The True Muerte: on Romans, Mexicans & Vampires (November 2022)
Updated: Nov 18, 2022
On a connecting flight to Vallarta in Mexico, late-October, the pilot announced “bumpy patches” ahead. My row-mate in the middle seat said, “I used to fly planes. They’re probably trying to get in and out before the hurricane.”
“Hurricane?” I said.
“Wow, you do need a vacation.” His wife in the window seat leaned forward and nodded.
I hadn’t paid attention to any hurricanes. At least none who were gunning for the Eastern-Pacific bay, where my friend JP and I would soon land. I had checked the local weather there and seen Rainy for the first day or two, then straight Sunny. October was the end of their wet season, so made sense. Then I tied up loose ends for work, packed a bag and slept briefly. Then a 3:00 am Uber to BWI, to meet my friend at the gate.
Peter the Former Pilot added, “It’s called Roslyn. Aiming straight toward us tonight. If not Jalisco, then Nayarit,” just across the state border.
Hurricanes - wheeee!
Peter and Mary were heading to the northern part of the Bay of Banderas. JP and I been to that part, years ago. “Oh, it’s nice there. You can walk to -- is it Bucerias? -- along the surf. There’s a good pizza place.”
They knew that pizza place. Their faces warmed visibly, against a darker-sky window. Mary added, "Bucerias has really changed since you've been there." I could only imagine. Was there a place on our Earth that had not changed in the past decade?
Our pilot kept mentioning a bumpy ride and landing, without mentioning a hurricane. I appreciated the heads-up from my random row-mates. I wondered if long-legged JP, stretched out in the emergency row, had now heard about what our pilot was actually warning about.
Still, west-coast Mexico! The kindest folk. The Pacific Ocean. Warm sunsets, spreading their light right through surf. A surf where I’d found sea-glass in years past, tumbled mysteries from 200-year-old shipwrecks (or 21st-century dumping). Like so many people, my friend and I had waited over 4 years to go to a beach, any beach, through viral-variant surges and cancellations.
A week off, in a beach town, for the days leading up to Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). The true 'wheeee.'
As a young Catholic kid, I’d learned November 1st was All Saints Day. This was also the last day my brothers and sisters and I would accept each other’s trades for Halloween candy, collected in our pillowcases the night before. Don't ask who made up that rule; we self-governed, in such matters.
I'd also learned November 2nd was All Souls’ Day, when we remembered everyone we loved, who had also died. Not just the saints, but all the muertos. A great-grandparent, a friend who didn’t make it through childhood, twin cousins who died within days of birth. Even the muertos we never met, from olden times, including the very worst of sinners. We were supposed to think about all of them on the 2nd, and ponder them in our hearts.
Memento mori, as the ancient Romans said. “Remember: you will die.” The Latin way of saying: all those souls knock on the door of our own flesh’s finish.
Maybe, to my kid brain, the Latin meant more like the finish of anything fun.
No more playing kickball until the streetlights came on, or looking for turtles in window wells. No more riding bikes, or tying knots in stems of clover flowers to make a bracelet for our best friend, sitting next to us in the grass. No more Story Time at the library. No more peaches!
Death also meant the tummy-thump of finding a blue robin’s eggshell cracked on the sidewalk, and the not-quite-a-bird-yet so wet, and still. Death also meant the worrying panic in adults’ faces, as another political leader got “assassinated.” Death also seemed punishing, random, hardly holy, yet still mysterious, like all the holy felt to me.
Angels, saints, fairies, witches – all the not-quite-humans, who occupied a similar magical role -- they all flew around the same curious kid-atmosphere above. (One that could change my very mood from day to day, or hour to hour, depending on the light, or chill, or wind.)
Paintings of well-fed baby-angels revealed to us their violent nature, pointing arrows at unsuspecting humans below. Other paintings showed angels, saints or fairies with wings like dragonflies; they flew totally unarmed. They tended to fly in at the same times, especially at “equinoxes” of a year. We saw no paintings of winged beings crashing into each other -- another mystery. Although invisible to us, they must see each other, even know each other? And have quick reflexes. To let each other fly - my greatest kid wish for myself, and knowingly absurd, without wings, or special skills.
