November 2, 2007
Thoughts on Día de los Muertos
I could number my dead by the funerals I’ve attended, in which case my total (not counting pets) is four. Though actually, that’s not quite true: I can think of at least one funeral I attended as a musician (the mother of one of my high school classmates had died, and I played the flute in a quartet at the service), and technically my maternal grandmother didn’t have a funeral, just a viewing and a burial, because my grandfather — who, as far as I’m aware, is not a religious man — claimed funerals were pagan rituals.
Still: four. Granddaddy, just after I turned eight; Nikki, when I was sixteen; Mama Nora, when I was twenty-four; and Uncle Glade, who hadn’t technically been my uncle for at least a decade, when I was twenty-six, about eighteen months ago. One dead of a heart attack, two of cancer. The fourth — Nikki — I don’t know. I doubt I ever will. Her obituary said “natural causes,” but what natural causes result in the death of an apparently healthy seventeen-year-old? She went to the junior prom on Friday, to an amusement park on Saturday or Sunday, and was gone by Monday morning. I’ll never understand, and in the end I suppose it’s not for me to know. There were rumors: asthma, bulimia. Neither struck me as fully believable.
I’d known Nikki since grade school. She’d played the flute, too; we were in sixth grade honor band together. In high school I started dabbling in brass instruments (I still play the flute as well, but I discovered in high school that I am, at heart, a tuba player), while Nikki joined the drill team. We were never close, but I considered her a friend.
I had band first thing in the morning. The director stood before us and told us that Nikki had died. The look on his face told me that there was no doubt, that she was really gone. Maybe the administration included her death in the morning announcements, maybe news just traveled quickly, but I remember seeking out my best friend during the first break of the day, and not having to say anything to her; we just hugged each other fiercely in the brief time we had between classes.
I also remember seeing Nikki’s body at the wake. I felt like the undertakers had almost done their job too well, as she looked like she would sit up at any moment, smile her beautiful smile, and explain that it had all just been a horrible mistake. Her parents buried her in her prom dress. My heart has never stopped breaking for them — they lost their only child. And yet they exhibited such kindness throughout their grief: they remembered me, said kind things to me and to our graduating class the next year, founded a scholarship in Nikki’s name.
I think of them on this Day of the Dead, and I hope the past dozen years have been kind to them. I also think of Nikki, to whom I wish love and safe journeys.