Halloween is around the corner. As a kid, it was my favorite holiday. Sure, Christmas was nice, but it didn’t involve costumes. Plus, we were cut loose to wander the streets on a crisp fall night to take candy from strangers. What’s not to love?
As I got older, my appreciation of the holiday grew, spurred by Bradbury’s “The Halloween Tree.” This was my first introduction to Dio de los Muertos, Mexico’s “Day of the Dead” with sugar skulls and commemoration of the dead.
Because at the root of it, that’s what Halloween is. It’s a holiday of the dead. No wonder it takes place as leaves are changing color and falling, lifeless, upon the ground all around. Walking home from school in anticipation of Halloween, the leaves would crunch beneath my feet like the tiny bones of the year that was.
Living in Seattle now, the falling leaves are just a soggy mess to clog up the drains. Pretty for a while, I grant you, but a nuisance for much longer. I miss the crunch. I miss the joy of dressing up as a monster, or an alien, or a superhero, and going door to door to fill that borrowed pillowcase with sugary loot. I miss the ritual of spreading the bounty out after, comparing my haul against my brothers’. Sure, as an adult I can buy as many bags of Fun Sized (and what a misnomer THAT is!) candy bars as I want. But it’s the ritual I miss. And rituals are important.
About twenty years ago, I worked in the electronics department of a national department store. My boss was this lovely woman not much older than me named Chewie. She was from the Philippines, and had moved to the states to be with her American husband, a man I had only passing familiarity with. I adored Chewie. She was funny, and had big glasses, big hair, and a childlike spirit. The only thing she loved more than Halloween was her husband. They went all out for the holiday with a big party and joint costumes, and she planned ahead for weeks to make the most out of it.
She quit to start her own business not too long after I started there. And a few months after that, her husband left her. He had been having an affair. Possibly more than one, but we only ever heard about the one she found about. She was distraught. He had been her world.
And when the next Halloween approached, she took her own life rather than celebrate it without him.
My hometown was small. I knew the EMT who responded to the call. He was in a class of mine at college. Chewie had built a shrine to her husband in the garage–a workbench, really, covered with a tablecloth, covered, in turn, by pictures and candles.
Then she started the car.
Carbon Monoxide poisoning. Not a good way to go. Not that there really IS a good way to go, kiddies. She was found wrapped up in the tablecloth, pictures and burned-out candles studding her makeshift funeral shroud.
It’s hard to be alone. It’s harder still when you’ve made someone else the center of your world and that center shifts.
I don’t think about Chewie too often. When I do, it’s usually around Halloween, when the air gets crisp and the leaves turn red. It was when she was happiest–right up until when it was the time she was saddest.
When I light candles on my own shrine this time of year, I remember her. I remember my father, always so supportive and dead of pancreatic cancer before I had my first story sale. I remember Bill who died a few years ago, but who taught me so much in my post-teen years when I thought I knew everything. I remember both of my dad’s parents, dead of wasting illnesses that took years to claim them, and I wonder what I could have learned from them if I had only taken the time to ask. I light my candles and I think of them. And I hope they find their way to wherever they’re going next.
There are some who say the veil between worlds is at its thinnest this time of year. That’s why we communicate with the dead as the nights grow long. Maybe it’s true. The horror writer in me likes to think so. If nothing else it’s a good story. I can pour out some liquor for the Loa of the Crossroads and whisper my wishes for a safe journey, and I can think, for just a minute, that someone, something is listening.
I can observe the ritual–my ritual–any ritual–and believe that there’s somewhere better. It’s not costumes and candy. I’ll never have that innocence again, and that’s okay. There’s more to the holiday than that. There’s honoring those who came before and who have gone. There’s learning from their lives, lessons taught and untaught alike. There’s respect for the cycle.
Eventually, everyone dies.
Halloween is a reminder, all dressed up in crepe and construction paper bats, that eventually someone will be lighting a candle for us. Peek beneath the surface and you’ll see it. No one sticks around forever. So enjoy the time you have. Grab it with both hands and enjoy the FUCK out of it. Because like mallowcreme pumpkins, it won’t be here forever.