How Real Death Changed Halloween
I will never see Halloween the same. I loved it as a child, but once you come face to face with real death, images of ghosts, ghouls and skeletons aren’t playthings anymore.
I’m not trying to rain on the Halloween parade. Really. And I’m not such a stiff that I don’t participate. A few years ago, I was a lady vampire. Another year, I was a gypsy. And another year, a black cat. But when I see really ghastly images, I cringe.
I know I’m not the only one. You aren’t the only one. For us, real death changed Halloween from a playful parade of goblins and delightful, frightful surprises into painful reminders that death took our loved one. That bodies we hugged decay. That beloved spirits fly away.
A neighbor’s kids love to color skulls. One of their Halloween decorations is a skeleton. As I walk through the seasonal aisle at Walgreens, it’s those boney images that bug me the most. I was never a big fan, but now they remind me of death. Of real death. Despite the fact that as a crime reporter I visited murder scenes, death didn’t seem real to me until I saw my daddy’s body, lying in the hallway floor, covered in a white sheet. I dropped to my knees and put my hand on his chest. He was still warm. And then three years later, called by the aide, I rushed home.
I checked my mother’s pulse. She was indeed dead. I sat by her lifeless body for a long time, and then I pulled the sheet over her head. I was afraid she might begin to look different, and I didn’t want to see that. I wanted to shield myself from real death.
My brother and I used to join our neighbor’s Halloween hayride for the area kids. He’d ride us up to the cemetery, the one next door to my house that I avoided going near at night out of fear of what might come out at me. Well, unbeknownst to us, the neighbor’s grown-up son was in the trees. At the right moment, in a darkness illuminated by only the moon, the son jumped out and roared at us. We collectively screamed. Interestingly, that kind of fear has a fun quality to it.
And that leads me to something real death also did to me. I’m not afraid of cemeteries anymore, especially the one where my parents are buried. They aren’t the haunts of ill-intentioned spirits. They’re the last real estate of real people who lived and loved and are loved and mourned.
Real death also intensified the memory of my mother twisting brown grocery bags into a stiff witch’s hat. She covered it in black corduroy, I wore it proudly and kept the hat for years in my keepsakes. I also relished the memory of the Halloween Mom dressed me in her red party dress for a costume contest. And of Dad taking us Halloween after Halloween from our far-out country home to the nearest town to go door-to-door for candy. From the car that he inched forward as we traveled across the yards, he watched over us.
Halloween will never be the same, but I won’t spoil it for the children in my life. I don’t tell them skulls and skeletons mean something horrible to me. I don’t impose my grief on them nor the impact of real death. Maybe someday they will ask, but until then, I don’t tell. Let the kids have their childhood. Let them be playfully frightened. Let them create happy memories.
Because someday, during a darker Halloween, their memories will take the bite out of real death. As mine do. I remember I was safe. That I was loved. And someday, they will remember, too.
Is there something about Halloween you avoid now? On the other side of the coin, what memory do you embrace about Halloween past?
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