The dance sped up, and the dancers with it. Bod was breathless, but he could not imagine the dance ever stopping: the Macabray, the dance of the living and the dead, the dance with Death . . . Each of the dancers took a partner, the living with the dead, each to each. Bod reached out his hand and found himself touching fingers with, and gazing into the grey eyes of, the lady in the cobweb dress. – Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book
The last week of my mother’s life, she had a final request. She wanted me to read her my manuscript. She’d read every incarnation of it over the past three years; from its first really shitty inception to a version of it I’d completed last November, but she had not yet read the version I’d spent January to June rewriting because of an offer from a literary agent that I’d eventually decided to turn down. So, I sat beside my mother’s deathbed and read her my book. It was nice, this last activity between the two of us – like all the nights we popped popcorn and stayed up late watching movies. She even had me bring her an ice-cold Coke, which she sat sipping out of a straw as she listened attentively. And I told her then, if I ever got it published, I’d dedicate it to her. She smiled; possibly remembering the time when, after a dark period of my life followed by a major identity crisis, I’d tremulously told her that I thought I wanted to be a writer.
“Well, of course you do,” she’d said, as if surprised I was just now figuring this out. “That’s what you’ve always wanted.”
This story — my story — was the last story she would ever hear again in this life, and we both knew it. And what had I spent the last three years writing? A dark fairytale about death.
That was the first time it dawned on me that I’d spent three years writing about death. When asked, I tell people, “I wrote a ghost story, nothing more.” I tell them that I wrote it because I like ghost stories – they’re the last vestiges of a storytelling tradition that is slipping away. But as I sat there reading beside my mother’s deathbed, I realized my story was really me subconsciously grappling with death and grief in a fictitious way – slaying the goblins of cancer and loss, putting my hands on them and turning them inside out to see what they might be made of. I see that now, but I doubt a reader would. On its surface it’s just a story about a girl and a graveyard and a terrifying journey and some riddles and some ghosts and some monsters that know some secrets and a family that includes the living and the dead. At the end, there is resurrection and new life, but a lot of suffering and soul-searching has to happen first. My story opens, appropriately enough, in a graveyard on Halloween night. It starts with a girl, telling a story.
I have always loved Halloween. It’s my holiday. I like it so much better than Christmas with its neatly wrapped presents and its xanax-popping stabs at glittering perfection. Halloween is messy – messy without apologies. The darkness of it touches something deep within my soul that is sacred. I love the ghosts and goblins, witches and demons, zombies and Frankensteins. I love the jack-o-lanterns — those glowing orange skulls, grinning their toothy grins, and staring their candle-lit stares out of triangular, eyeless sockets. And let’s not forget the candy. I’m a big fan of the candy!
Halloween is a carnival of death and darkness, a caricature of life’s ugliness and grief. It’s a time when we drag our fears out of the closet, look them in the eye, and let them run amock. In a society that has trouble looking fear in the face, and sanitizes death, speaking the very word in whispers as though it were something shameful, I find this macabre celebration refreshing – honest. It is a holiday that frolics in the face of death, while at the same time acknowledging its gritty, loamy beauty. Sounds a lot like faith, if you ask me.
One of the images of death I carry within me is that of a slim, young woman in a black sheath dress, red shawl draped elegantly over her shoulders like rose petals or blood – haunted, dark eyes staring out of her pale face as she stands regal and ramrod straight beside the coffin of her deceased husband. She is painted against the backdrop of my mind’s eye as though she were a hybrid of the Madonna and Morticia Adams. Like a mantle, she wears grace, fierceness, defiance, and horror as elegantly as she wears the blood-red shawl. This is the image I carry of my dear friend Kelly as she stood beside her 34-year-old husband’s open casket shortly after his unexpected death. It’s a harsh and somber sight, but it’s one that is beautiful and real and honest and filled with love and strength. That last dark fairytale I read to my mother was the same way, and it was what we needed, because regular fairytales with their rainbows and unicorns are not appropriate for deathbed-reading.
Frederick Buechner writes, “The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us.” Which, of course, carries the echo of Romans 8: 38-39 “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God.”
Here is your life. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. Let the goblins out of their closets. Let the bats fly free from their belfries. Let witches ride across the moon and zombies lurch and cry for brains. Look those beautiful and terrible things in the eye. Turn them inside out to see what they’re made of, and join the dance of the Macabray.