Tag Archives: afterlife

Living There

Among my father’s favorite memories were the times he played baseball as a kid in his East Dallas neighborhood.  Growing up in those environs more than six decades, with scores of other Hispanic families, ago gave him a sense of community and freedom.  He had plenty of others, he once told me: holding me for the first time; buying this suburban Dallas home; working in the yard; and playing with our dogs.

“I keep reliving those moments over and over,” he said, following another late night talk.  “If I could go through them again, I would.”

Most of my own best memories occurred in the 1990s – the best decade of my life so far.  And one of the greatest was my 1991 trip to Ixtapa, México – a small hamlet on the nation’s Pacific Coast, northwest of Acapulco and far from the touristy ruckus of Cancun and Cozumel.  That was the furthest away I’d ever been from home at the time and only the third time I’d been outside of the U.S.  My first two international trips also were to México; college spring break jaunts that were hazy and less relaxing.

Ixtapa was incredibly soothing and quiet.  It was the first time I’d ever seen the Pacific Ocean, or any ocean for that matter.  The closest I’d come to an ocean was the Gulf of México.  On my first night, the pounding of the waves along the shoreline echoed deep into my mind and lulled me to sleep.  While I savored the beach and the warm weather, my parents feared for my life; that I’d be kidnapped by local hoodlums.  That had crossed my mind, too, but I was enjoying the simple sights too much to worry.

The Ixtapa excursion allowed me to live out a few of my dreams: lounging along the waterline for hours; roaming through a quiet Mexican town, wallowing in the community without boisterous intruders or Americanized visages; stuffing myself with as much food in the all-you-can-eat buffets; and, of course, consuming plenty of alcohol.

Sitting in the sand, wearing a skimpy Speedo, and letting sea water roll around me remains one of the best therapies I’ve ever had.  I thought, if some giant tsunami accosted the beach and sucked me into the Pacific depths, I probably wouldn’t mind.  Another fantasy didn’t develop until the moment I stepped onto the beach, beneath a cloudy sky.  I didn’t get to experience it, which is probably a good thing.  It might have killed me.

A tall islet laden with tropical vegetation languished innocuously offshore – perhaps a mile at the most.  I thought it beckoned me, and after a couple of days, I dared to attempt a brief excursion to its narrow shores.  I tried swimming out to it, but quickly realized the allure was strictly my own cogitation.  And I wisely returned to shore.

I returned home looking like I’d been attacked by some animal rights activists, which startled family, friends and coworkers.  I couldn’t praise Ixtapa highly enough.  I loved it then and I love it now.  I hope I can visit again.  If not now, then maybe in another life – if there is such a thing.

I’m not thinking of reincarnation, but rather, a life beyond this one.  The post-Earth kind of life.  Out there.  Wherever it is.

I’ve never been so arrogant as to say I know exactly what will happen to me after I die.  I’m certainly not a self-righteous evangelical Christian or “72 virgins at the end of the hallway” maniac.  But, for the bulk of my life, I’ve wondered what happens to us when we cross over to that “Other Side.”  What do people do?  How do they navigate time and space?  Why do they not visit us back here more often, especially when we call out their names in prayer?

I don’t know.  But I’ve begun to ponder a simple possibility – why would they come back here?  For any reason.  As much as they love us.  Why return to Earth?  They’ve served their time in this life.  So, what awaits them – all of us – on that “Other Side”?

All of those happy moments they experienced.  The people who have gone before us are, perhaps, reliving the best times of their lives.  They’re once again experiencing those events that gave them the most pleasure and made them feel the happiest.  I don’t suppose this would include the times they might have hurt other people for pleasure – whether it was accidental or deliberate.  Certainly not deliberate!  I imagine others who shared those grand moments slide in and out of the reoccurrences.  A sort of crossing time and space.

Therefore, my father is reliving the days he played baseball in his youth; when he first met my mother; holding me shortly after I’d been born; caressing my dog, Wolfgang, just a few years ago.  He absolutely loved that little four-legged monster!  Petting him was one of the simplest – yet best – pleasures my father had.