Well beyond childhood now, Death, and all its flying friends, still seem mysterious to me. We only know and feel how not to be dead.
* * *
My dear friend JP and I first met through death. Death in continuing-medical-education. We were cast as brother-and-sister-in-law, in an “end-of-life” project at a hospital in Baltimore. Soon we were also portraying husband-and-wife for a pediatric death-and-dying seminar. (We would have to check ourselves in real-time: ‘are we married, or siblings-in-law, today?’ The difference would inform our proximity, degree and type of touch, our very words, as we lived through all those deaths.) Over the course of 25 years now, we’ve lost dozens - even hundreds? - of children, spouses, sisters, together.
So many muertos, and right up close against the knees of healthcare providers, with all our raw grief and snot and shock and rage of hearing it (again) for the very first time.
Happily, we’ve also had chances to play and travel together, not focused on death. On a train, or in line for customs, in a restaurant, we can quickly shift into the silly -- speaking in accents, snorting freely, quoting lines from songs or movies at the mention of a word, singing right out loud. Our unmasked happy faces, to balance the barely-masked sob of losing so many loved-ones together.
We share a love of art, music, dance, theater, adventure, and yes, pausing to consider the absurdity of being alive at all. The absurdity of human nature, as if our nature were different from the rest of nature.
The comedy and tragedy of institutions intent on keeping us separate from nature. To any artist who can reckon with all that? Bring it! Whoever gives themselves up, creatively, to express those big truths and emotions and questions.
Big tough questions. We’ve both known people, now muerto, who wanted to die, who prayed, even begged to die, long before they managed to die. Who would want to live like that?
Years ago, we took his mother’s ashes to her birthplace in southern Europe, a house that no longer belonged to his family. JP scattered the ashes between the road and fence. A southerly wind arrived in that very moment, to take her up and into the yard where she first played outside. Maybe wind from the breath of certain angels or fairies. Who were we to say how that happened?
His cousin there asked how he felt that day, to do that meaningful task. From her face’s expression, I think she imagined a painful day, a second funeral.
JP thought for a moment and said, “It’s a relief. After years of wanting to fulfill that wish for her, I’m happy. Happy it’s done.” We all sat around their table and listened to each other’s deep breaths. Relief, both for him, and for his mother’s wish.
* * *
This fall, the work/life balance for my friend and I had lost whatever alignment it once maintained, along with a few billion fellow humans. I looked out the plane window to see an afternoon growing ever-darker. My body in the aisle seat felt relaxed. A distinct lack of bumpiness, after all the warnings. Props to the pilot, for evading this giant airborne gremlin, out for mischief.
JP would remember our walk along the Pacific to Bucerias and that pizza place, maybe 10 years ago. He may not know yet about the hurricane coming. We would meet her soon enough.
“Greased it!” my row-mate said, as we touched down. “That’s what you say when the pilot lands so smooth like that.”
Again grateful, for the greased-it. When JP and I stepped outside at the airport, the humidity felt crushing, a pressure down to the bones. I imagined all the animals running up into the hills, their senses so much smarter than ours and barometrically warned.
We checked in after 5:00 pm, local time. A letter soon slid under our door. Disaster preparations, state-closed beaches, management-closed pools, list of safety measures. Too sleep-deprived to worry, we ordered room service. (The guacamole alone, un milagro en si mismo.) Then we crashed.
Both of us slept through the drama. JP said he’d been briefly aware of rain at one point. The next morning, we heard Roslyn had made landfall in Nayarit, as category-3.
I tried to walk down to the surf, but only made it a few feet into sand. A lifeguard stood at the opening of a rope barrier. I asked if I could take a quick stroll, maybe find some sea-glass, just for a minute or two?
“No go, sorry. We have to be safe. The water might …”
I nodded. Of course, dear lifeguard. The water might surge, the hotel would be liable for injuries or casualties; it was too dangerous, still. (I was once a lifeguard myself, in an earlier century.)
