Holiday honors those not here for the holidays

Day of the Dead artwork by Debris Artist at Luminari Arts.

This year, the beginning of November, particularly the cultural holiday of Dia de los Muertos, as particular significance to me.

I’ve been long been intrigued by the holiday honoring loved ones who have died since learning a bit about it from Latino relatives and friends and former coworkers from years in Southern California.

This year the significance of the holiday is particularly important. Sunday, Nov. 6, would have been my mother’s birthday. She died of cancer in August and the pending anniversary of her birth and the upcoming Thanksgiving and Christmas season is making her absence profoundly felt.

So, today, Nov. 2, I will be remembering, and attempting to honor, several family members who have gone. There are two sets of grandparents, several aunts and uncles, some cousins and friends. But foremost in my mind, and in the forefront of my grief, is my mom.

My parents moved from Nebraska to Eastern Oregon in 1973. I was only in second grade, but had a hard time adapting to the move. We went from living in a town where lots of family also lived and I could walk to school to living out in the country in a place where I didn’t know anyone and I had to ride a bus to and from school.

Like most kids do, I soon made friends and there was room to roam and explore at home.

The move seemed difficult for my mother, too. For years, when she spoke of home she meant the Nebraska panhandle, where she grew up and had lived most of her life prior to that.

Thing changed at some point. I don’t remember where we were or how old I was, but we were in town running errands or something and mom said something like, “I’m ready to go home.” The comment shocked me, I asked mom if she meant she wanted to go back to Nebraska. “No,” she clarified. “Our home. Our house. Here.”

I used to worry about mom when I was young, because she didn’t seem to have many friends of her own. There were the people dad did business with and the parents of my friends or my brothers’ friends, but at that point I didn’t really know if she had close friends. I needn’t have worried. As the parade of friends who came to visit when she was in Good Shepherd Medical Center for a few hours, at Oregon Health and Sciences University for about a week and at Regency Hermiston Nursing and Rehabilitation Center demonstrated that she had made many lifelong and devoted friends. Friends like Elaine Ramos, Diane Gettmann, Marilyn Perkins, Beth McDaniel, Sandy Warner, Rita Walker, Nellie Madison, members of her church and so many others. The hundreds that came to say goodbye at her funeral, many of whom stood up to share memories through their own tears was profoundly moving and testament that she had a life and relationships far richer and more rewarding than I had known.

That is perhaps one of the hardest parts of her death. I did not know my mother as well as I should have and would have liked. I had been gone for a long time, away from home on my own personal and professional adventures. We had only begun to become re-acquainted.

There are other regrets as well.

In grief, I am prone to be sullen and selfish. But I am thankful for family and so many friends — of mom’s, of dad’s, of mine, of my brothers’ ­ who have shared cards, flowers, hugs and condolences. I am particularly grateful for all of those who visited my mom in her final weeks to share hugs and tears and tell her they loved her. I wish you all peace and may the love you’ve shown be returned many times over.

I may not manage the celebratory spirit that comes with many Dia de los Muertos celebrations familiar to the indigenous people of Southern Mexico or other part of Latin America. But those that have gone will be in my thoughts and prayers today, this week and for the rest of my life.

Gary L. West is editor of the Hermiston Herald and Hermiston editor for the East Oregonian. Reach him at or follow him on Twitter @GaryLWest or on Facebook at

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