All of those things made him feel good.  Why in the hell would he come back here to help me with Earthly troubles?  Why would anyone want to give up reliving those special times to deal with plumbing problems and credit card debt?  They’ve already dealt with that shit!

I can’t imagine my father trading in the joy of having his own lawn for a day of listening to me moan about lower back pain!  Who in their right mind would want to make that kind of trade off?!

That’s why we don’t see our dearly departed that much.  And it’s why tampering with séances and Ouija boards is dangerous.  Disturbing the dead may be the subject of many bad jokes.  But I think it’s wrong.  It’s also kind of pointless.  Imagine you’re undergoing a full body massage and a relative interrupts to tell you they got into a road rage incident.  Wouldn’t you be pissed and want to startle the crap out of them, as they got ready for bed?

What’s it really like on that “Other Side”?  How is it living out there?  Again, I don’t know.  And I’m really not eager to find out anytime soon!  I have more stories I want to publish.  I want to adopt another dog.  So, I’ll continue paying my Earth-bound dues.  And one day I hope to lounge in that Ixtapa surf for hours – not concerned with anything.

3 Comments

Filed under Essays

Still Here

Who’s there? Wolfgang peering into my parents’ bedroom on August 1, 2016.

Who’s there? Wolfgang peering into my parents’ bedroom on August 1, 2016.

My gaze remained fixed on my computer – as it always does, when I become engrossed in either a news article or my own writing, leading to that vicious brand of dry eye syndrome – and not paying much attention to anything around me.  But, out of the sandy corner of my right eye, I noticed Wolfgang lift up his head.  It wasn’t a gradual rise, like he’d heard the refrigerator door open and hoped someone was reaching for a snack.  Rather, it was more of a sudden jolt, as if a wayward noise had startled him.  Often, I don’t hear those same noises.  As a dog, millennia of canid sensory attributes finely-tuned and ground deep into his mind and body, he can hear a bug crawling in the next room, on carpet, with a rainstorm battering the house around us; he could see that same bug – minuscule as it may be – ambling across the carpet.

But this was different.  No refrigerator door; no bugs; just…something.  It was enough to make me stop; giving my eyes a much-needed break.  Then I saw a shadow; a nanosecond of movement.  Wolfgang whipped his head around, and so did I.

A couple of years ago I wondered, in an essay, what it would be like to be deceased.  I’m in no hurry to find out, but as both a spiritual person and a writer fascinated with the gothic (even the macabre), I’ve thought about it for most of my life.  It’s become an especially important matter to me in the three months since my father’s death.  Raised Roman Catholic, I was taught to believe in angels and saints.  But, when I heard an elderly nun once say “there’s no such things as ghosts,” I couldn’t reconcile the two.  Angels exist; ghosts don’t.  What’s the difference?  My first views of angels came from the stained glass windows of the church where I became an altar boy in the mid-1970s.  I acquired a more salacious vision from John Phillip Law’s “Pygar” in “Barbarella.”  (I actually prefer the latter.)

Having divorced myself from the Catholic Church years ago, I seek emotional fulfillment in the simplest of things: reading, writing, exercise, music, vodka, and, of course, Wolfgang.  I still believe in a Supreme Being, but I don’t subscribe to any religious ideology.  It’s too confining.  Yet the concept of an afterlife has remained a constant fixture in my mind.

Over the past three months Wolfgang’s behavior has become more curious.  His attention is being constantly diverted.  He lifts his head and stares at something – or someone – in the distance.  He’ll just hold that gaze – not for a few seconds, but several minutes.  One night, as I worked on my computer, and my mother sat in the den reading, Wolfgang perched himself just outside my parents’ bedroom…and stared straight ahead.  He didn’t move for what seemed like an hour.  Finally he stood and entered the room.  Turning to his left, in the direction of a nightstand, he sat after a few minutes.  And remained there for the longest time.  I didn’t want to disturb him, so I left him alone.  After a while, he ambled back to a spot near me and plopped down…still looking ahead into my parents’ bedroom.

