On the Difficult Task of Celebrating Death

A tribute to my family, both past and present

A year ago today, my grandmother died. My mom’s mom — a Catholic cherry pie, devout dog-lover, beloved secret keeper. My girl. We were lucky to have her. And whatever (or whoever) happens after death, well, they are lucky to have her too.

A little while before that, my father’s mother died. April 8th. Easter. Another canyon hole. As anyone from a big-ass Irish family knows — losing your matriarch is like losing the sails of your ship. And now we’re down two.

At the risk of sounding juvenile, let me make a small disclaimer: Death is a constant, it is not exclusive, and I would never, ever lay claim to it. There are losses much bigger, much smaller, much the same. In the most unfortunate of human circumstances, death simultaneously owns and belongs to all of us. A million broken hearts, a million losses, a million ghosts, a million angels — but I can only write about the two I know best.

April 8th. And now January 14th. Two dates that mean nothing and everything to me. Two dates that I mark my life by. Two little dates.

Perhaps it is because we are the only ones who measure time, or perhaps it is because we don’t really know how else to deal, but humans do a funny thing with the countless and arguably meaningless days that mean something to us:

We make holidays.

April 8th is MJDay.

I have been celebrating MJday secretly since 2012. April 8th. A annual party-of-one memorial of my father’s mother, my canyon queen, board game junkie, my Mary Jane. April 8th. Outside, it’s usually rainy. And that’s usually lovely. I buy a bottle of cheap scotch (like really, really bottom shelf, like the stuff you didn’t even buy in college) because that was inexplicably her favorite, a pack of cigarettes, and a mystery-slash-thriller paperback novel (something good like a James Patterson), and I celebrate. I read and read, I smoke a cigarette or two, I remember MJ. I have a holiday.

Mary Jane Sargent with her six kids, who I now know as my treasured father, aunts, and uncle.

On April 8th, I tell my Nana how things are. I tell her about graduate school and about dad. I tell her about new friends and bad friends and about teaching for a year. About the relationship that ended, about meals I have cooked, about who I have loved. Holiday confessions.

It only lasts for a few hours, but I am always surprised at the amount of speedy self-reflection one can get through with the help of a drink. I think so much about her hands and about Christmas with my countless cousins, all tucked into beds throughout that big house.

Somehow on the morning of April 9th, I always feel better.

January 14th is POBday.

This one is harder. My first holiday for Pat O’Brien. My first chance to see if this plan will work for not one, but two dates. First chance to see if it will work for any inevitable future dates. January 14th. First time I’ve been to a Catholic mass in a hell of a long time, too.

It’s not bad though, the tradition of it. In the same way the smell of a fresh paperback serves Nana’s memory, singing hymns and eating mint chocolate chip ice cream for breakfast serves my grandmother’s. Little bits of personality that I can cling to, without fear of judgement or spectacle. This is my holiday, and I can do what I want. Later today, I will think about her selflessness and the hallways of her house. I will think about the disease I am afraid of.

Patricia O’Brien on her wedding day.

I’ll tell Gram about my new job. About the recent frequency of David Bowie in my headphones and who we lost in August and the quiet walks I take down King Street and the blue line metro. I’ll tell her about my boyfriend and my best friends and how much I miss my college roommates. I’ll tell her about her daughter — my mom — about all six of her kids and their kids. About my goddaughters and the crumbling state of American politics. Of course, I’ll tell her about the two dogs I am living with. I can still hear her laugh, but the sound is fading. Soon it will be gone completely.

Today, the very first holiday. I’ll smile a little and cry a lot. No loss is easy, not even the ones that come at the end of long, full lives. No loss is easy. Not much changes in a year. Catholicism, ice cream, button-down animal pajamas. I’ll do my very best. January 14th.

I think I’ll feel better tomorrow.

If you are still reading, I owe you one. And if you’re still reading, you might have a holiday of your own in mind. My advice? Try it. Own your pain. Get to know it. Toast that motherfucker with bottom shelf bourbon, with sacred wine.

A million ghosts, a million angels. Don’t forget the ones that belong to you.