Updated: Jun 29, 2021
For a few months of the year, as the world sinks into winter, Persephone descends into the underworld, leaving the land barren and her mother, Demeter, distraught.
This month of October would have seen my daughter Sayuri’s tenth birthday, were she still alive. On the day of her birthday, I travelled to the edge of the Yorkshire Dales to visit the memorial woodland where she lies buried among the birches. I cut some flowers from the garden to take with me, shoving them into my rucksack and running down the road in my haste to catch the train to Leeds. As the train drew into the city centre, I took out the slightly crushed flowers and held them in front of me on my way to the next platform and the next leg of the journey. Pale pink Cosmos and red Rudbeckia fading with the memories of summer. They had no fragrance, but smelled fresh. I had sowed these annuals for the first time last year when my child was still alive, and just as I was struggling to comprehend her death, I’d watched almost with disbelief as the seedlings pushed their way into the light. The flowers I now cradled in my hands were the self-seeded offspring of those pioneer plants, and their offering marked another phase in the cycle of life and death.
From the grove of young trees at Tarn Moor Memorial Woodland, you have a panoramic view of the surrounding hills. Some days, they glow in the sun. On other days, the wind sweeps and buffets the land. I laid the flowers amongst the grass and dock leaves where Sayuri was buried. It was raining lightly, and I sat with a friend by the grave under a rainbow umbrella. We lit incense and played the kalimba, a thumb piano I had bought from my drumming teacher who was also now deceased and buried somewhere in this same place. A songbird answered the gentle metal tones, somewhere on the edge of visibility in the leaves of the trees. We drank sweet Italian wine, reminisced about Sayuri’s life, talked about the journey of the soul after death and the way in which the dead continue to touch the world of the living long after they are gone. Our ceremony was a faint echo of the Day of the Dead, when cemeteries in Mexico come alive with candles and music. This magical celebration takes place at a threshold time of year when the veil between the worlds is said to be at its thinnest, and our miniature enactment was a fitting tribute to a child born ten years ago in the heart of Mexico.
In life, as she is in death, Sayuri was my Persephone. She was born with a neurological condition that meant she never developed an awareness beyond the baby stage, never came close to learning to walk or talk. She was barely in this world, but her belly laughs would carry over her joy from whatever other realms she roamed. I lived with the knowledge I would lose her, and at one point I started to close my heart to her, subtly but indisputably, thinking ahead to the life I would lead after she was gone. The realisation of what I was doing hit me, and the importance of coming back into the present. Sayuri was my greatest teacher: she taught me that the fear of loss could only ever cripple me, and that I needed to choose, in every moment and with every action, love over fear. She taught me to dance more wildly, to sing nonsense loudly, to dissolve into letting go of expectations, and to breathe in gratitude for our days and years together. For her, I will return again and again to the Underworld to remember this lesson and to see what emerges from the darkness.
Alighting on the railway platform that morning in Leeds, masked and herded into a one-way system, I was hyper-alert in the grip of this tense atmosphere. I felt the suppressed grief of a people experiencing the loss of the life they had known and the connections that had upheld them, a people severed from the Earth and ever more from each other, and floundering in the not-knowing of these times. Yet, as walked in step with the crowd holding my humble collection of pink and red flowers, a profound sense of Grace entered the crown of my head and cascaded through my body. The beauty I held in my hands was so fragile, yet as long as it could be perceived, the flame of Spirit burned still. I felt protected by and in service to beauty. In my heart, the Navajo prayer:
“Beauty before me,
Beauty behind me,
Beauty above me,
Beauty below me,
Beauty all around me.
I walk in beauty.”
Walk in Beauty.
In memory of Sayuri Amankaya Chew (2010-2019)
Text and photo by Junyi Chew