“What’s that?” I asked him.  I knew the answer.

His eyes, bright pools of dark chocolate, bored into my face.  Those eyes – and his animated expressions – always conveyed more than the average person.

Of course, I’m biased – not just because he’s my dog.  More so, because I love dogs – and most animals for that matter – than I do people.  Animals don’t gossip; call you names; cut in front of you while driving; throw a self-righteous attitude in your face; or believe the world revolves around them, and science just needs to prove it.  In other words, animals don’t piss me off just for the hell of it.

I’d have no problems pulling out a gun and firing into the windshield of a car whose driver almost ran me off the road because they were engrossed in their cell phone.  But I’d think twice about putting down a dog that bit me out of its own fear.

México won’t execute drug kingpins because they don’t have the death penalty.  Yet, they retain the brutal tradition of bullfighting and conduct rodeos where horses routinely break their necks.  Tell me I’m not the only one who thinks that’s twisted.

I created a controversy on Facebook about five years ago, when I stated that I’d rather see a thousand drug addicts and / or sexually-irresponsible people died of AIDS than see one animal suffer because of human neglect and abuse.  Just about everyone missed the “drug addict” and “sexually-irresponsible” part.  How dare I think someone who fucks around like a rabbit on Viagra shouldn’t cry too loudly when they come down with something a tad bit more severe than gingivitis.  If political incorrectness was a course, I’d fail miserably.

“What’s that?” I asked again.  He just looked at me, and I gathered he was telling me exactly what was going on.  Domesticated animals comprehend a bevy of our words.  How many of their vocalizations do we humans understand?  I just had to figure out what those expressions meant.

And I finally figured it out.  He knows things; meaning, he sees and hears things that are there; others who are there.

And I know that who’s often there isn’t visible to the eyes of the contemporary human; our brains having become too cluttered with practicality and technology.  Yet, even before now, I had proof.  Nothing that can be verified independently, but proof to me nonetheless.

One weekday in the spring of 2011, as I crouched before my computer – making a concerted effort to launch my freelance writing career, while trying to ward off the dreaded office-chair butt affliction – I sensed someone move behind me.  At the same nanosecond, Wolfgang bolted into the hall from his spot near my chair; a modest growl spilling from his snout.  Both him and that ubiquitous figure unnerved me; giving my eyes that much-needed break.

But I kept my focus on Wolfgang.  He stood in the hall, looking towards the den.  His head cocked to one side slightly and – apparently satisfied no danger lurked – returned to his place near my chair.  He circled around that few square inches of carpet, before plopping down.  He sensed my confusion and tossed me a comforting gaze.  “Don’t worry,” his eyes reassured me.  “I got it settled.”

Settled what?  He sighed, exasperated.  I’m certain he was thinking what a naïve dumbass I must be.  In retrospect, I’d agree with him.  But I stepped into the hall and peered towards the den.  That figure – that someone – I thought, was an old woman.  I returned to my chair.

Wolfgang gave up trying to explain it to me and resumed napping.

Then my mother came out of her bedroom.  Hugging the doorframe, unsteady from a midday slumber, she gave me a confounded look and asked, “Where’s grandmother?”

I squinted at her.  “Who?”

“Where’s grandmother?” she repeated.

I hesitated, equally confused.  I knew who she was talking about, but I didn’t know why.  “Why are you asking me that question?”  It really startled (upset) me.

She woke up and rubbed her eyes.

I turned briefly to Wolfgang.  I was trying to tell you, his eyes said.

Aside from my mother’s three siblings and their father, I only met a handful of her relatives – all from her father’s side of the family in Michigan.  I got to know the Mexican side through antiquitous photographs and stories; ghost stories, in a way, stuck in my mother’s memory.