At the foot-shower, I waited for a family to finish rinsing off. Looked like three kids under age 4 or 5. (I come from such a family of kids arriving in quick succession.) All five looked so happy, even with a closed beach and pool. “That wind last night!” the man said to me. “Really something, right? And the palm trees, bent over and scraping the ground?”
I confessed: my friend and I had slept right through it all.
Both parents laughed. “Wow, you really needed the sleep.”
Their reserved hotel in Nayarit was closed down for the whole week. And there were “no hotel vacancies anywhere” in Puerto Vallarta. But the wife had a friend who was staying at our hotel. So they could all sleep on the floor.
As we talked, the lifeguard approached me with several pieces of sea-glass in his palm. He let them drop into my hand. (This is how I’ll answer people now, who ask, “Do you feel safe in Mexico?” Um, YES: “The lifeguard found some sea-glass for me, in surf too dangerous for guests.”)
I thanked the lifeguard in my gringo-yeesh Spanish. (JP and I had both studied French, in our younger days.)
To the family who’d slept on a hotel-room floor, I said, “Not the vacation you’d hoped for.”
“No. But we’re still here. And we’re the lucky ones.” Still here. Yes. And they slept sheltered, while crowns of palm trees kissed the pool deck.
The youngest child, wearing a onesie he’d likely slept in, finally waddled away from the shower. I rinsed the sand off my feet, wished them all a continuing lucky week, and headed off, sea-glass in my palm.
Little Onesie followed me, arms straight out like Franken-baby. I heard him laughing and turned around. His mom scooped him up and shrugged. “He likes the ladies.”
This can happen with dogs in the woods, routinely. Like pausing to greet means ‘we are now all one group!’ and so they change direction, alongside me. (I always feel grateful for that. And, I start to grieve briefly, because, briefly, I felt the same. ‘Enchantée to meet you. We’re all a group now.’ Then the dogs’ humans pull them away.)
JP describes his skin tone as “transparent,” and limits, responsibly, his hours of sun exposure. For him, “vacation” includes vegging-out indoors, remote-control in hand. A movie, or some underappreciated show he never has time to watch.
As soon as Roslyn started to clear, HBO Signature started a marathon -- in English with Spanish subtitles -- the entire series of “True Blood” from 6:00 am to 10:00 pm, every day. Basically our entire vacation.
“I was just thinking about that show, before we left,” I told JP. “I can’t say why. But I was wondering if it would ‘hold up’ now, you know?”
When the show first aired, I’d slurped up the candy-sexy-blood of it all, from the same maker (Alan Ball) who’d brought us “Six Feet Under,” high on my all-time list. (Recently I read the book “The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade” by Thomas Lynch, which helped to inspire that series. Please read this book!) I wagered that anything associated with Mr. Ball would be surprising and thought-provoking and steeped in both the death part of life and the life part of death. So maybe I could give vampires a shot, having managed to avoid them since Murnau’s “Nosferatu” (back in college) and Bigelow’s “Near Dark” (back in the ‘80s).
I also connected watching “True Blood” with an intense period of life-transition, when I left a job after 8 years for a ‘foundation-laying’ position, and ended a nearly 9-year relationship, soon-after-which our almost-18-year-old dog died. Soon after she died, I got bit by an uncontrolled, crazed dog in a parking lot – my first “county bite-number” for rabies monitoring. Then I sold my condo of 15 years and moved to a tiny, aging cottage, where I could nurture a true garden. “True Blood” had locked into an ‘escape’ receptor in me, at just the right time.
Like “Six Feet Under,” JP and I had gobbled up “True Blood” as it aired. The strangeness, the sexiness, the obvious themes and cultural associations. Downright weird and wild, the natural and supernatural of it. We would need to talk about certain episodes, afterwards.
To rediscover all this, years later, in another country, as “All Souls Day” approached, felt surreal.
Throughout the week, we noticed the subtitles for any ‘swear word’ typed out: “Rayos!” no matter what a Bon Temps character said. As the week (and years of translation) progressed, other Spanish words appeared at the bottom of the TV. Regardless, JP and I would shout: “Gott im Himmel!” (inexplicably, as neither of us studied German). We were just so dang happy that the translators felt freer now, to venture beyond Rayos!
