A couple of weeks ago, I went for a hike and came upon a buck that had been recently shot. I could see the wound shot by his neck. I knew it was dead, because it was lying on the ground without moving. He had not decomposed, yet. It almost seemed as though it was asleep, resting. I came close to the deer, and felt deep sorrow for how he had been left there to die. It wasn’t his death that had overwhelmed me as much as the unceremonial and dishonorable way in which his life had been taken and left there to waste. Life is never sacrificed – only the physical in which the life existed. Life continues – its expression is abundant and limitless. But life can be dishonored when it is taken or treated in a manner that is not sacred. This, had happened to this gentle animal.
I wasn’t afraid to touch him, to lay my hands on his abdomen and pray for his spirit and transition. When I put my hands on his body, I felt a profound sense of peace. I felt the gentleness of his life in me and around me. I wasn’t disturbed by death itself. I could feel that there was more to life than his body; that he would continue on and transition to another journey. In that moment, I had a deep-seated realization that there was more to life than the beating of his heart. His physical body was just one of many journeys his spirit would take. I sensed that to be true for myself, as well. Maybe that’s why I felt so much peace – because I recognized death wasn’t and end. Nothing truly dies.
I recognized the life that existed in the deer was infinite. I could see and honor the life that had been, but also the boundlessness and timelessness of the life that continued to be.
I encountered this beautiful, gentle buck just three days before the anniversary of my grandmother’s transition. In that moment, I understood my grandmother’s life had not ended – no one’s life does. Her Spirit had chosen to move on, but she was still life. She’s still a part of all the abundance and connectedness there is, because life creates conditions for other life to flourish. My encounter with the buck made me feel so alive, so fearless. Death did not disturb me, but rather, awakened me.
I experienced this beautiful deer in the midst of fall, as trees and grass and mountains are letting go to prepare for the enduring of winter and renewal of spring. I met this deer during the season of Dia de Muertos when we honor, through prayer and rememberance, those who have transitioned. He graced me with the understanding that death is the closing of a cycle, and the portal for a new form of life to flourish.
The deer’s gentleness and grace reminded me of my grandmother. His body of hers. His essence was her essence. She was there in him as much as she was in me. We are truly held and protected by life beyond the life that we inhabit in our body. That day I understood that life is much more than what we see physically. Life is an energy of love, compassion, and kindness moving through all sorts of beings: animals, mountains, stars, rivers, trees, and humans. It’s in us. It’s around us. It’s beyond us. I felt it that day like I’d never felt it before. It was introduced to me by the illusion of death.
The deer’s antlers can grow back once they fall. Because of this characteristic, this animal has been revered in many traditions as a symbol of life regeneration. There’s a mystery around this ability that gives the deer a magical and mystical quality. The deer represents life’s magical ability to renew itself.
The dance between life and death is a peculiar thing. So delicate. So fragile. In our lifetimes we will find ourselves celebrating and uplifting life, but also mourning and letting go of it, ultimately letting go of our own. Life is constantly moving us through cycles, teaching us that life in its purest and unrestricted form is a series of transformations, and that what we perceive as death, is only a metamorphosis, moving our souls through stages of maturation. We must let go , in order to become the most purest and unrestricted form of life. Death is not and end, but the full embrace of life without the limitations of the physical form and the ego.
My God, I never thought I could feel life this intensely. I am sitting in profound gratitude for feeling so deeply connected to life and for these moments of deeper awakening that life presents me with. It’s been seven years since I last felt my grandmother, physically. Time just keeps on moving, only our memories and love keep it still, if just for a few fleeting moments, when we find ourselves reliving our experiences with those who have transitioned through our remembrance and dreams.
The winter solstice is nearing and it marks a time when the night is longer and the sun is at its lowest arc in the sky. One ancient definition of solstice is “standing still sun”.
Winter is a time when we stand still like the sun and we hone in on our wisdom by exploring our inner selves, as well as determination and resilience to navigate the darkness, which can be presented to us through doubts, uncertainty and hopelessness. It is a time in which we go into our cocoon and endure the process of transformation. In nature, Deer can see well with little light, and like the deer, when we are in touch with our intuitive wisdom, we have the ability to see through the darkness and help guide ourselves and others home, to the seat of our soul. Winter is also a time of being born again, not of the flesh, but of spirit. That beautiful deer I came upon in the mountains showed me that death is necessary, a pathway of going deeply within, of beginning to awaken to a more profound consciousness, of discovering the light within, and of building spiritual strength for the work yet to be done on this physical plane. Death is the gift for spiritual awakening, growth and renewal.
Nowhere better can you understand the precious vulnerability of life than in the desert.
