Today in honor of Halloween, I’m sharing an excerpt from my book Shoes Full of Sand. Only five days before the holiday, my father-in-law, Al, had died suddenly of a stroke. But my mother-in-law, Helen insisted we carry on with Halloween as usual. Almost two decades later, Helen and my husband Fred are gone, but the memory remains. Here’s how it went:
Halloween found us at Helen’s front door, watching as my sister-in-law Harriet handed out candy, making a fuss over each child and each costume. She crouched down, creating a physical barrier so our dog Sadie couldn’t get out. Fred stood watching from between the stuffed monkeys his mother had placed in the window. His brother Condé sat in a chair in the corner, brooding and drinking. I moved between the door and the kitchen, where I was cooking chicken for dinner. Helen sat in the back room, watching “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune” on TV. During the commercials, she came out, squeaking with laryngitis, laughing at the kids.
Every year, the police blocked off the neighborhood east of the Fred Meyer store for Halloween. Hundreds of children came through. Although her husband had just died, Helen didn’t want her house to be dark on Halloween. So we carved pumpkins, helped decorate the house and gathered in the living room to hand out candy.
About 7 o’clock, Janet from my church showed up at the door with her daughter Heather.
“Janet!” I called over Harriet’s head.
She looked confused. She had heard that my father-in-law had died, but we lived on the other end of town. She had no idea that my mother-in-law lived on Crestview or that we would be celebrating Halloween. Now she didn’t know what to say. “Um, Shirley told me what happened,” she said.
“I know. Hi, Heather.” The shy three-year-old clung to her mother’s pants. Just the Sunday before, we had had lunch together after church with Shirley and Georgia, all complaining about our aging parents. At the time, my in-laws needed a little help, but they were in comparatively good shape. Now the cloud of death hung over the house in spite of the Halloween decorations.
More kids were coming up the driveway, so Janet went on down the street. I felt guilty. Guilty for making her think of death in the midst of trick-or-treating, guilty for not mourning quietly instead of celebrating Halloween.
A teenage girl came to the door when Helen was nearby. “Didn’t you and your husband just move in?” she asked.
Helen nodded but didn’t elaborate. They had only lived there for two months.
Sometimes I missed the old-fashioned mourning customs. I didn’t know what was appropriate. Should I dress normally in my usual reds and pinks or wear dark colors to church? Should I play the piano or be silent? Dared I laugh? I longed for the comforts of everyday life, but was I dishonoring my dead father-in-law if I watched my favorite TV show and enjoyed it? If I went out to lunch with my friends as usual? If I talked about what happened and didn’t cry?
The stages of grief are muddled. On that first day, we wept and then we went numb. I felt neither hunger nor the need to use the restroom. I know only that when a masseuse came through the hospital cafeteria offering massages, I kept thinking, no, I don’t want anyone to touch me. A human touch might have broken through the wall I had built around my feelings.
Helen accepted a massage. “Ah, that feels so good,” she said as the woman kneaded her neck and shoulders. With her husband dying upstairs, was this wrong? Would saying no to the massage have changed that sad fact?
We held no funeral or memorial service for Al. His body was cremated, the ashes destined to be placed at the Newport cemetery. Instead of a service, Helen held an open house, but only a handful of people came. My in-laws hadn’t lived in Newport long enough to meet anyone except their landlord, Al’s doctor and a few of my church friends.
But on Halloween, hundreds of children came to the door, with no idea that there was anything different at this house where grownups stood in the doorway passing out candy than at any other house on the block.
Somebody egged our car outside the folks’ house that night, probably the teens that Helen had turned away at the door after she ran out of candy. We had left the car window open, and egg was dripping down the back of the seat. Sadie jumped in and licked it up. Dogs and teens figured it was just an ordinary night.
For the rest of the world, it was.
Al would have gotten a kick out of the little kids in their costumes. He might even have chuckled at the teenagers and their eggs, remembering his own youthful adventures. He loved life and wanted more of it. Our best tribute would be to enjoy our own lives, every single day of them.
I hope Janet understood that we weren’t being crass on Halloween. We who are still alive have to take the comforts that life gives. Sometimes those comforts include a cherry Tootsie Pop and a six-year-old girl in an angel dress yelling “Trick or Treat!” at the front door.
Copyright 2011 Sue Fagalde Lick