Altar De Muertos: Living in loving memory
Updated: Nov 4, 2020
As living beings we can all be guaranteed our turn with death: loved ones, pets, patients, friends, parents, children, eventually our own. This year death has displayed itself globally as fierce and formidable. She has shut down the world, at least for those wise enough to listen.
November 4th marks the first anniversary of the death of our friend Robert "Bob" Duvall.
I knew Bob for over 15 years, but don't remember ever meeting him. I loved him, but mostly as a peripheral friend, and since having my daughter we had really lost touch.
Last May was the first time I had seen Bob in over a decade. We made plans for him to build me a fence come July. (See "Sending Love Over the Fence") He told us about his new baby kitty, Jackie and her sparkly blue harness. Bob was super animated when talking about Jackie, but otherwise, he stayed in the recliner and slept a lot. By the time we all found out Bob had Stage 4 stomach cancer, things were progressing quickly.
The first time I visited Bob was in September while he was still receiving chemo at home. He was living on IV juice and red slushies, and more honestly living on the love of Ray.
Ray did everything humanly possible to care for Bob; this infantry man became nurse, aid, and caregiver. He made sure every member of the hospital staff had daily baked goods and that they knew they were from Bob. He was exhausted and alone and said he was drowning. In came our ridiculous two person tutued cavalry.
Instead of bouncing in with silliness and jack assery, that weekend I ended up being the first person to talk to Bob about dying. He got mad at me because shouldn't the doctors be the ones to tell him about those things. I agreed... yes they should. But they didn't and he deserved the truth. Before the next weekend Bob was in the hospital and within a few weeks in a hospice center. In that moment of awful honesty, I became part of the tiny trusted crew of friend-family who got to love Bob through the last moments of his life.
Ray and I were swell and everything, but Bob trusted no one more than Harp to handle all life's last loose ends, respect his wishes, and ensure that he would not die alone. Harp squeezed his massive frame into a small lounge to hold Bob's hand through the night. When there was need for physical care, Bob dismissed the aids and nurses and asked for Harp. No body really slept.
Harp and Ray were exhausted and I did my best to help on the weekends. That last weekend it was clear I shouldn't go home. We stayed there with him, taking waking turns, every night and day until he was ready to go. Even though he couldn't stand, Bob somehow got out of bed and pushed Harp and I halfway across the room, insistent that he had to go fix my pipes.
Bob was a strong and proud man. He was a boss and people listened to him. In his last weeks Bob was be intubated multiple times, the cancer had filled his abdomen, and his voice was very faint. He hated repeating himself as speaking was so challenging to begin with. People would think they were helping by anticipating his words, his wants, his needs - cutting him off and jumping to the task at hand. I did it too. Nothing pissed Bob off more.
These were his last words... the least we could do was listen.
For people I love, Bob's passing marked the first in an agonizing string of deaths. The globe followed suit, with the people of the world shuttering their doors to save the lives of their loved ones. Even as we celebrated our first Purposefully Ridiculous church service in February, we did so in a shroud of grief, mourning Reverend Mother Naomi Harper, the mother of our program's cofounder, just hours after her death. As a family and a global community we have danced through so much sorrow this year it feels as if there is no respite. The song grows laden and our feet sometimes struggle feeling motivated to move.
Two months ago a dear friend randomly visited and while here expressed concern. She said my spirit seemed so heavy that she couldn't recognize me. She called me a shell of myself and implored me to come camping with her and some colorful friends. While I didn't dig the shell comment, it was true that I hadn't left the house for a weekend unconnected to death in a year. It was time for a purposefully joyful investment.
There I was reminded of art and dancing and movement and silliness; of the sacred nature of these things in my life. When I returned home, I began to paint my joys on purpose. The people of the world were crying and raging and fighting for their lives; I painted. Then I shared it because that's my mission.
This is where it get's kinda neat... Social media did what it does when it isn't destroying the world, and connected me with Hector, a friend of my dad's in Mexico. Through the wonders of google translate, he requested a painting for his familial Altar De Muertos. He apologized for sounding like a "mad man" and asking for death art. Three years earlier he had placed a photo of my grandmother on this altar, making it feel like a family altar of mine. The first anniversary of Bob's death was coming up. This was perfect.
I spent the last month painting this portrait of Bob and sent it to Mexico last week.
I based it on a photo of Bob sticking his tongue out at his G-tube to see what was for lunch. I never shared the photo (or any of these photos) because it wasn't flattering or how I wanted my memories to look. And yet, that time by his side is my most cherished with him. Now I think they are beautiful; Bob's eyes so sparkly and defiant, as his body living every last bit of life it could. Loving him in his last moments of life will always be one of my greatest honors.
"Listen" seemed like the only name for this piece. Bob is one of the most talkative spirits ever, and I try hard to listen. What feels like far too many more spirit voices have joined him this year; may they gently add their guidance. On the back of this art piece I wrote the names of all the people I love who left this plane in the past year, let us celebrate them, their voice, the color in their cheeks and the sparkle in their eyes.
Today and every day,
may we remember to actively celebrate our dead and keep them brilliantly alive.
May we delight in being loved by their earthly incarnation and
being guided by their spirits still.
May we savor their memory,
cling to their lessons, and
feel the lingering effects of their affection.
May we sing songs in their timbre
and hear them loving us
for all of our days.
Special thanks to Hector Armando Cavazos Trujillo for the invitation to celebrate my beloved dead in brilliant color. Your Altar De Muertos is sacred and stunning. I am honored to offer Bob's portrait in joyous celebration.