Many cacti flower for just one day. It is magical to be able to see the gift of their bloom knowing how rare it can be. Some cacti endure 30 years of life in the desert before yielding their first flower, and then, just like that, after one day, she fades. Lucky is he or she who stills long enough to recognize this rare occurrence.
The first time I peered into a flower’s universe, she revealed herself. I discovered life in her most glorious form; took a breath, and finally understood.
Life sets her own pace, we have no control over her. The only thing we can do is embrace her fully, for however long she chooses to bloom. Let us admire and recognize the full worth of every being that comes into our lives; be in awe of their existence, for like the flower of a cactus, they may be gone before we can recognize the beauty they brought into our lives.
What a painful and beautiful experience it is to observe a spirit transition to its next life, and to feel the intensity of life as it is juxtaposed with death. For what is life, if not but the beautiful expression that is created from understanding and accepting her impermanence.
In memory of every beautiful being I have had to let go of.
Two days prior to my grandma, Tita, dying, she asked Carmen and I to give her a bath. “Escojeme una blusa para ponerme,” she requested. She wanted to get out of her pajamas and dress in her usually fashionable clothes. Perhaps it made her feel more alive, or she wanted to feel like herself before the cancer had taken over. When I pulled out the first blouse, she wrinkled her button nose and said, “No esa no.” Then I pulled out another blouse, and she wasn’t going for that one either. I thought it was so like Tita to be lying sick in bed, but still be meticulous about what she wanted to wear. Finally at about the fifth blouse, she nodded her head. Her blouses, like her spirit were bold and colorful, and I suspect that is how she wanted us to remember her. That day was a beautiful moment for Tita, Carmen, and I. Sus dos ninas, as she often called us, her two girls, were bathing her the way she had bathed us as babies. Here we were coming full circle with her, giving her all the love, gentleness and compassion she had given us our whole lives. I remember gently wiping down her body, imprinting every mole, every age spot, every vein in my memory, so that far after she was gone, I could still hold on to the image of her. We gently passed the washcloth over her body, noticing the frailty in her arms and legs, once robustly vibrant like the wings of a hummingbird. I vividly remember cleaning her vulva, trying to touch her gently, carefully. Her puffiness and her elasticity were gone. Lazy and unmoistened skin now held the residue of her memories. Her genitalia had been part of her gender, but I don’t know if she had discovered it as part of her womanhood. Tita was quiet, just following our movement with her eyes; watching us, perhaps imprinting every detail about us in her memory as well. It was the ultimate honor and sign of respect that Carmen and I could pay her for all she represented in our lives. It was also a moment my daughter and I would share for the rest of our lives, and perhaps a moment my daughter would remember when it comes time for her to come to terms with my death. I was proud of the kind of woman Carmen was turning out to be, and knew that TIta had played such an essential role in that.
A day later, Tita fell asleep and never woke up again. She had started to make gurgling sounds. She wasn’t swallowing saliva anymore, which was also a sign of the process of death. So the nurse handed me a liquid that I was to rub with a swab in between her gums and cheek. I remember massaging her soft cheek from the outside to make sure she was absorbing the liquid which would dry up her saliva and prevent her from choking. Her cheek felt just like it had all those times I grabbed her sweet cheeks and kissed her over and over again. I would call her, “mi gordis chula.” I didn’t want to be afraid of her or afraid of her death. I wanted to embrace every part of her – even the part that was dying. The muscles of her face had concaved and her nose and chin became very pointy. A week before, she had stopped wearing her dentures, they were too big for her mouth now. As the body weakens less oxygen is available to the muscles, the life force weakens, and more effort is needed to complete everyday tasks. About the same time she stopped asking for her glasses.
Prior to her passing, we had all taken turns visiting with her and saying our last goodbyes. Whatever the process of death was for her, we wanted to give her as much peace as possible by letting her know how thankful we were for all that she had done for us, and that we would look after each other. We also had the beautiful experience of having the Chaplin from San Diego Hospice come over and we all came together to pray, even the children. The Chaplin read a few passages from the bible, as we humbly bowed our heads in the presence of my Tita.
Then each of us spoke to her standing in unity, holding our hands in a circle, in her honor. My aunt promised she would continue to care for her husband (My Tita’s son) and told her that as long as she (my aunt) was alive, she would ensure my uncle was filled with love and joy. I went next. I assured her I would take everything she had taught me to live the kind of life she would have wanted me to live – full of compassion, full of joy and laughter, full of hope and optimism. I thanked her for all that she had provided for my daughter and me. For raising both of us to be strong, independent women with an untamed and adventurous spirit. I then assured her that I would always ensure Carmen’s well-being. Each of us, within the harmony of our family circle, testified to her love and released her to go in peace.
