People sometimes ask what inspired me to do the mural at The Bebedero. I usually give them some easy response, “It symbolizes different elements of Mexican culture which I admire. Oh, and that’s my wife, Melissa.” That’s what they expect and it’s easy to understand. Most people just want a good one word answer anyway.
But every once in a while, someone asks about the angel in Melissa’s eyes. Then I recoil into myself and a feeling of uncertainty comes over me. You see I then have to weigh the value of that person, whether I think they are respectful enough, or have enough depth of character to tell them the truth. And until now I have never really told anyone the complete truth.
Because the truth is that this big and beautiful mural with the pretty woman, the religious symbolism and all its flowers and children are really all about a death. The death of an unborn baby boy named Theo. My first son.
He died on a Saturday and was born the next Wednesday. I was there for his birth. At Martha Jefferson they call it a white rose birth. The birth of a baby that, for whatever reason, did not survive. A stillbirth. They hang a little white rose outside your hospital room to let everyone know to be extra respectful of the people in that room, because they are experiencing a loss that is particularly difficult. The nurses and doctors were incredibly compassionate and kind to us. When Theo was born they cleaned him and wrapped his little body up in a blanket and put a little knit cap on his head as if they had to keep him warm.
He was perfect. He was small because he had stopped growing but he wasn’t malformed in any way. His little hands had little finger nails. His little eyes had perfect little eyelids with perfect little eyelashes. They would just never open. His little mouth had perfect little lips except they would never cry out. He had a perfect little body with everything a baby needs except it was void of life.
When you lose a baby after birth people cry with you and try to comfort you and say things like, “I can never imagine what you’re going through.” But when you lose a baby before birth they tell you things like, “Oh you can have another one and that will make up for it.” As if one life so easily replaces another. They mean well but for some reason people think there’s no way you could have grown attached to this life since you never met them in person. They equate a death of a baby in utero to a miscarriage.
But my wife was eight months pregnant when our baby died inside her. We had felt him kicking, seen him in ultrasounds, listened to his heartbeat. We just hadn’t met him yet.
We lost Theo on the Saturday before Thanksgiving and four months later I finished the mural you see on the walls at The Bebedero.
The first thing I painted was the image of my wife with the angel in her eyes. The angel had just finished whispering her a secret. At the time of painting the mural I didn’t know what the secret was or even why I felt like painting an angel in her eyes. Sometimes, you do things and you don’t know why you do them. You just have to have faith that there is purpose behind your actions. Art is very much like that. You never know what the piece is going to end up looking like when you first apply brush to canvas. The only thing you can do is have faith that you’re going to like it when it’s done. And with every stroke you give purpose to the piece that unfolds before you.
When I started the mural my heart was very heavy with grief. Our little family was still aching with sorrow. When I finished a month later, there was a semblance of purpose behind the piece, but still nothing clear. The only thing I knew for sure was that the angel in my wife’s eyes was our lost child, Theo. The secret he shared was yet unknown. Until now.
You see, three months ago my wife, Melissa, gave birth to our second son, Vandal, and he is healthy and happy and everyday enriches our life more. When Theo died I had never experienced pain like that. It was the worst thing to ever happen to me. But Vandal is the best thing to ever happen to me and I now know that he is the secret the angel whispered to Melissa in the mural.
Why do I bother to reveal this now, during Dia de los Muertos? Because, aside from the symbolism which is obvious in the mural, aside from the cultural relevance and its relation to a Mexican restaurant, aside from that, the mural is my alter to the lost loves of our lives and the hope of purpose behind it all.
That is why Dia de los muertos is such a special holiday. Because at some point in everyone’s life we will lose someone we love and that loss will cut us so deeply that it will make us question whether there is really any purpose behind life at all. Is there really any meaning behind all of this pain? Any justifiable reason for the loss of a baby? Is there really any point to endure when life can be so hard and you can lose so much? Why do we go on?
As for me, I go on with faith that there is purpose behind it all. After Theo’s death, I threw myself into building The Bebedero. Melissa focused all her energy on finishing her dissertation. Now we have Vandal. Somehow, we have found purpose in our pain.
So what inspired the mural? The same thing that inspires everything that grows and becomes beautiful.
A good one word answer.
And a happy Dia de los Muertos from all of us at The Bebedero