“Three rings for the elven kings under the sky.
Seven for the dwarf lords in their halls of stone.
Nine for mortal men doomed to die…”
I have been thinking about death quite a bit lately. I don’t mean the dwelling on death and related subjects that can come with a depressive phase, although I certainly experience that. What’s going on right now is something else.
On the day I turned ten, my younger brother died in a car accident. He was not yet two. Such a tragedy is hard on any family, and it tore mine apart–especially because we were unable to mourn. There was an unspoken rule, after the funeral, that he or any feelings or memories about him were not to be mentioned. My sisters and I became what therapists call “forgotten mourners.”
I don’t blame my mother or stepfather for that…how can I, imagining what pain they felt? But it did continue the lessons I had been learning about keeping my harshest feelings inside, not acknowledging loss, and not letting go.
As part of my recovery work recently, I did a ritual about honoring the dead in my life. My little brother, my father, and my stepfather were the main people I had in mind. Many people write a letter and read it out loud, but I wanted something more. A friend encouraged me to consider using something from the person’s heritage as a way to speak to them.
I thought about it, and settled on looking at my father’s heritage. I never knew him well, but I knew he grew up working-class in the Midwest and his ancestry included Catholics from Poland and Germany. When I thought about this, the rosary came to mind. I imagined women in dark houses centuries ago, murmuring the repetitive prayers over their dead.
I’d studied the Catholic rosary briefly in a course on world religions–the symbolism of it and how it parallels other rituals. Catholics pray the rosary regularly; there is nothing death-specific about it. But there’s a ritual, called a novena, that is used when someone wants to make a special effort of prayer for a person or a cause.
Novena comes from the Latin word for “nine.” When a Catholic makes a novena, they pray the entire rosary (not just the parts customary for a given night) for nine nights in a row.
I, in my naive enthusiasm and my desire to get this work done, decided that in honor of my dead I was going to make a novena. I got some beads and strung a primitive rosary; I looked up the prayer order and quantity online. I knew I would almost certainly do it wrong, but that was okay.
Before I was half done with the first night, I regretted my decision. The full rosary takes only a little over an hour for me to say once I get into the rhythm, but I had no idea how time would dilate while repeating the endless phrases. I’d feel ahead in the strand of beads I was using for counting, praying to encounter the knot telling me that this was the last or the second to last set of ten.
I did it, though. All nine nights. I did not often feel very spiritual about it, and it began to feel much more like a punishment than a healing ritual. I tried to see it as an exercise in following through and get past the part of me that felt stupid.
I learned a few things about prayer, though. I learned that repetitive prayers like this do, sometimes, get me into a useful meditative state (although it seems fifteen or twenty minutes would work better than an hour.) I learned that my mind wanders everywhere as I repeat the prayers, and I can track my biggest worries as they come and go. I learned that it feels really weird to find myself thinking about sex while I’m saying Ave Marias.
Now it’s finished. I have had no epiphany; I don’t feel lighter or freer except in the sense of being glad I’m now free to do as I please in the late evening. But I did it, and I did try to think of the people I was honoring.
I thought about a man who early lost a fight with unfavorable genes, toxic environment, addiction, and rage. A man who hurt others and never grew past a very narrow range of the spirit.
I thought about another man, similar though less abusive and dark, who also lost the fight, living and dying in our disease of addiction.
And, of course, I thought about a toddler who got taken from this plane of existence too early to know if he would have to fight against the same monster. Were you the lucky one, Johnny? I don’t know, but I remember you.