Of course we missed many more episodes than we caught, out walking into town or lounging at the pool or looking for sea-glass. And when we caught part of an episode, we often had no memory of scenes, or whole categories of beings with special powers (“were-panthers”? oh yeah). Only a dim recollection of the blood infection “HEP-V,” (oof) or celebrity cameos with a two-episode-arc. Before we realized the entire series was going to play through, we felt certain “this must be the final season,” things had gotten so crazy. Nope, still five seasons to go! Bon Temps was one crazy-ass little town, brought to life from Charlaine Harris' books. (And I still could not warn Lafayette to keep his fkn mouth shut, as spirit after spirit entered him and took over! (because I loved Lafayette) any more than I could warn him, from 2008-14.)
Meanwhile, in the town-center of Vallarta, we ambled past keen. even visceral, damage from Roslyn. The long concrete wall – wide enough to sit on -- had been shattered and tossed around like patio cushions. Debris from across the Pacific had churned onto the sand, even washed over the Malecon (pedestrian boardwalk) onto the parallel road. All just as the significant festival for Los Muertos tried to gear up. (Please watch the film “Coco” if you haven’t yet.)
As the week progressed, we watched life-sized characters from “Coco” appear on the Malecon, then displays for different countries – a skeleton Elvis and Marilyn with a 1950s car, the skeleton Fab Four with a red phone booth – come into being. Soon, an array of life-sized senorita skeletons, dressed to the nines.*
One evening, after walking for a few hours and standing in a line for Pancho’s Takos, we took a cab back to the hotel. The driver pointed out “La Catrina,” as her giant structure rose. She stood maybe 5 stories-of-a-building high. Complete with her famously huge, fancy hat and satin ballgown, with one femur slyly appearing from its folds, the bone itself longer than a palm tree.
She is a complicated symbol, created in the early 1900s by artist and lithographer Jose Guadalupe Posada. These days, she stands as a symbol of remembering the dead, and memento mori for ourselves. Yet Posada drew her with a healthy heap of satire on the influence of European ‘costume’ and more, taking over in his day. A mark of death for some traditions and cultural values, I’ve gathered.**
Our cab-driver didn’t want his passengers to miss her. He said, “La Catrina! Catrina,” with clear pride.
Back in Fangtasia, the fur was flying and ever-stranger.
Sookie Stackhouse now knew she was half-fairy at some point. Some of our favorite characters had found the “true death” -- when a dead-but-walking- talking-immortal vamp is staked or shot with silver bullets, or meets the sunlight. (Tara Thornton, oh no.) Or when a werewolf gets shot, protecting Sookie from Hep-V vamps. (Alcide! Oh, no. Alcide.)
Or when a human cook at Merlotte’s, Terry Bellefleur, traumatized enough by wartime memories to hire a sniper to kill him someday unsuspectingly, lands in that sniper’s gunsight, after he’d been “glamored” to forget the trauma.
JP was at the pool during Terry Bellefleur’s memorial. I sat down, with his friends around the gravesite. This was a giant leap beyond the usual sticky puddle of a vamp’s true-death. Vamps’ and were-panthers’ funerals, we did not see.
Stories about Terry (shown in flashbacks) fill the hour. The specific man we had only partially known, until so many individuals remembered him in their way, together and out loud. He was just a dang good guy, finally finding happiness with Arlene. And he was “just” a human, a rarity in that fictional locale. No special powers or senses, no back-from-the-dead, no split-second ascension into the sky, to land where one’s Maker (or progeny) needed help. For me, watching the rituals around Terry’s mortality, appreciating how sensitively written and so carefully enacted, felt like a funeral for a friend.
I sat in our hotel room and wept. Nothing false about that wept.
Rituals matter. Communities matter. Communities can form very quickly, like a ‘group’ can, among the same – or different – species of being.
Remembering the dead, and that we also die, matters. This dark-funny HBO show, often ridiculous (and at times self-knowingly so) also had meant something profound to me, as my mortal life progressed, against all odds.
Forces beyond our control, from a tempest hurling a concrete wall -- to shape-shifting, species-leaping viruses - forces natural and supernatural threaten us, or aid us, or change our paths and plans and posture and future, like so many casual snipers.