Two nights later, the whole family came together and drank tequila and sang old Mexican songs that filled the backyard with nostalgia . I cuddled with Carmen and fell asleep with her in her bed. Some time through the night, I remember awakening to my family’s drunken laughter as they warmly argued and told stories about Tita or some outrageous experience growing up with her. Like the time that she took off her four-inch stiletto shoe, and hit a police officer on the head with the heel, making him bleed profusely, because he was harassing her little brother and abusing his power. And how they ran down the street to quickly catch the bus, while my uncle, her little brother, was in a state of shock. I could hear Jose Alfredo Jimenez playing in the background, one of my Tita’s favorite singers, and my uncle’s slurred singing drowned by everyone’s laughter. Tita was in her room sleeping – she had been sleeping now, for more than 40 hours. I knew she wasn’t going to wake up anymore. My heart felt heavy as I thought of her in her bed, wondering if she could hear her family as they came together to grieve the inevitable. Our home had been a revolving door during my Tita’s battle with cancer, each of us caring for her the way she had cared for us. That night, I think everyone knew her transition was near. In Mexico, when people hold a wake for someone, it is an opportunity to celebrate their life, not to mourn it. Wake’s are usually accompanied by tequila, mariachi, laughter and food to comfort the heart. Tita used to say, “Las penas con pan son menos.” So that night we held a wake for my Tita while she was still alive, and I wondered if it made her happy to hear her family come together, her two brothers and sister, her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews. To feel the love and strength we had inherited form her.
I thought, when I heard them outside, of joining them, but I was consumed with an overwhelming feeling of emptiness and loss, like when your stomach feels like a bottomless pit, constricted by the pressure of agony, and all I wanted to do was hold my daughter, tightly – it was the only thing that made me feel safe. My heart knew this would be Tita’s last night.
The next morning, the hospice nurse arrived early and was explaining ways in which we could help make Tita more comfortable. Her temperature had been fluctuating from very cold to very hot, which was a sign that her body was beginning the process of death. The blouse Tita had asked to wear a few days before was made of rayon material and the nurse said because of her extreme body temperature it would be more comfortable for Tita to be in a cotton dress. The best way to get Tita out of her blouse was to cut it in half from the front. Sacrilege, I know, as that had been the blouse she had carefully selected. Tia Mary, my great-aunt passed me a pair of scissors, and as I began to cut her blouse, her eyes opened with a rapid flickering of her eyelids. Her pupils were grayish looking, almost opaque, and they rolled up until I could only see white. When I looked at the nurse, she told me it was time. A tear rolled from my Tita’s eyes. The tear of death. Lacrima Mortis. A single tear down her cheek at the last moment of her death, or life. The nurse said it was a reflex action. But research about this hasn’t been conclusive, mostly showing that the tear is shed by patients whose death is expected rather than sudden. I think it was a tear for us, for the final and most profound act of letting go. Later, we joked around and said she cried for her blouse, and that I would ultimately be responsible for that act of vandalism, LOL!
The day she passed, her upper teeth were sticking out over her bottom lip, so I rolled a towel and placed it under her chin, to support her jaw muscles and prevent her teeth from protruding so much. Once my Tita passed, I left the room, I didn’t want the last memory of her to be her lifeless body. That day we were allowed to keep Tita’s body all day at home. Those who wanted to, were able to come and see her body one last time. My brothers and my uncle ( her son) stayed with her, in her room, for a while. I could hear the old Mexican songs playing in the background disguising their uncontrollable sobs. In Mexico, men are supposed to be strong and stoic, especially at wakes and funerals, but not on this day. On this day, I was the stoic one. Keeping busy with the logistics and hosting the plethora of people that continued to stop by. The only tear I shed was the one that had rolled down my Tita’s cheek.
“Enfermo que come y mea, su Tita que se lo crea,” she would say when I was sick, and she’d make me caldito de pollo, Mexican chicken soup. This was her version of medicine for almost any illness, but I suspect it was el pellizco de amor that lured the illnesses away. That, and some vaporub on my feet. She would rub vaporub on my feet as if she was rubbing a magic lantern, which would make them feel tingly and cold, and then she would slip socks over them.
Every time I became sick, she’d start concocting her delicious chicken soup. I could here her sing the song she always sang to me when I was a baby, “Negra, Negra concentida. Negra de mi vida. Quien te quiere a ti?” Then I would respond, “Tú, Tita. Tú me quieres a mi.” You, Tita. You love me. She always served my soup with a chicken drumstick, my favorite. And she was serious about making sure I ate every last bit of it. “Otro poquito,” she would say. A little bit more, until I finished it all.
At night before I’d got to bed, she would make her delicious té de canela, cinnamon tea. “Para que se te caliente tu pechito,” she would say. So your chest can warm up. A stick of cinnamon, a little carnation evaporated milk, and the sweetness of brown sugar – it’s all I needed to fall asleep.
