When my father took his last breath in October 2010 and exited the world, I wouldn’t have believed that I would be sharing time with him every November after that. In the days after my beloved Dad’s death, I tried desperately to grapple with the permanence of it all. Never again would I hug him or hold his hands or laugh at his jokes. I had never known this permanence, the feeling that there was nothing I could do. I would never see my Dad again.
Four months after my father’s death, I returned to Oaxaca where I had been living when the news of my dad’s terminal illness took me home to England to care for him for what were to be his final five months. Caring for him was one of the greatest honours in my life and life felt flat and with little purpose in the months after. However, I knew I wanted to be back in Oaxaca and the day I decided that, I found a job advertised in my field, applied for it and got it. The universe had spoken, it wanted me back in Oaxaca.
Arriving in Mexico, I was struck by how often when I talked of my father’s death, my Mexican friends and colleagues engaged with me, hugged me, helped me share my grief and weren’t frightened or embarrassed by it. Every time another month passed, my boss Diana would hug me, and on my father’s birthday a friend accompanied me to light a candle for my Dad and let me sob uncontrollably on his shoulder until all my tears were shed. So much kindness was offered to me that year, I will never forget.
As Día de los Muertos approached, I felt a sense of dread. I felt the original grief overwhelming me, knocking me over like a huge, powerful wave. I felt very far from home. I made a small altar (a simple wooden box on the floor covered in a pretty cloth) and added a photo of my dad, along with his hat I had kept and made a cup of tea and a sandwich to add to it. I felt confused. I didn’t understand how everyone could be out drinking, laughing, celebrating death. It seemed wrong, disrespectful somehow and I vowed to stay in, connect with my Dad, and relive the grief.
So I sat down at my altar on a meditation stool my father had made and chanted a Buddhist chant that I had sung to my father as he had struggled to leave the world. I placed my hands facing upwards and suddenly I was shocked to feel his hands in mine. I could feel them as if my father were there; his dry, chemist’s palms and his long fingers placed lightly on top of mine. The tears exploded from my eyes. I continued to chant and then I suddenly began to feel by Dad tickling me, poking my sides and through the tears I started to laugh. Suddenly it was clear, I was supposed to go out and enjoy myself, don’t take life too seriously he was saying, just as he would have said if he were alive.
I wasn’t really sure what I thought about the afterlife but I knew what I had felt and I got up from the altar and called my friends to tell them I would be joining them that night. When I sheepishly told them what I had experienced, they just smiled and nodded knowingly, without a word. Now, every year I look forward to making my altar, being in the presence of my father and knowing that the only thing that is permanent is our love…And every year, I take a moment to thank Mexico for this gift.
Susannah Rigg is a freelance writer and Mexico specialist. Her work has been featured in Condé Nast Traveler, BBC Travel, The Independent, CNN and Afar, among others. Her portfolio can be found here. Contact Susannah by email, info [at] mexicoretold [dot] com and join her on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram.