Each year I dread Halloween. While my neighbors are impersonating Ben Carson, Jeb! Bush and other spine-chilling creatures, Halloween fills me with grief. My 46-year-old brother lay dying on All Hallows’ Eve, 25 years ago. The trick was on us.
Ten years older than me, Jay was my surrogate dad. My workaholic father was rarely around, busy supporting three children, his widowed mother and his mother-in-law. A blue-eyed boy with a photographic memory, Jay was my mother’s favorite and I was his. My first childhood memory was Jay climbing into my crib, making me giggle uncontrollably. He protected me from bullies and thrilled me with risks as we pretended to be Olympic slalom riders down the legendary Suicide Hill nearby. Whenever I fell and skinned my knee, my usually gentle brother would hit my arm rather roughly. “Ouch!” I’d protest. “Does your knee hurt anymore?” Jay responded playfully.
He even invited me on dates with his high school sweetheart. She was not always enthusiastic about his baby sister munching popcorn next to her in the movies. When he married her after his first year of dental school, I felt jealous and abandoned, but had perfect material for therapy sessions. He left me again, for Vietnam, where he filled soldiers’ teeth dangerously close to the front lines, and later far away to Florida, with his wife and three kids.
When he was 44, Jay was diagnosed with lung cancer. A non-smoker, he was so far out of any risk group that the doctors missed the signs for a year, believing the pain he was feeling was a pulled muscle. After his first MRI, he confessed how eerie it was going into the tube, knowing his grim diagnosis. “It was like being in a coffin,” he said.
One night his wife called me, sobbing. “Only 30 percent survive beyond 18 months,” she said. I consoled her, sent him his favorite chocolates and books to read during treatment, and cried privately, 1,500 miles away, angry at such an unfair fate.
Two years later Jay was taking his last breaths in his bedroom, his wife and kids by his side, as trick-or-treaters relentlessly rang their doorbell all night.
“I couldn’t answer the door,” Jay’s wife frantically told me. “But they just wouldn’t stop coming, wanting candy. Finally I disconnected the doorbell.”
One Halloween when I was 8, my friends and I heard that a family down the block was doling out a different kind of sugar: money. In the days when parents didn’t escort their kids, my friends and I marched down to the house, whose residents we didn’t know. We leaned on the doorbell. Again and again. No answer, but we persisted. Finally an angry, weary dad answered the door. “Stop disturbing us,” he barked. “Our baby’s sick.”
We retreated, guilty and remorseful. His baby recovered from the flu, and we avoided walking by his house for a long time. My brother died the morning after relentless ghouls and goblins didn’t understand that his grieving soon-to-be-widow had nothing sweet to spare.
Jay’s tragic death made me question my faith in God. I focused my energy on nurturing his kids, who were in high school and college. Each year, Halloween was particularly painful for me, and I avoided any kind of celebration. Instead, my husband and I lit a candle in memory of Jay, recalling his warmth, humor and jokes.
After my daughter was born, it became difficult to hide out on Halloween. Her best friend’s mother made elaborate outfits from scratch as if she were a Broadway costume designer, making my parenting skills feel inadequate. But it also felt impossible to go gleefully into the spooky night when I was sadly missing my brother. Only once did I succeed in piecing together a cool Halloween costume for my daughter. We enjoyed watching Marx Brothers movies, the way Jay had introduced me to “A Day at the Races.” As an homage to my brother, I transformed my only daughter into Harpo. She wore my raincoat, which nearly reached the floor on her. I found a blonde curly wig in a store frequented by transvestites in the East Village, and a friend donated a horn to complete her outfit. Instead of saying trick-or-treat, she honked.
Through all this, I kept my Halloween grief to myself, not wanting to ruin her fun and excitement. Ironically, All Hallows’ Eve originated as a time to remember the dead, but today it’s morphed into a festive Mardi Gras. Holidays that emphasize a collective celebration of joy make us feel compelled, even pressured, to be gleeful along with everyone else—rather than be identified as the only stick-in-the-mud in the crowd. On a night of gaiety when it’s de rigueur to transform into something else, I’m cloaked behind an invisible mask of sadness.
Sometimes I tried to ease my sorrow by stuffing myself with my daughter’s overstock of candy. I was relieved when she was old enough to piece together her own costumes. When the new generation of trick-or-treaters arrived at my door, I put on a big smile, a clown with a sad interior.
Halloween never ends when your kids grow up. This year an email arrived from close friends, inviting us to their annual party, ending with the line “costumes are a must!” My husband has always hated dressing up, and for years agreed to show up in a Mr. Spock tee-shirt until he was typecast. Once I convinced him to reprise Harpo for a party. He put on the wig for half an hour, then tossed it off. I never feel like turning myself into someone else on the anniversary of my brother’s death, but only my husband knows my secret. I don’t want to cast a pall when everyone else is flying high, riding broomsticks.
Of course, Jay wouldn’t have wanted me to stay home and mourn him on Halloween, decades later. So I will show up among the grown-up pirates and witches in a Mets hat and a blue shirt, as usual deserving the award for Worst-Dressed-of-the-Night. On the way to the party I plan to hit myself in my knee so my heart hurts less. I’ll greet my friends with a pretend smile and force my laughter, realizing I’m wearing a costume after all.