Tita Carmen was many things. She was a grandmother, a mother, a daughter, a lover, a fighter, a nurturer, and the main ingredient in our family. She was also an eater. As much as she loved to cook food for others, she also loved to eat. If you had food left over, she would gladly eat it! If you offered her food, she would take it in a heartbeat! Food was her way of connecting with family, friends, and life.
Mamá tells me that once when I was a baby, she caught Tita feeding me caldito de pescado, fish broth, through a straw, and when Mamá protested because I was too little to eat that kind of food. Tita simply told her, “A buen hambre, no hay mal pan.” For a good hunger there is no bad bread. Tita was not afraid of food. To her, it was a symbol of love and nurture.
Three things that she could never do without were, jalapeños, tortillas, and frijoles. She had to have at least one of those in every meal. Sometimes she ate the funniest things like spaghetti with tortillas. Or if we ordered take-out, she’d eat orange chicken and beans. And I think if she was craving it, she would have eaten cake and jalapeños.
That was Tita, adventurous and daring. Like the time she survived her first earthquake. She was in Mexico City and the earth shook like a giant maraca, a magnitude of 8.1! She said the buildings crumbled like, biscochitos, Mexican wedding cookies. Or the second time she was camping on the beach in San Felipe, the epicenter of a 7.2 magnitude earthquake where the sand shook like flour going through a sifter. But none of these scary incidents stopped Tita from living and exploring. In everything she did, she taught us to love life and food.
Maybe this is why it was so difficult to see Tita Carmen lose her appetite. I knew she was sick when she no longer wanted to eat. Mamá or la familia would cook some of her favorite dishes to open up her appetite, but even swallowing became difficult for her. The dichos she once said to entice us to eat were not enough. “Tripa vacía, corazón sin alegría.” An empty gut is a heart without happiness,” we would joke with her to put her in lighter spirits, hoping she would eat a little more.
As she became more ill, she ate less and less. She would only eat sopita de fideo, banana, and atole. Her sister would sing to her, “Vamos a tomar atole, todos los que van pasando, que el atole está muy bueno y la atolera se está agriando.” When Tita had enough energy, she would sing along, the way she would sing it to me when she made it for breakfast and served it with pan dulce. She could only eat a few spoonfuls at a time, but she tried her best for us, her family.
I remember feeding her sopita de fideo and banana. Tita had always been the one to take care of us, and now we were taking care of her. I fed my Tita the way she fed me when I was a baby, gently scraping the banana with a spoon because she could no longer eat it in chunks. Even when she could no longer eat, she would ask us if we had eaten. No matter how sick she became, she never stopped loving us, never stopped caring for us.
Tita always said, “Las penas, con pan son buenas.” As long as there was food, and family to share it with, we would be able to overcome our sorrows and problems. That is the legacy she left us. On the days that missing her just feels too overwhelming, Mamá and I reconnect with her, her spirit, by cooking the food she cooked for us with so much love.
Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude make sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow. -Melody Beattie
Today (and always), I am remembering that my survival is a result of the strength, sacrifices, and pure, divine grit of my ancestors. Their survival ensured my presence here, today. They dreamt me into existence because they believed in my capacity to continue the work of healing, liberating, and transforming. I owe them and honor them. They are the roots from which I am nourished, from which I grow, from which I become. May I, and those that come after me, never forget.
There are many ways to connect to our ancestors and our roots. One of my favorite ways is to cook the foods that the women in my family have cooked for generations. Wearing my Tita’s favorite mandil, every Dia de los Muertos, I work my way through the kitchen and feel her presence as I cook the mole in her honor, celebrating the way she taught me to cook it. This goes in my ofrenda as I prepare to welcome my ancestors back.
Though I always call upon my ancestors and know they are guiding me, this time of year allows me to see death as a beautiful process, a spiritual one, rather than eerie and gory. I get to cook the favorite dishes of my loved ones who have transcended, and welcome them to dinner, and speak their name through tears and laughter, and meditation. This is a time that is intentionally dedicated to commemorate my loved ones, but beyond these days, I continue to set intentions to connect with them through out the year. In a sense this is an opportunity to set new intentions and new ways to find deeper, meaningful connections to my past and my heritage, in order to flourish beautifully in the future. It is a time of gratitude and appreciation.
A beautiful reflection by my daughter, Carmen Elida Mason.
This morning, Shirley Temple passed away.
I really don’t have a great interest in Shirley Temple. In fact, I don’t really like her. But, she is important to my history.
When I was in grade school, my abuelita, Carmen Elida, gave me a miniature Shirley Temple doll.
