I WAS PRESENT when my uncle died. I didn’t plan to be, but once I understood his end was near it felt right. I had been the flower girl at my aunt and uncle’s wedding, the ritualized beginning of their life together, so witnessing this milestone event of my uncle’s death seemed appropriate. And I wanted to support my aunt, I told myself.
My aunt is my father’s youngest sister. They are the last living siblings from nine brothers and sisters; both their parents are also long gone. My aunt wears this fact like a veil. Sometimes it’s barely noticeable; sometimes it’s the only thing she sees. While my parents’ divorce had kept me apart from my aunt for much of my life, it seemed important, the fury of those old family dramas now covered with dust, to offer my aunt support in her husband’s last days, hours, then moments. She was hardly alone. My aunt has three grown daughters, and my uncle comes from a huge family, most of whom were packed into the hospital room where he died at 2:20 p.m. on Sept. 22, 2013.
My aunt told me she was happy to have me, a representative from her side of her family, present. So I was there. For her, I said.
But to tell the truth, I was there to learn. I have plenty of information about the beginning of life. People in my generation received hours of tutoring, lecturing, indoctrinating, and warning about puberty, childbirth, birth control, and “safe sex.” Although we were actually not given much information about sexuality—I had to learn that on my own. But I knew even less about death.
In those days during my uncle’s passing, I felt the need to understand what some call the great mystery, the last journey, the final frontier. When my uncle died, would there be a bright light, a cold shudder in the room? Would time stop? Speed up? Would angels descend on clouds of harp music? Would there be someone or something to lead him from his physical body when he passed? Where was he going? Was he ready?
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ groundbreaking book On Death and Dying was released in 1969. But many in the West, even people of faith, still have a problem talking about death in a way that is not infused with fear. As Mirabai Starr writes in Living Fully, Dying Well, “In spite of significant advances in death and dying education since the 1970s, American society on the whole still seems to suffer from fear and denial about the reality of death. In a culture where the casualties of our wars are invisible to the average citizen, where many of our elders are institutionalized, and where most of our ill pass away behind the closed doors of impersonal hospital rooms, we are becoming increasingly unfamiliar with one of the most natural and sacred functions of living: dying.”
I’ve been drawn to the subject not out of some morbid curiosity, but perhaps because I have a genetic memory of embracing death as a fact of life. I am Mexican by heritage, and in Mexico, and in other parts of Latin America, the approach to death is less shrouded in silence or smothered with horror.
“To the inhabitants of New York, Paris, or London, death is a word that is never uttered because it burns the lips,” writes Mexican author Octavio Paz. “The Mexican, on the other hand, frequents it, mocks it, caresses it, sleeps with it, entertains it; it is one of his favorite playthings and his most enduring love.”
I wasn’t interested in caressing, sleeping with, or entertaining death when, during my childhood, one of the kids in my Lincoln, Neb., neighborhood had discovered old family photos in the crawl space in his rented home. Among the photos were images from several generations earlier of stoic-looking people, dressed in pitch-black suits and dresses, all arranged around a propped-up coffin, which held a corpse. We were stunned. The once-common tradition of bringing the dead into the home was one thing, but documenting it in what to us resembled a grammar school class photo, with the dead person as the organizing centerpiece, was almost too much to make sense of. We had so many questions that we dared not ask. Instinctively, we knew we were looking at something profane but also profound: the idea that the dead could share a place in the everyday and the ordinary. How did that change?
ALTHOUGH I WASN’T there to witness it, the first and most painful death I experienced was my grandmother’s. I was a young adult, many miles from home, attending the University of Texas at Austin. Her death wasn’t a surprise. I had a dream about my grandmother two days prior to her death. Though she didn’t explicitly say the words, the message was clear: She intended to die. Some have called my dream a “visitation,” others a “ghost story.” Still others are deeply troubled by my suggestion that this dream indicates to me that the membrane separating the living from the dead is much more porous than many would like to believe.
