, a human level, we are made up of generation upon generation of our ancestors.
It is an extraordinary thing to think that I’m literally created from 50% of my father’s DNA, and that 25% of the building blocks that made him go on to live in the cells of my children – creating them in, if not his image, then at least some reflection of it. We can, theoretically anyway, trace our own cellular building blocks back through time, through all our ancestors, all the way back to the beginning of life itself. And provided his grandchildren have children, and they continue to procreate, my father’s existence will be stamped into the line of life itself, long after he shuffled off this mortal coil. And that is true for all of us.
I quite like the Mexican way of honouring the dead in a celebratory fashion. In the absence of a culturally relevant celebration of my own, perhaps my annual letters about my father are a virtual version of this. My father’s very own Day of the Dead. It is a way of marking time, which is fleeting, while keeping him alive in our memories.
I don’t do it because I think my father exists, here or anywhere else, nor because I think he can in some sense hear me. That’s just not how anything in life works. I do it for me, because my father was important to me and I loved him very much.
And I do it as a celebration of a life lived. A spiritual practice of my own design that doesn’t compromise my need for moral and intellectual integrity. A reminder that we are all connected to something bigger than our own experiences and emotions. That we are not islands, alone in a vast sea, but part of something wondrous, even if only momentarily. And as a reminder that life is fleeting and glorious, and hard, but that it needs to be lived now, here and in the moment, while we have the opportunity.
Happy birthday Dad.