It was a strange occurrence, really. My Mexican abuelita, born on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande, whose ability to speak English consisted of a vocabulary full of curse words, was fascinated by the darling of hollywood.
I’ll never really know WHY she enjoyed little miss Shirley so much. I just know that she did. What I do know, is that Shirley temple provided comfort. During the Great Depression, she allowed for an escape; she brought out the laugher and joy in people. Growing up in the 30’s, my abuelita looked forward to watching her movies and her precocious way of being. Perhaps it’s all related.
It has been a little over 3 years since my abuelita passed away from cancer. It has also been a little over 3 years since I last thought about that Shirley Temple doll.
To be honest, finding out that Shirley Temple passed away this morning was a hit to my heart.
Sometimes, we spend so much time trying to hold on to the physicality of what once was, that we forget that all things move on.
My abuelita came from a different era. The people she admired, the ones she saw as the most influential, are people who, as time goes on, will become less and less relevant to the world around me. That also means understanding that they, too, will die.
It’s difficult for me to deal with that reality. People can tell you that your loved ones will “live on in your heart” and “in your memories” but, let’s be honest, no one really ever stops being sad about the loss of someone close to them. And sometimes to deal with that pain, you just reach and reach for anything you can in order stop yourself from drowning in that sorrow.
My abuelita gave me that Shirley Temple doll because she wanted to share an experience with me. I think she wanted me to grow fond of Shirley Temple in the same way that she had.
I’ve never watched a Shirley Temple movie, or seen any of her dance sequences. And yet, I’ve come to appreciate little miss Shirley for the emotional connection my abuelita had with her. And perhaps that’s what’s most important for me. Not holding on to these physical representations, but instead the joy that my abuelita experienced because of them.
Knowing her, that’s probably exactly what she would have wanted.
As I stepped out of the airplane I smelled a familiar smell of dew and dampness, one which I had smelled before in places like Veracruz and Cuba. For a moment, I looked back hoping I’d see my grandmother trailing behind in her walker. My visit to the Philippines was the first time I traveled out of the country without her. The last time I had smelled tropical humidity was when we had visited Cuba for the second time. I remember arriving to the Cuban airport, feeling uneasy and uncertain – eyes watching and interrogating us as we walked through the corridors, before reaching the immigration booths. A wall lined with doors stood between us and Cuba. We were each escorted to a different door. I was asked for my passport and stood in long silence as the official probed and prodded at my passport, swiping it several times and staring intently at the computer, which I had no view of. All a sequence of actions, which heightened my uneasiness and uncertainty. I was finally told to go through to the other side. As I opened the door, I saw my husband waiting. I was relieved. A few minutes later, my daughter came out. My grandmother took the longest. Finally I saw a door open with a bit of sound commotion – loud voices, animated voices and laughter. I instinctly knew that was my grandmother. She had been entertaining the officials with her traveling stories, and everywhere she went, she made sure people knew I was a teacher at Hoover High School. She always had a way about her that brought out the best in everyone she came across. To her there was no distinction between a person of power or authority and someone with a less “powerful” role. She treated everyone with dignity and respect; pass the roles that identified them, right to their spirit.
I wanted to make sure, during the last months of her life, she was treated with the same dignity she had always treated others. Though she was dying, it was important she continued to be validated and honored. That she didn’t just become someone we were taking care of, but that we were standing in solidarity with her. The process of coming to peaceful terms with her death would be one that would connect us all. Coming to terms with death did not mean giving up on (her) life; it just meant we stopped fighting death. By surrounding her with love and family, we attempted to make the process less frightening for her.
My Tia Mary told me that even though part of my Tita was fighting to survive, there was also a part of her that knew she was dying. One after noon, they were sitting in Tita’s bedroom, and she was gazing outside, toward the backyard. All of a sudden, she brushed her fingers through her hair with a look of sorrow. My aunt, her sister, asked, “Que tienes Manita,” as she lovingly called her. My grandmother sighed deeply and responded, “Siento que se me va la vida, Mary.” She felt as though life was escaping her. She spoke of wanting to live a little longer for her family. She had dedicated her whole life to us, and the most difficult part of dying was learning to let us go.
A month prior to Tita’s death, she asked me to take her to the salon so she could get her routine beauty care – manicure, pedicure, and waxing, even though there wasn’t much hair to wax, her tattooed eyebrows ensured she always had perfectly shaped arches. Even in the midst of battling for her life, she refused to stop living. Tita was such a diva-fashionista. She had such a sense of style and a hip look that mirrored her hip attitude. She had also asked me to dye her hair; in all her eighty-four years, she had never worn it silver. It was the last “normal” girls-day-out we spent together.