Death may ultimately be unknowable, but that doesn’t mean it must be frightening. I began praying to my grandmother after her death, and praying to others that I knew and adored who have died. I don’t pray to them in the way some pray to a deity, asking for miracles. I pray for solace. I pray for guidance. I pray to find the words when I feel speechless. I pray to make choices that will make me worthy of being one of theirs.
“We need to see what is lovely in what the world has declared ugly or loathsome,” Debbie Blue writes in her thoughtful book Consider the Birds. In this case, she’s specifically speaking of the vulture, the animal given the most thankless task of cleansing the world, of clearing away the debris of the dead.
“We are all going to die, whether old or young,” Blue continues. “But what if we weren’t smothered and dimmed and made mean by our fear? What if we could be attentive ... and not be overcome with our assumptions about the goodness or badness, beauty or ugliness. ... We need to have a little more imagination. The well-being of our children depends on this.”
AFTER MY FATHER was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, he declined rapidly. He spent some time in a care facility but was eventually moved back home when a health crisis convinced everyone he was nearing the end of his life. I’ve dwelled in that emotional storm, raw with pain and anguish, hoping for a peaceful passage while also terrified at the thought of letting my father go. That was five years ago. So far, he’s lived far beyond everyone’s expectations.
Still, the illness has left him bedridden, unable to speak, and absolutely dependent on others for his needs. In the meantime, many of my contemporaries’ parents and loved ones have died, and illness has stricken dear friends and colleagues. And while I’m happy my father has survived, I can’t help but wonder: What is he waiting for? My father was a robust and active man; to see him trapped in his body is sometimes too much to bear—until I am reminded that he is also a man of great imagination. A former painter and consummate storyteller, he is someone who could make games out of the silliest of circumstances. Though his coherent moments are drawing shorter and rarer these days, he maintains the ability to find pleasure in life—perhaps more so than many of the so-called able-bodied among us who can be far less attuned to our spiritual selves, our imaginative selves.
“We must die to the flesh, in a sense, in order to experience more of the life of the spirit,” observes Edward W. Bastian, referring to a Sufi concept, in a conversation with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi included in Living Fully, Dying Well. Schachter-Shalomi responds that the Sufis are not suggesting a “killing of the body” but rather overcoming the idea “that we are only a body of flesh.” (Italics are mine.) “When considering the end of life,” Schachter-Shalomi continues, “we have to learn to say, ‘I am not my body. This body is worn out, but I have other organisms. I have a spiritual organism. I have a mental organism. I have an affective organism; only the physical organism is being discarded at this point. I am not dying just because I am giving up my body.’ The sooner you can make that distinction, the better.”
But making that distinction is easier said than done. So much experience is carried in the body. Our sense memories delight and define us. It’s difficult to imagine an existence beyond caresses, the joy invoked by a loved one’s laughter, the way that the taste of a certain food can take you back to your mother’s kitchen or the scent from a lover’s garment can make you swoon.
MY AUNT TELLS me she needs to clear my uncle’s things but cannot bring herself to do it. Not yet. She’s not ready. I offer to help. Her children offer to help. She wants to wait for spring, for warmer weather. That makes sense, we tell her. She apologizes for being so teary and needy between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. every day. She doesn’t know why, but that time of day is the toughest for her, a time when the anguish of missing my uncle is renewed. I know to make myself available if she calls and needs company.
At first, I was worried that I would say the wrong thing or not say enough or say too much. I prayed to my grandmother to help me find the right words. I eventually understood that my job is to listen, offer a hug, or share a quiet meal.
I asked my aunt if she can feel my uncle’s presence. She wasn’t put off by the question. Instead, she seemed encouraged to contemplate something beyond the present emotional pain.
“Yes,” she said, a wan happiness peeking through the dreary light of mourning. “Sometimes I sense him.”
Belinda Acosta is the author of two novels as well as nonfiction pieces that have appeared on NPR’s Latino USA and in Poets & Writers Magazine, The Texas Observer, and elsewhere. She is in the Ph.D. program in creative writing at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.