Present Moment essay 26: Valley of Death

Once again the valley of death and grief are a yoke on my corazón. My brother Miguel Angel chose to leave this earth four days before my scheduled visit. My plan was to check out the extent of his cancer, report back to familia in the US, and consider when I would return again. My plan was to sit next to his thin body and read him my memoir, which begins the day I met him and ends the last day I saw him eight years ago before he returned to México.

I receive an urgent email four days before my trip from my niece to call and a FB message soon after of his death during a work gathering. I step outside, needing to be outside, near mama pacha, under the great eastern sun, where I can dissolve in tears, text a good friend, and call all my Mexican family numbers to no avail. My phone carrier figures out there is a block on International calls. They unblock my phone to no avail because by then my family is not at home and the cells phones still won’t connect. By then they are at the funeral home. By then Miguel’s body is being prepared for a viewing and cremation. By then I am on the phone with my friend, wailing that I had known his time was close and should have gone down sooner. My pain sears me with damnation for being too caught up in a logically timed trip.

Miguel was – and I am – of the heart — foolish and giddy with hope even when smoke clouds our vision and all around us is smoldering resentment and bridges burning. I sit in the sun and sob, full of terror that I have become too distracted by issues less important than the great matters of life and death. A co-worker finds me and my body shakes with grief in her arms, because loss require many tears for many years. It is a stream that ebbs and flows as life continues its majestic journey from dawn to dark, crushing loss to unimaginable joy. A flow that revisits other losses and creates a wave to knock us into an undertow of unresolved yearning.

Arriving home, I change my flight to the next day, packing casually as the flight isn’t until 12:30. I sleep little and wake groggy. I finally reach my sister Rosita who confirms the mass is at 7 PM, just when my flight would arrive. I go into action, canceling my current flight and buying a new ticket with the tentative assurance I can be refunded due to the circumstances. Calling a Lyft, I hurriedly finish packing and endure a longer than usual drive due to the heavy morning traffic.

My heart is in full motion now, willing me forward while accepting I will arrive twenty minutes before my departure time instead of the requested three hours for an International flight. Logically speaking, no chance in hell to make that flight. I pull up a map of the airport so I know to turn right when I enter the terminal, racing with my carry-on to security. No line. Two men in front of me are going slowly through their paces so I ask to go ahead of them and they agree. I keep running toward gate 10, passing 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. I hear my name over the loud speaker. I race past 6, 7, 8 and down the escalator. By then my lungs are bursting and I am panting, willing my legs forward past 9 to the very last gate. Screw logic I think as I settle into the emergency row, alone and ready to burst with relief and gratitude.

I attend the 7 PM mass, remembering the prayers in Spanish as I sit between my sisters Rosita and Tere and look at the photo of Miguel and his querida hija Aranza. We are all a bit befuddled when the priest asks us at the end of the service to clap for Miguel, but we do so. We then become a procession that sidles into the narrow hallway behind the main seating area. Passing walls lined with small vaults, we stop at the open one that already contains the ashes of Miguel’s mother and nephew. A song by Pepe Aguilar that my niece Aranza has picked plays on her mother’s phone as she sobs quietly, mounting a small ladder to place the wooden box of her father’s ashes inside.

I sleep in a bed the first night on Rosita’s bedroom floor near where Aranza sleeps in Rosita’s bed. Rodrigo, her 20-year-old grandson, sleeps in the room I am in now, on the first bed, by then moved to the room where Miguel spent four months dying. Aranza now sleeps on a foam mattress in the same room with me. This is all to say there is alot going on and the chess pieces of familia move sideways, diagonally, and backwards more than forward.

Thus, sleep is difficult even though I spend a good nine to ten hours in bed, keeping to the Mexican CST time zone at night and to my PST in the morning. Grief is a greedy lover. My dreams are intense and fractious. Amid the time change, a lack of exercise, much caretaking, and my family’s different eating patterns, I practice compassion. I tell Rosita I am here to be the ‘gray’ in the black and white of death. Grief eats at our perspective and demands answers that insist on a winner and loser.

It is about the same temperature here as where I live in Marin, but Rosita’s house, like most houses in Mexico City, only has portable heaters. Aranza and I set up the oscillating one wherever we go in the chilly house, as we play cards, practice jacks, and eat meals at odd hours. It warms our room each night and comforts our broken corazones.

“Soy muy dispersa.” We repeat this phrase over the next eight days when we lose our train of thought or forget what we are doing. We chuckle and feel our way back to the present moment with each other’s help. “You were talking about this and then you said that and then you started saying A so you were probably going to talk about B.