As I was dying her hair, we had a moment where we talked about her cancer and how she felt about all that was happening to her. She had spent so much of her life caring and nurturing us, she just couldn’t fathom there being anyone else who would fight for us the way she had. During our conversation, there was a pause followed by Tita shaking her head as she gently sobbed. I asked her if she was crying because she was afraid of dying, but she shook her head and continued sobbing. Then I asked her if she was concerned about Carmen’s well-being, and I assured her I would always watch over Carmen the way I knew she’d want me to. But she shook her head again and said, “No, no es eso.” Then it hit me . . . she was scared to die before she had the opportunity to see Carmen again; she was surrounded by so much family, but Carmen was still finishing up her semester in college. When I asked if that was why she was crying, her sob became stronger, like a wounded child, and she nodded her head. It broke my heart. Carmen was not only a gift in my life, she became a symbol of hope and new beginnings for both my Tita and I. In her, we began to see the liberation we were all waiting for.
Two weeks before she passed, she stopped going to her radiation treatments. It had become a great struggle for her to attend the treatments; each time she went she became more fatigued. Getting dressed, walking to the car, getting in and out of the car, walking to the medical office, undressing again for the treatment, receiving the treatment, getting dressed again, and making the trek back home had become just too labor-intensive. And one day, as it was time for her to get ready, she grabbed my hand and softly pleaded, “Ya no mas,” shaking her head with the little energy she had left. I knew, without radiation, the opportunity for a miracle diminished greatly. I asked her if she knew what canceling her radiation treatments meant. She softly responded, “Si.” We both recognized in silence, it was officially the beginning of the end. My grandmother was a fighter, she never gave up, but she made that decision because her body could no longer fight. She got back in bed, and lay down like a vulnerable child, relieved that she would get to rest.
Carmen arrived a week before Tita’s death. For Carmen the process was much more difficult; she had not been present, as we all had, to assimilate Tita’s journey to dying. When Carmen left to college at the end of the summer, Tita was a vivacious and colorful woman, and returning to see her in such a declining state was heart-breaking to say the least. The following is a journal entry in which Carmen describes her coming to terms with Tita’s dying:
My Tita Carmen loved, and I mean, loved food. If you offered her food, she would take it in a heartbeat. If you had food left over, she would gladly eat it. Food was important to her because in many Latino cultures and families, food is what connects us. When I came back home for Thanksgiving break, Tita Carmen was basically gone. She could no longer move and her speaking ability was almost non-existent. But to me, one of the most important aspects she had lost was her desire to eat. Feeling hungry signifies life. It means that your body wants to keep fighting and living. My Tita Carmen had practically lost all sense of hunger. There were only two things she would eat, if that: sopita and banana. I remember when I fed her, she wasn’t very hungry, so we decided to give her a little bit of banana. My grandmother had always been the one to take care of us, and now we were taking care of her. (Tita’s maxillary muscles had started to weaken, so she could no longer fit her dentures in her mouth. This made it so that we could only feed her soft food.) With the banana, I had to be careful not to scrape too much onto the spoon, because she couldn’t have too much at once. I still remember what it felt like. . .feeding my grandma like a baby felt like I was saying goodbye to her. It was a coming to terms with the fact that she was going to leave us soon.
Two days prior to my Tita dying, she asked Carmen and I to give her a bath. “Escojeme una blusa para ponerme,” she requested. She wanted to get out of her pajamas and dress in her usually fashionable clothes. Perhaps it made her feel more alive, or perhaps she wanted to feel like herself before she died. When I pulled out the first blouse, she wrinkled her nose in a protesting gesture and mumbled “No. Esa no.” Then I pulled out another blouse, and she wasn’t going for that one either. I thought it was so like my Tita to be lying sick in bed, but still be meticulous about what she wanted to wear! Finally, at about the fifth blouse, she nodded her head.
That day, Carmen, Tita, and I experienced a beautiful moment in which we found acceptance and closure. My Tita asked to be given a bath. By this point, simple tasks like taking a shower were just too arduous. I remember Carmen and I gently wiping down her body with a wet cloth, trying to record in my memory every mole, every age spot, every vein, and every wrinkle. It was the greatest honor and sign of respect that Carmen and I could give her for all that she represented in our lives. It was also a moment my daughter and I would share for the rest of our lives, and perhaps, a moment she would remember when it came time for her to come to terms with my death. I felt proud of the compassionate and generous woman Carmen was becoming, and humbled that my Tita had played such an essential role in her upbringing.
