Reflections on the Day of the Dead

For years a small sugar skull sat on one of the bookcases in our house. Eventually it had yellowed and aged to a point that its value as a keepsake was minimal. One day with a last glance I tossed it out. There were two originally so somewhere in the accumulated detritus of twenty years in this house, another little skull is probably decaying.

Inician la temporada de alfenŽiques2_0The skulls were mementos of a special Members-only preview of an exhibition which passed through our city in November of 2002. ¡Viva Mexico! featured a selection of the glorious huge colourful murals of Diego Rivera, striking photography of Day of the Dead celebrations by Graciela Iturbide and a display of shaft-tomb figures. As a family event, there was also a wide range of hands on creative activities for the kids.

I had been, at the time, a single parent for a year or so, my children would have been coming up on 10 and 13 years of age. It was an era of fundamental change and transition in my own life, but it was also a time when my kids were young enough to really enjoy this type of outing. I had a family pass and the museum was a common weekend destination.

However, until that day I had, somehow been unaware of the importance and spectacle of the Day of the Dead. Hallowe’en was fun of course, and a highly anticipated event for the children in their younger years. But the magic and energy of the the Day of the Dead celebrations captured in the photo gallery left a deep and lasting impression on me.

Many years later it all came back when tackled Malcolm Lowry’s classic Under the Volcano. I read it with The Guardian Reading Group, a three or four week monthly on-line opportunity to tackle a book with fellow readers. It is a challenging work to fully appreciate and before the month was out I found myself reading the text on an e-reader with the paper copy open beside me on the sofa so I could readily flip back and forth to cross reference and the link open on my computer to a brilliant website, The Malcolm Lowry Project, which provides chapter by chapter guidance and assistance to the humble reader along the way. Simultaneously long conversations were unfolding on-line within the Reading Group.

Now I can no longer divorce the Day of the Dead from the tale of Gregory Firmin, the alcoholic British consul in a small Mexican town, and his slow, tragic unraveling and demise throughout the course of one November day. Impending celebrations lurk in the air, but his desperate mental waltz with the push and pull of liquor, the reasoning and rationalizations he plays with himself held my greatest fascination. I have been lucky that alcohol has never held a serious allure for me, and my tastes tend to be above my discretionary budget anyway. Dedicated alcoholics don’t care and my family history has known its share. Especially on the side through which the mood disorder runs.

By the time I sat down with Under the Volcano, my son had been a heavy drinker for several years, although there is a long time before he finds himself in a state of crawling across the lawn toward the vision of a half empty bottle like the poor consul. I should hope. The struggle is a delicate matter for us to balance. He is almost 25, gifted and anxious to an extreme and over the years he has been on his own, on the street and now for the past few years increasingly isolated at home. Over a month ago he had a break of honest self recognition and quit drinking. But for many and complex reasons, especially some particularly horrific experiences in what passes for an adolescent mental health system, he has a complete aversion to any counselling or support.

Today, on the Day of the Dead, he is working a couple of beers back into his routine and I am trying to maintain the boundaries. Our relationship as father and son is complicated, we are close, share many character traits and insecurities. With a history working in social services I am also acutely aware of the limitation of practical services out there. And the cost of living in this city currently precludes even his younger sister who has a profession from moving out. But I know I cannot own his issues.

So with this November 1, I will honour the Dead with hope and ambition for all of us trying to pull together and move forward with Life.

Myself included.

For the love of gravy

Today I am thinking about gravy.

There is a dish which has become ubiquitous in Canada – fries smothered with gravy and cheese curds – the French Canadian artery clogging delight called poutine. Many years ago when I lived in Ottawa it was a treat to cross into Québec, follow some back road instructions to a truck, seemingly parked in the middle of nowhere and order the authentic dish complete with cardboard container and plastic fork. Personally my tastes have changed in 30 years, so while some version resembling poutine can be found at most of your favourite fast food haunts, but I will leave you to it. My kids, on the other hand, love gravy – with or without the cheese curds.

poutineToday my wish for my son is gravy. At 24 he has been struggling with an addiction to alcohol for several years. He is aware that underlying the addiction is the mood disorder that knits so much of our family together. Yet his experiences in anything resembling conventional mental health care have been quite horrific for an intelligent, gifted child. As far as he is concerned, alcohol is preferable to medication or therapy. I can appreciate where he is coming from but I chose to take my risks with the prescribed meds and I have been spared the temptation to turn to alcohol that has marked many other family members over the years. Not that it has prevented me from falling ill again but life has no guarantees.

Living with mental illness is not easy. Addiction adds to the burden. But I love my son unconditionally and understand that, in the end, his life is his own and he is the only one who can really come to terms with his own blessings and curses.

Lately we have been fooling ourselves with the idea that he can maintain a minimal alcohol intake and get by. However, this morning after a night of heavier drinking and the inevitable conflict such situations evoke, he finally admitted that he cannot live without alcohol and that it is interfering with everything he wants in life. He poured out every remaining drop and gathered all the empty cans and bottles to return.

Will it hold? It is a critical start, as close to bottom as I have seen him reach to date. So I want to offer him gravy. Poets, artists, musicians and writers who nursed their muse with alcohol or drugs are well known and a tragic number paid a steep price. But I want to offer my son Gravy, a poem composed by the incomparable Raymond Carver after a diagnosis of cancer. Although illness took him early it was not for alcohol – that was a battle he won and was rewarded with the time to create a body of poems and short stories that have inspired and moved so many. And that is a victory he celebrated as, of all things, gravy:

No other word will do. For that’s what it was.
Gravy.
Gravy, these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving, and
being loved by a good woman. Eleven years
ago he was told he had six months to live
at the rate he was going. And he was going
nowhere but down. So he changed his ways
somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest?
After that it was all gravy, every minute
of it…

Excerpt from Gravy by Raymond Carver,                                                                         All of Us: The Collected Poems, edited  by Tess Gallagher, Vintage (1996)