The beach had reopened on Monday. Each morning that week, I spent some time slouching along the surf with an empty bottle of Move Free (capsules for aging joints). To spy sea-glass -- distinct from shells, rocks, any flotsam and jetsam – sunlight matters. Tumbled glass, from some bottle or atomizer lost overboard, across a vast ocean and uncertain years, holds a quality of light different from the rest. These bits can be very small, and while you’re looking, the surf keeps changing what you’re looking at.
It’s a choreography. Just look, just see, and seek, the very world right in front of you. That is ALL you need to do. Forget everything else. Look, look, look: ready to reach.
It’s a meditation. Just listen to the waves dashing themselves near your feet. Unhurried rhythm, movement, sound. Slows a heartbeat.
Spy something unusual, eye-catching? Quick grab, in good faith.
Too late? No - it’s there in your palm!
Or, yes, too late, it’s downright buried again, under countless shells, rocks and sand. Or it’s flowing back out, for another week, or year, before another human eye can distinguish that glass and reflex its flight out of a crowded, clacking sea of all kinds of flotsam and jetsam not glass at all.
Wow, it must really need that time.
Some mornings, another human would ask what I was looking for. Sometimes, when I held up my half-filled Move Free bottle to show them, a human said, “Huh! Never thought about it before, that a bottle of Coke or 7-Up turns into this.” Sometimes they picked up a few quick-grabbed pieces to pocket for themselves, or hand over to me. Once a young couple walked by and stared at my slow choreography. The man said “loco,” which I understood. Both the word and his calling me that.
Clear, sharp, objects might outlive their earlier forms. Weather, currents, friction, over time, transform them. Sometimes you can find a piece of once-was-otherwise, and place it on an ofrenda to remember. The ofrenda of a human palm, or a simple glass vase or dish, time zones away.
Our connecting flight home ran into weather. (Shocked! Just, shocked.) What would have taken 3 hours from Houston took more like 4-1/2.
As a human whose carbon footprint has filled her planet’s atmosphere for decades, however unintentionally? I could only nod to all the angels, saints, fairies, witches, tempests, whirling dervishes, that gather during my recent airplane travels. 'So sorry!' I might add.
Rather than follow a straightforward flight-path over Atlanta, we first “took on more fuel” (whew) so we could sail north toward Illinois (whew, and oh my!) to stay “above the weather.”
With more time, in the troposphere, I almost finished Michael Pollan’s “The Botany of Desire.” Into the Potatoes, at least. (Please read that book.)
JP and I landed in Baltimore after midnight, the day before Halloween. Our Dia de los Muertos was still to come.
My Uber app would not work. BWI’s wifi, or my replacement Visa card, would not allow me to schedule a ride home. I felt consciously dehydrated, wiped out and wrapped in anticipatory grief of back-to-work, already. One week off at a time? Just not enough to clear out the cobwebs.
JP kept a cooler head. “We’ll figure it out.”
I hopped into JP’s Uber ride home, where our driver, Rumsa, said he could not continue on all the way to Silver Spring tonight, sorry. It was too far out of his expected way (and back), and I understood.
I would just sign up for Lyft, I told JP, when he offered to drive me all the way home, as late as it was.
At some point, Rumsa changed his mind. “I am thinking it over, and I will be happy to take you home, too. You can ‘add a stop’ on the app,” he suggested. JP figured that out, and after dropping him off, Rumsa and I headed east toward Montgomery County.
This young man. How to describe him? I could not ask him enough questions, as we ventured another 45 minutes. He had emigrated from Ethiopia not long ago, but had already become a U.S. citizen. In response to my asking about missing his family or friends there, or if they’d been able to visit?
“There’s no one left. I come alone.”
I wondered about this, but could not bring myself to ask, ‘You mean they’re all dead?’. He told me about his applications and sponsorships and interviews, at the embassy in Ethiopia. He had one friend on the east-coast of the U.S., who let him use his address as a place of residence, and hosted him at first. From the back seat I thanked this friend-host.
My work-friend Mesky, I had to mention now, to my precious driver. “Her name is Meskerem. In Ethiopia, her name means ‘September.’”
