This past Saturday, as I was driving around running errands, Sylvana, my 7-year-old daughter in the back seat, calls out that she wants to go visit the tomb of my mother - NOW.
Many of you know that my Mom died shortly before Sylvana was born. I’ve spoken to Sylvana often about my mother, her taita in Lebanese, about how she was in person, the things she liked to do, casually adding that she was now a star in the sky. That explanation always seemed to satisfy her, so I never offered any more.
“Why now?” I asked.
“Because I just saw some tombs and I want to see where she is,” she answered.
I looked out my rearview mirror, and saw the old church she was referring to, and the cemetery alongside it filled with ancient-looking stones. I had never taken her to a cemetery and so didn’t know she had made that association with death. “She’s not buried there,” I said. “Besides, I have so many things to do today. We’ll do it another day.”
“No, now!” Was the immediate response. No matter how I tried to reason with her, she wouldn’t budge. “We’ll see,” I finally said, the parent code for no.
We arrived at the store and as soon we stepped out, Sylvana rushed to the pots of flowers lining one of the entrance walls. She picked out a small pot with unusual peach-colored baby roses. “Your mom will like these,” she declared, handing me the pot, and heading towards the entrance.
At this point, I stopped. One of my Mom’s favourite flowers was baby roses. Maybe there was something for me there after all. I also thought it would be a good opportunity to speak about death, to remove the fear surrounding it. In recent months, Sylvana has been asking a lot about death, where we go when we die, wondering if we will die one day, wailing that she doesn’t want us to die. My husband and I explained that we believed that the body may die but that our Spirit goes back to the stars, to always shine. She pressed us, asking why we had to die. All I could think to say at that moment was that we come here to have fun, to grow, to learn; but then it’s time to go back home, no matter how much fun we’ve had. Just like vacation. That seemed to somehow appease her, but I was certain this conversation wasn’t over.
We returned home because Sylvana wanted to draw something for my Mom. By the time she was done, we had seven, small black pieces of paper exploding with vibrant colour, mostly drawings of happy faces and hearts, and one mandala (a drawing inside a circle, typically Tibetan) - “because your Mom doesn’t know what they are.”
We packed our colorful bundle and drove out to the cemetery. It was a lovely afternoon, one of those bright spring days with a hot sun and refreshing breeze. I had the windows down and was listening to Sylvana singing with the radio, marveling at her improved English.
I turned into the cemetery grounds and told her we were here. With the radio off, and the row upon row of tombstones, the mood became decidedly more somber. “There are a lot of tombstones here, mommy. Did all these people die?” she asked.
“Yes,” I answered. We drove in silence, weaving through beautifully landscaped gardens and tree canopies.
“Look, mommy,” Sylvana exclaimed. “Angels!”
Every hair on my body stood on end. “Where?” I asked, trying to hide my sudden trepidation with enthusiasm.
“They’re flying everywhere!” she went on. “Can’t you see them?”
I followed her gaze, and understood. The rag weeds, the ones with the fluffy head, were floating all around us. In Spain, they represented angels, and whenever you saw them, it meant that angels were nearby. “I do see them,” I said. “They’re beautiful.”
We followed the angels to my Mom’s tomb. Sylvana ran her little fingers over the stone, reading aloud the words written there. I cleared out dried bits of flowers, making space for the new flowers. Sylvana placed them where she wanted, and then proceeded to explain the order in which her drawings should go. I fastened them with some sticky putty, and then we stood back to admire the final product.
“I’m sorry your Mom is gone,” Sylvana said.
“Me too, honey,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady, placing my arm around her shoulders.
“I know her Spirit is not here,” she went on, amazing me, unnerving me, with her clarity. “But do you think she’ll like what we brought her?”
“Oh, I think she will love them,” I said, “and that’s she’s smiling at both of us right now and sending us all her love.”
Sylvana smiled, then started skipping around the nearby fields. She picked some wildflowers and placed them on the tomb, humming a little tune to herself. She walked around the other tombs, admiring the drawings or some aspect that fascinated her. I followed her around, feeling such a sense of peace and calm, as if the angels themselves, or at least one in particular, were surrounding us in their embrace.
I’m sure our conversations about death are far from over, but for now, at least some of the fear is gone, and there is room for an expanded, more beautiful, vision of death to enter.