On Monday I accompany Aranza and Rosita to the therapist, bringing my laptop as I imagined sitting in the waiting room while they met. Pues no. He meets with clients in his living room, so I sit on the smaller couch and tenderly witness the session, listening to both of their expressions of grief and loss. Finally, Rosita tells him to ask me something. I feel my  sadness expand through my body and my voice quaver as I speak. Cannot remember what I said, but I know my wish was to add some shading and texture to what they had said. We end up eating at a place called Sushi Miguel, which I love for bearing my brother’s name. You can’t make this shit up.

Later that night in Rosita’s home, I go to my room to ground myself, to allow others to be away from my aura that pulses strongly. It can be sharp and forceful apart from my wishes to protect me. I had excused myself from watching a movie together. My niece comes in to say the DVD (old school) isn’t working and to spin in pirouettes around the room. Then el gato Sebastian pads in and climbs over my keyboard. My sister Rosita follows a few minutes later to say the DVD is still not working and to kiss me goodnight. She easily slides into telling stories in her masterful way, building tension slowly and tortuously, delivering perfectly timed punchlines with wonderful voice inflections. I keep writing amid the creatures surrounding me because I must. Because it is what writers do with angst and pain. Rosita notices she is wearing a slipper on one foot and a clog on the other. Sebastian climbs on my, uh, that space between the laptop and my chest.

“Doesn’t he bother you?” asks Rosita.

“Pues sí,” I answer.

“Do you want me to take him away?”

“No.” I pause. “If I removed everything that bothered me I would always be alone in a beautiful garden.” Rosita laughs and leaves with Aranza to go downstairs. Sebastian then settles on my neck, purring and occasionally gouging my neck with his claws. He was buena compania for Miguel as he lay in the same bed I have snuggled in for five nights now.

I spend Tuesday,  el día de la Virgen de Guadalupe, with Tere and her familia, eating at Johnny Rocket’s, something I have never done in the US. Afterwards we wander the mall, enjoying the lights and a break from underlying grief. My family here is BIG into Christmas decorations. I even try on some shoes, but I cannot find a style and color I like, which is a shame as the prices are so much more reasonable than in the US. Life does go on amid loss.

I spend several hours the next day sitting in the sun on a bench with Rosita and my laptop, translating my memoir with much more ease than I thought I would. At times Rosita makes the ‘time out’ signal and adds a story, asks a question, or gives her analysis of family dynamics. Aranza is picked up by her mother and abuela later that evening and I search my belongings for something to give her to seal our new connection. I decide on a small bottle of oil full of healing yerbas I had received at a training. I had used it once and she liked the smell. Many abrazos later, nos despedimos. Rosita and I continue wading through the memoir past midnight, avid readers caught up in observing ourselves and other family members as characters full of flaws and courage.

Fretting the next evening we will not finish the memoir, I tell her we can finish via phone or WhatsApp video. We end the storytelling near midnight again, snuggling in my bed with Sebastian. I sleep poorly this last night for a number of reasons and wake with a mild headache and tears brimming. Now that I am leaving, all the cortisol I have been releasing from my adrenal glands to supplement my natural energy is ebbing and grief is breaking open my heart again. I miss having one of my dad’s pañuelos instead of grabbing nearby toilet paper and napkins to mop up my tears.

I am grateful my last meal is with both Tere and Rosita, bringing us together to forge a plan for supporting Aranza. As I sit in the restaurant booth, I diagnose my headache, lack of appetite, and urge to vomit as an incoming migraine. They occur rarely for me, but this one is not surprising given my week. I love it that Tere asks and the waitress gives me some aspirin. This would never happen in the US. That and my electrolytes packet dissolved in water ease the surge of disequilibrium, but I still sadly leave my chilaquiles uneaten on my plate.

Tere drives me to the airport with Rosita and the braid of joy, sadness, and fullhearted longing that accompanies me on every visit to México surrounds my corazón as I hug them each in turn. I am once again alone in the emergency row, grateful I avoided a full-blown migraine with aggressive allopathic medication and the EFT tapping I was  taught by my naturopath when my first one occurred a few months after my mom’s death. I sooth my puffy eyes with the amazing vistas after take-off and then a romantic comedy that is predictable and sweet — much better for my soul than the fake ‘churro’ I leave for the cleaning crew.

Life and death hold hands all the time. They do not fear each other. This year and every year they welcome me to the valleys and mountaintops to sit and gather the unpredictable lessons each holds. I often say a day without tears is a day my heart is not doing its job. It is a day I have succumbed to the limitations of my logical mind and forgotten to listen to the wisdom of my corazón. The dominant US cultural norm of thinking over feeling breeds denial. I received a tough lesson on its impact last week. I can only go forward with a renewed commitment to listen and honor the beat of my heart despite the clamor of logic.

Que descanses en paz Miguel. I look forward to our new connection across the realms of vida y muerte.

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