After bathing her, in her deteriorating state, she lifted up her hand, struggling against her weakening body, and pointed toward Carmen. Then, as if she had weights on her tongue, she asked me with an affirmative tone, “Es mi niña,” pointing toward her chest. To which I responded, “Si chiquita, es tu niña, tuya.” She nodded her head in agreement and winked at Carmen, giving her a strenuous smile that radiated with joy. This moment came full circle to the day I gave birth to Carmen. Tita told me when Carmen was born, as soon as she was placed in my arms, I looked at her and asked, “Es mía, es mi niña?” She was so pure, so perfect. I couldn’t believe I deserved something so beautiful. What magic existed inside of me, that I could create such beauty? I imagine that’s what Tita felt in having had the opportunity to be part of shaping Carmen’s life. In a very perceptive way, Tita knew her spirit would live on in Carmen. Carmen was (is) our niña.
In witnessing my grandmother’s journey to a physical death, I learned to discern what I needed to let go of and what I needed to hold on to. Life is about nurturing another being, understanding that how we care for that being, whether it is a plant, a crop, an animal or a person, will determine the significance of our own lives. Sometimes we are even fortunate enough to nurture a being into life. Only when we love another being and stand in solidarity with him or her, can we begin to realize and embrace the miracle of life.
I didn’t know at the time, but in caring for my grandmother, I was nurturing her into death. It wasn’t something that came easily, especially when I had to come to terms with never touching or speaking to her again. Some deaths, like my brother’s, are tragic and unexpected therefore they cause a lot of grief and suffering before one can come to peace with them. But there is something very mystical about witnessing the dying process of someone who lived a complete life. As I watched my grandmother physically fade away, I was able to feel that she was more than her body. The last few days, when I couldn’t connect to her physically anymore, I felt a different energy, a presence that was unbinding and timeless. In some aspects, nurturing Tita into death was more profound than nurturing life because I found a deeper connection to spirit. Death is something we all want to understand, but can’t, so when I came face to face with its mystical essence, it hit me at a soul-level, the way nothing in this world has. I understood then, that spirit is the only lasting reality, and with that understanding, I knew that my Tita would be with me (us) forever.
Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a time in which we commemorate and receive our loved ones from spirit world. We welcome them back into the physical world and celebrate them and honor them so that they may know they live in our hearts and memories, still. This tradition comes from the very complex and intricate collision of our ancestors, pre-Columbian cultures such as Mayan and Aztec, and Spanish invaders who forced Catholicism into the beliefs of the indigenous people. (Visit http://www.inside-mexico.com/featuredead.htm to learn more.)
The celebration of Día de los Muertos spans a three-day period. Rather than focusing on death as a tragic and morose experience, it allows us to accept death as part of a cycle in our lives, a transition to our next stage of growth and evolvement. By using humor to reflect on death and giving living characteristics to death, we are able to accept it as a mystical and transcendental process rather than a mysterious and ominous one.
My Tita Carmen lived an arduous and heartbreaking life, of which she spent 14 years as a farm worker following the circuit throughout the state of California, from Bakersfield to Salinas. The arthritis in her hands and hip would later be attributed to the back-breaking work she endured – from picking frozen grapes with her bare hands to bending down during 12 hour shifts to fill crates of strawberries, to the blistering work of cutting onion stalks. I imagine that maybe the cancer that invaded her lungs could be attributed to the pesticides sprayed in the fields she worked.
And yet, Tita Carmen loved life and she loved her family. She was and is the pillar of our family. She raised her children, helped raise my brothers and I, and played an incredible role in raising my daughter, Carmen Elida Mason. Though in her later years she endured four hip surgeries, she never allowed any of the hardships in her life to limit her free spirit. She loved going on weekend trips to Las Vegas, and recently we found all types of player cards from the nearby casinos in her drawers. In the last five years of her life she traveled to Cuba (twice), Hawaii, San Antonio, Texas, Veracruz, went on a cross-country trip through Mexico to Cancun with her siblings, embarked on a cruise, went on a weeklong camping trip to Big Sur, and endured a 7.2 earthquake while camping in San Felipe, the epicenter of the earthquake.
As her body lay in bed withering, she still had the ability to crack a joke, give a wink, and even share a smile. Even through her pain and discomfort, she worried about whether we were eating. Two days before she passed, she asked my daughter and me to bathe her and dress her – she didn’t want to wear a gown anymore. Though she was fatigued and somnolent, she still had the wherewithal to let me know which blouses she didn’t like – I had to take out four different blouses before she pointed to the one she liked. Tita Carmen always dressed very youthfully and always made sure she was fashionable. She never stopped dying her hair, and she made sure she got a pedicure and manicure once a month. She was always bugging my mom or me about getting her eyebrows waxed. I never saw any hair around her tattooed eyebrows, but she always insisted it was time for her waxing.
We are so afraid of dying, and yet we live in fear. What I learned from my Tita was the more we fear life, the more we will fear death. Life is about embracing everything, fully – the pain, the sadness, the joy, the excitement, and even death, for you can’t have one without the other. There is a spiritual beauty that comes from it all. Maybe what we are all most afraid of is the third death – when we stop being remembered and loved.