Rumsa nodded. “Mostly it’s a woman’s name, but Mesky can also be a man’s name.” Then he told me about a ride he gave to an international arrival named Mesky. Rumsa started speaking to her in their native language, and she was shocked. “My features are not like typical Ethiopian, so she did not expect this.”
I wondered if my new friend had landed in Ethiopia from a different country, with his ‘not typical’ features and having ‘no one left.’ (Sudan? South Sudan? What horrors might he have seen? What kinds of loss, trauma, grief?)
“I’m glad she landed in your car, so you could surprise her like that, and she could feel so at home,” I said.
We rode quietly for a while, southward on 95.
He finally said, “You are such a nice rider. I don’t always have nice riders from the airport.”
A bit of softened glass appeared and I grabbed it. Got it.
“People are not always themselves, at an airport. They are likely dehydrated, exhausted, in a different state.” I thought about my own state, when Uber would not work for me, after the second flight was extra-long with extra fuel and I knew I needed water, and didn’t know how or when I would finally get home -- shortly before I had to go back to work, gah. All that shape-shifting of a self, a piece of sea-glass.
“I was just such a person, not-quite-myself, at the airport tonight. A version of myself I don’t like.”
Moody, even bitchy. Acting more like Pam, the progeny of yummy 1000-year-old Sheriff Northman, co-owners of Fangtasia on “True Blood.” I loved her character; the writers gave her some of the best lines, and the two of them, the best "advertisement" coda. But I had not wanted to act like Pam tonight, off-stage.
JP let me be whoever I was, even in an altered state.
Rumsa said, “Oh, thank you for this explanation. I never thought about this. Of course. I get most rides from an airport. How maybe they are super-tired, or just need water, to be nicer, after flying around like you say.
“I am like this, too! When I really just need water.”
Then, “I never even told you this, Mary. You can put your hand in the pocket of the door there, and find a bottle of water.”
I put my hand in that pocket and drained that bottle before we reached my cottage, in the wee hours of All Hallow’s Eve’s eve.
I wished Rumsa well and encouraged him to seek work that met his fine skill-set and education, when he was ready. He thanked me for mentioning “so many things that help me understand my new life.” An especially generous thing to say.
I doubt he found another fare for his ride back to Baltimore. I’m not sure why he changed his mind about taking me all the way out of his way.
But we were now a group, like a dog-pack in the woods, or a cast of play-actors for a matter of weeks or months, or a cadre of work colleagues for a matter of years – each community essential and irreplaceable.
Like each one of us.
At almost 2:00am on Sunday, I took a chance that JP would still be awake and called him.
“Safe home, and thank you for getting me here! Rumsa is the most amazing guy. I’m sure he has a million stories that would blow our minds. When I mentioned how well he spoke English after less than a year in the U.S., he told me he was ‘above average.’ I loved that! I want to support that. I want to adopt him. Haha! Seriously, I’ll Venmo you extra, for a really good tip.” I was babbling, exhausted, if better-hydrated. I’m sure JP was beyond exhausted.
“Love you. Talk to you soon,” we both said.
Angel- and fairy-willing, I added, to myself. Each day, week, and whirling year that passes, I feel astonished, still to be here. Not knowing what not-feeling/-alive will mean, and grateful for being so none-the-wiser.
Now, FRIENDS: thank you for reading this, which is likely my last blog-post for quite a while.
I need some time to step back and figure out how all this might constitute a book, one that people who don’t know me might actually read. Inshallah. Thank you for reading anything I’ve posted during this pandemic project for the past 2 years. I was completely none-the-wiser when I investigated starting a web-page at all. Still am, none-so.
Always your Muffin, ever none-the-wiser, and no regrets there,
* Curious about “to the nines,” I had to look it up. Likely comes from references to the Nine Muses of Arts and Learning (Clio, Erato, Calliope, Melpomene, Euterpe, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Urania, and Thalia). http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/04/expression-dressed-nines-came/
- "Garden of Death" painting by Hugo Simberg
- Photo of Posada's lithograph 'La Catrina' from the Houston Art Museum