This week I experienced death in a few forms, in two different countries and cultures, and saw the beauty of embracing all of it — of making bridges for ourselves and for those who passed onward.
Last Wednesday evening, the 6th of November, in California, U.S., my Aunt Nancy slipped away from the pain and exhaustion of fighting against the cancer that had taken over her body. The same breast cancer that she had been battling for years, that same cancer that took to her brain, and wasn’t letting go of her body — no longer does she have to fight that beast. She went peacefully, thanks to her amazing family around her. Her daughter put on her favorite song of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” as artfully played on the ukulele by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, and she let go of the breath that connected her to the struggle of this world. She was at rest, she was taken somewhere without struggle, she finally had peace and was no longer defined by cancer. What an amazing woman, Aunt, Mother, Sister and Daughter. Such selflessness and gentleness of spirit I would be hard-pressed to find again.
I am miles and countries away from my family here in the mountains of Guatemala. The thing that I am most saddened by is the fact that I cannot physically be there with and for my family, especially my cousins who lost their mother too soon. Of course, I will be there with them in spirit and in prayer, in emotional support and words of encouragement. There is not going to be a ceremony or memorial or funeral for Nancy; as per her wishes, since, according to her, she didn’t want to be too burdensome. There is no pressing need, then, for me to come home early from my job in Guatemala to attend a funeral. However these ceremonies are for the family to say goodbye, for celebrating the life, for sending the dead on their journey surrounded by prayers and love and support. Thankfully we will come together at Christmas as a whole family, supporting each other in this hard time, and commemorating her life and death.
But something else has happened this week that allowed me to deal with my aunt’s death in a very unique way. I experienced solidarity and connection in death in a mountain town in Guatemala, named Magdalena.
Late Thursday night of last week, November 7th, my host father’s aunt passed away. This woman, Cornelia, was also the host grandmother of three of my students. The day before, my host father was consoling me, hugging me, and encouraging me to be strong. One day later, I was given the opportunity to show him the same love and encouragement. We were there for each other, part of the same family for this small period of time, for this shared time of grief and support.
Then beauty and God came in the form of a funeral in Magdalena. I was graciously invited to the funeral of this woman, and went to the town’s cathedral for a Catholic service that respectfully framed her life and death, and impacted me beyond what I was expecting. Four students and I sat near the back of a packed church, I covered my head, prayed the liturgy, and took communion with the mourning family and community. The priest’s words were meant for the family of Cornelia and the Magdalena community, but they were delivered with such tenderness to my heart. Words of encouragement to be happy for the soul at rest of our loved one who is no longer with us. Words allowing us to grieve and cry because they are healthy good emotions. Words of appreciation for life and the love of God and one another that weaves us together.
I have to say a few words about the astounding community of Magdalena: they come together for each other. Without fail. Without hesitation or expectation of repayment. The town is one big family of caring members who have known each other all their lives, grown up together, and have experienced both joy and pain together. When a family member dies, a vigil is immediately set up at the house, members of the community come to help the family prepare the body, the funeral, and the food. People stay up all night to keep the vigil and help the family. The funeral is the next day, everyone packs the church to the brim, and after the ceremony and prayers and communion, family members lift the coffin onto their shoulders and lead the procession to the graveyard. It is such an impressive, striking sight to see the whole village walking behind the family and coffin to the graveyard, up hills, in complete silence and reverence.
Once we got to the graveyard, still colorful and decorated with flowers and streamers and kites from All Saints Day (November 1st), favorite hymns were sung (“Pescador de Hombres” sings the hauntingly beautiful words, “Junto a ti, buscaré otro mar” Together with you, I will look for other seas). After singing and praying together, the family burst into powerful wails and cries of “Adios, mama!” and truly grieved for their beloved Cornelia. But it doesn’t end on those painful notes of grieving. The family then invites the whole town to their home as they serve coffee, beans, tortillas, and hospitality. This is after staying up for nearly two days, working through their grief for all the preparations. That is why so many women of the community come together to cook and make ready the traditions. It is customary for the family to receive condolence gifts of rice, beans, sugar, salt, and corn. This signifies sustenance and helps support the family’s basic needs.
Just yesterday, Magdalena had another death. The mother of my neighbor, Carlos of Carlos and Thelma fame (they run an art school and I have never seen them unsmiling or not joking. Some of my friends lived in their home for our stay in Magdalena) passed away. My host parents stayed up last night for vigil and went to their second funeral this week. As I type, the house is open to all those who come by to pay respects and share hospitality and food together. I look out from the roof I am on and see the rows and rows of chairs and people bringing life to a home that had been burdened with death.
As hard as death is, there is such a human beauty that comes with and surrounding it. I was blessed enough to get to experience its fullness here in Guatemala. All the traditions and customs I was invited to be a part of helped me deal with saying goodbye to my Aunt Nancy and face my grief with hope and a new perspective. Living in another culture teaches me so much and it is something I have valued since I first lived abroad as a teenager. But this bridging of understanding between cultures got straight to my heart and God used these sad circumstances to uplift me, teach me, and grow my understanding of cross-cultural views on life and death.
May peace and blessings be on you all,