An Altar to the Dead

Updated: Oct 23, 2021

A montage of my living experiences with the those who have passed:

I am 12 years old and I have a dream. My Grandma DD comes to me and tells me to get up. She is wearing a beautiful, flowing, white gown and a radiant smile. I’ve never seen her so happy.

“I have come to say goodbye!” She tells me and gives me a big hug.

This surprises me because DD isn’t known for being a big hugger and she isn’t crazy about goodbyes either! Then she just lifts off the ground and starts to fly away, waving at me and dancing in air. She laughs and turns a flip above me and her laughter is still in my ears as my dad shakes me awake with tears in his eyes to tell me that DD has passed on. In my half awake stupor, I don’t understand why he’s crying when I just saw how happy she was.

I have just graduated high school and am road tripping to my commune in Nevada with three of my best friends. We are invincible and wild with the freedom of these first months of adulthood. We pay for our own gas, get out of a speeding ticket and stop in Jackpot Nevada to play the slot machines. We drive 14 hours without sleeping and arrive at Home Farm well after midnight to find a note saying one of our beloved community members has passed on. We are humbled and shocked by the news, but try to sleep anyway. At the sound of my friend’s breath deepening into soft snores, I quietly sneak out of bed and go out to stand under the quilt of stars in the desert night sky.

"Susannah is gone," I think dumbly, "I can’t believe it."

The woman who taught me how to make cinnamon rolls and who cooked me my school lunches for years. One of the main matriarchs of our commune with her glittering nose ring, magical laughing eyes and long colorful skirts. Gone. I feel empty and confused and too ripped open to cry.

Suddenly everything around me shifts. It’s subtle and I can’t quite tell what’s going on, but it feels like the whole desert has started humming, vibrating and swaying. The crickets have stopped singing, yet I can hear a faint something somewhere in the distance. There’s a heaviness to the air. It presses in on me and constricts my breathing. I don’t understand what is happening and wonder for a moment if this is an earth quake or an alien sighting. The celestial music gets louder and the crickets join in again creating a cacophony that’s both sweet and dissonant - building and building to a great crescendo. Just when I don’t think I can take the sound or the pressure anymore, the full moon pops up - just a tiny but bright curve over the mountains in the East. She is big and round and orange and her sudden presence in the night sky feels celebrated by the entire universe. I watch the moon rise and I just “know” Susannah is in there. She’s in that moon. I make her a few promises and I say goodbye.

I’m in college and wake from a dead sleep with a start. I hear a voice say to me “Jenna go light a candle for your grandpa.”

I get up and sit at my altar and light a candle. I pray for my grandpa and think of all the good memories I can conjure of him. Around 1 am, a soft peacefulness descends upon me and I know it’s time to blow out the light. The next morning, the phone rings and it’s my mom telling me my grandpa Woody has passes peacefully in the night. I want to say, “I know…”

It’s one of my first trips without my daughters and we’ve gathered for my Grandma Nada’s memorial. This is the first time my mom’s side of the family has all been in the same place for, I don’t know how long. My Grandma wanted her ashes placed on the mountainside by Shambala Center, Colorado so here we are in this high desert