Holding tight to my bowl of homemade potato salad, I trotted to keep up with Colleen, our group’s leader. I kept my eyes trained on the tail end of her red cooler as it zigged and zagged through the crowd. A veteran attendee of the annual Japanese Lantern Festival, Colleen could be trusted to find us a prime location. I was pleased as we steered closer to the lively rhythm of steel drums I could hear in the distance.
Initially I found it hard to believe that men, women, and children would come together every year to share their losses and grief. My friend Marge had explained it to me in simple terms when she first mentioned the event a few months earlier: the Japanese Lantern Festival was an ancient ritual that honored the spirit of the dead. Participants made lanterns and floated them on a pond.
“Must be beautiful,” I thought. The truth is that when I aligned the words spirit, loved ones, and dead, I didn’t feel anything. But I was intrigued, so when Marge invited me, I decided to go.
Colleen finally came to an abrupt halt. We had arrived at the optimum location, close to the live entertainment and just 15 feet from the pond, where our lanterns would be launched. Marge and I joined Colleen and her boyfriend Ed, as our other friends gathered. While our group set up camp, the sparse real estate surrounding us rapidly populated with children of all ages. People were spreading out colorful blankets to sit on and unveiling treats from their baskets. They were readying to engage in the evening’s festivities and their enthusiasm was palpable.
After our blankets and food were set down, Marge suggested we make our way to the tents we passed earlier and begin preparing our lanterns. I was ready.
First, we purchased our pristine paper lanterns. Each consisted of two flat sides—a pair of empty canvases on which we would create. Its finished work would be of our own design. Gingerly holding our papers as if butterfly wings, we lined up in front of a generous white canvas lean-to. Inside it were long tables where eight lovely Japanese girls sat dressed in brightly colored Kimono. Their decorative garb and ancient artistry brought the history of this ritual into focus.
When it was my turn, I approached one of the young artists, who smiled warmly and directed me to a small easel on her table that displayed four Japanese calligraphic symbols. She asked me to choose: Did I want the symbol of wisdom, love, trust, or eternal life inscribed on my lantern? I selected Wisdom and Eternal Life. And then I watched her begin. She dipped her wooden brush into a canister of black ink, then moved the brush fluidly over the paper, leaving the first mark. Again and again, she lifted the brush and gently placed it on the white paper to form the characters of my chosen symbols. When she was done, my artist handed me the lantern, heavy with ink. I turned to mimic my experienced friend Marge, who was waving hers in the air to dry, letting the papers flap up and down like bird wings.
When the ink was dry, I walked over to the tables covered with trays of colored markers and pens. Squeezing between two busy adolescents, I noticed that their lanterns were joyfully dressed in flowers of bright pinks and yellows, accentuated with cascading red hearts. I was inspired and moved by the freedom, innocence, and joy they used to embrace their losses. Eager to decorate my lantern, I looked into the tray. Much to my disappointment, I saw that many of the colored pens were dried and unusable. This narrowed my options and challenged me to decide what color to start with. Finding an acceptable green marker, I faced the next question. Who will I honor? My parents were top of mind, so I began by honoring them both on the first side of my lantern. Childhood memories flooded in; I smiled as I recalled my two brothers and me sitting at the dining room table, enjoying the George Burns and Gracie Allen repartee between our very childlike parents. Next to the symbol for Eternal Life, I wrote “laughter” and then emphasized its importance in highlights of purple. As I wrote more deeply about “gratitude” in oranges and blues, my emotions surfaced and I became attached to every word. Satisfied with my parents’ tribute, I turned to the other side of the lantern.
Facing side two, my mind was as blank as the canvas. I closed my eyes, inviting the dead to reveal themselves to me. After a few moments, they appeared. Relieved, I reached for another colored pen as the parade of losses began. First came all my grandparents, each with their particular quirks. I was so happy to see grandma Florence making the goofy faces that brought me pure joy and laughter as a child—the conflicts she had caused my mother no longer mattered. Then my dear friend Shalanda appeared with her endless energy, faith and sunbeam smile. There are only so many people on this planet who are really able to see the breadth and potential of who we are and who we can be. Shalanda and I were those kind of friends. The deepest truths and dreams to come were reflected as clear as daylight through one anothers eyes. When Shalanda suffered an asthma episode at 37 and unexpectedly died, a piece of me was buried with her.
Lastly, my pets bounded forth: Manny, our prize German Shepard who had lost a tiny piece of his ear in a dogfight with our neighbor’s Newfoundland. My beloved Larry, the Golden Lab who stepped down from number one in the pecking order to let our infant son take center stage, and to whom I clung tightly nine years later during a painful divorce. I remember when Larry’s eyes clouded over and his hips were too weak to lift his frail body, I held that sweet dog in my arms for the last time as the kind vet relieved him of his pain. Then my son and I spread his ashes across the 18 acres he had lived to protect.
With each name, the loved one came alive in my heart, and when I was done with my memorial I wondered how a lantern made of paper could possibly hold up the weight of so much loss. Rising up from my seat, I now wondered how I would.
I walked to the last station, where an experienced gentleman slipped my homage onto its wooden base, fit with its inset candle. When he handed it back, I was surprised at how meaningful it had become to me. Carrying my vessel carefully back to the blanket, I was overwhelmed by the depth of emotions that had sprouted since I first picked up that green marker. As these feelings stirred, the words “spirit, loved ones, and loss” took on real meaning. Inside my body, great sadness and longing danced wildly alongside gratitude and joy, and I fought to hold back my tears. I longed again to touch the warm hands of each one of these precious souls whom I loved so dearly.
As the sun began to slip away, the final act of the Japanese Lantern Festival was set in motion. One by one, lanterns were released from the edge of the pond and began to drift across the water, their candles flickering in the waning light. People passed around matches to help light each other’s candles, and groups of strangers gathered in harmony wherever a small flame was burning. All around the pond, loving hands launched the little memorials.
The candle shimmered inside its sails as I walked my cherished cargo slowly toward the pond, my heart tight with grief. Kneeling by the water’s edge, I placed the vessel onto the smooth surface. Then gently nudged it forward to meet the tiniest whisper of a breeze. Instantly, I was moved by the magnitude of love and sadness that was attached to this little lantern’s voyage. As I let go of the tiny boat, the tightness in my chest and throat let go too. Understanding my life was rich beyond words from the love of both the family I was born into and the one I had created.
I struggled to keep sight of the word “laughter” as my white sails drifted across the glassy pond and converged with the others. In a few minutes, my lantern had disappeared; stepping back from the shore, I knew it was no longer mine alone. Facing the evening breeze, all of us on shore embraced the sailing spirit of our collective grief, and watched our individual memorials transform into a universal glow.