I’ve never committed to Catholicism, but I find myself celebrating Dia de los Muertos as a tribute to those things that my grandmother had a deep connection to. Continuing her costumes and traditions is my way of ensuring her legacy lives on. I even find myself including Jesus and La Virgen de Guadalupe in my prayers and meditation because I feel such a deeper connection with my grandmother through those religious beliefs that anchored her to spirit and peace.
I feel her spirit in everything I do and I know that she is not only a part of me, but she is with me supporting me through my journey, guiding my heart. When I’m cooking black beans the way she taught me, I feel her presence. Especially when I quietly inspect each bean to take out the ones that are too bruised or shriveled. In those undisturbed moments, I can really sense her presence. Or when I wash dishes in her mandil (Mexican Apron) and look out the window with nostalgia the way she used to. I not only sense her, but I become a personification of her. These are the ways in which I keep watering the roots that provide me the foundation and strength for how I live my life.
In Mexico, there is a belief that a person dies three times. The first time is when their spirit transcends from their body. The second time is when their physical body returns to mother earth. And the final death is when the person stops existing in the memory of his or her loved ones.
Each of us becomes a bigger whole of the person that once existed. In our DNA we carry the person’s suffering, their sacrifices, their strength, their wisdom, and their love. And only when we recognize our DNA as the manifestation of those spiritual links, do we allow for our ancestors to never experience the third death. Most importantly, it is in our journey to a higher self that we honor our ancestors and heritage.
“There is ancestral energy intertwined into all our DNA. As such, even if any of our parents abandon (leave) us, we know we have inner elders to call upon.” Frank de Jesus Acosta
The following is a literary calavera that I wrote for my Tita Carmen. Though literary calaveras are imaginary humorous, satirical, or political obituaries written for people who are still alive, I thought I’d use this as a means to recall some of her funny idiosyncrasies and her passing. It loses a lot of its humor and meaning when translated into English, so I am sharing it in Spanish.
Ay Calaquita Chingona
Te llevaste a mi Güera
Le ganaste a La Llorona
Y me dejaste el alma en pena
A mi Güerita comelona
Como le gustaba comer
Y no la tuvieras con hambre
Porque te empezaba a joder
Ir al casino le encantaba
Pa’ distraerse y jugar
A las maquinitas les echaba
Para poder ganar
Pero vino La Tiznada
y la suerte le arranco
La dejo con casi nada
así fue como marchito
Siempre andaba de pata de perro
Hasta que un día La Huesuda la paro
Le dijo “Oye Mi Jarocha”
Yo te llevo a bailar Danzón
Pero la Güera nada pendeja
A La Huesuda le contesto
“Oye mi Coatacha ya estoy muy vieja
No me vez que camino con bastón?”
Pero La Huesuda por vencida no se daba
Tarde o temprano la iba a convencer
A mi Güera como la rondaba
Y un día la invito a comer
Sabía que eso era su mas grande tentación
La sentó a la mesa y antojitos le llevo
Un platito de pozole, taquito de camarón,
Enchiladas de mole y pastelito de pilón
Como las penas con pan son menos
La Triste a la Güera le confeso
“Ya llego tu hora”
Pensando en su familia, se lamento
Entonces con dignidad, de la mesa
Mi Güerita se levanto
Se sacudió su mandil
Y a su Coatacha le contesto
“La vida te da sorpresas
Sorpresas te la vida”
En ese momento
La Güera comprendió
Que entra la vida y La Muerte
Existe un gran complot
Se entrego a La Muerte con la misma convicción
Que se entrego a la vida
Porque en las dos existe
Una hermosa harmonía
Y aunque su partida
Nos dejo un hueco en el corazón
A mi abuelita nadie la olvida
En el cielo, ahora baila Danzón!
My altar has pictures of loved ones whom I continue to commemorate. And though I don’t have pictures of those who came before my Great-Grandmother Cristina, I call upon them as my elders and guides.
Today (November 2) is the last day of a 3 day celebration, in which I was able to strengthen my roots and connection to my heritage, my loved ones, and death. Though I always call upon my ancestors and know they are guiding me, this time of year allows me to see death as a beautiful process, a spiritual one, rather than eerie and gory. I got to cook the favorite dishes of my loved ones who have transcended, and welcome them to dinner, and speak their name through tears and laughter, and meditate. Yesterday was Dia de los Inocentes and today is Dia de los Muertos, and they are days intentionally dedicated to commemorate our loved ones, but beyond these days, we must create the intention to continue to connect with them through out the year. In a sense this is an opportunity to set new intentions and new ways to find deeper, meaningful connections to our past, strengthening our roots, to flourish beautifully in the future.