My maternal grandmother died in México City on Christmas Day 1940 from some miscellaneous stomach ailment.  Her own mother, a widow by then, had returned from living in Washington, D.C., where she worked as a nanny for the daughters of a U.S. Navy admiral.  Along with being a good cook and natural-born caregiver, she was self-educated, which included teaching herself English, and an opera aficionado.  She stepped in to help her son-in-law (my grandfather) raise his four children.

She had led a life mixed with hardship and religiosity (the latter supposed to hinder the former).  But then again, what woman born in 19th century México – or anywhere outside of royalty and the industrial elite – didn’t?  At the age of 14, a handsome, 21-year-old young man with steely blue eyes spotted her in the yard of school she attended, introduced himself and decided to make her his bride.  A few months later her mother dropped her into a wedding dress.  He gave her five children, two illegitimate children, a bout of syphilis and an early widowhood.  By the time my German-American grandfather, Clarence, arrived in México City with an uncle selling farm equipment in the mid-1920s, my great-grandmother’s husband was already gone.  When my grandfather met the brown-eyed beauty named Esperanza who would become his wife, he apparently was smitten.  He actually courted her, and it was a little while before they got married.  My great-grandmother didn’t want to impose her marital tribulations upon her own daughters.  Clarence and Esperanza married in 1927.

Esperanza’s mother was a curiosity, my mother recalled.  Not even five feet tall, her internal organs were switched; her heart, for example, rested on the right side of her torso and was too big for her body.  They could see the veins on the sides of her neck pulsate, a feature that made her wear high-necked clothing.  Her eyes were more golden in color; “ojos de un perro,” is how she described them – “eyes of a dog.”  But, more intriguingly, she also bore enough personal faith to build a bridge between her heart and the spiritual netherworld.

Supposedly women possess that unique ability more than men.  I believe women are just more willing to admit it.  Acknowledgement of contact with “The Other Side” is conceding, in a way, a dependence on the inanimate – the emotional.  And men aren’t permitted such comforts.  In México, in the U.S., or anywhere they want to call home and be considered valuable.  But I feel that having no spirit is akin to having no soul.

Shortly before the death of someone my great-grandmother knew – a relative, a friend – she would encounter a mysterious figure; a woman cloaked in black with a veil-like accoutrement almost completely covering her face.  She’d mutter the name of the individual – whoever was about to die – and then vanish.

My mother and her older sister, Margo, never really believed her, she told me.  Their grandmother was just an old woman with a strange little mind carved up by Roman Catholicism and too many health problems.  Until one afternoon shortly before Christmas 1940.

Esperanza had fallen ill, and no one could figure out why.  My mother and Margo accompanied their grandmother to a local open-air market; the type that were so common back then and now quaintly occupy a spot on travel shows.  A woman, clad in black, suddenly stood before them.  All Margo and my mother remember was hearing their own mother’s name – Esperanza.  It seeped through the woman’s lace veil and into their ears; a sound that abruptly instilled an overwhelming sense of dread in the two girls.  Hearing them both recount the incident some four decades later made my skin tighten.  Less than two weeks later, Esperanza was gone.

My grandfather was headed back to Michigan in the summer of 1942, when the train he rode stopped in Dallas.  A job ad in a local newspaper caught his attention.  It offered something like $20 per day as a machinist, a fortune in those days.  He applied for and got it.  He moved into a nearby boarding house and, within a year, had managed to save enough money to buy a house in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas.  In September of 1943, his four children arrived with his mother-in-law, after a three-day trek by train from México City.  He felt he had to move.  As an American in México during a global war, he didn’t just feel out of place – he was out of place.  By then my great-grandmother had secured her role as de facto matriarch.

She died in Dallas in August of 1963; less than three months before I was born.  At the funeral, my mother almost passed out, as much from the emotional loss as from the intense heat.  Standing outside in Texas during August is not a pleasant experience.  My great-grandmother had blessed my mother’s stomach just days earlier; holding a tiny wrinkled hand above my restless unborn self, her other hand clutching an aged crucifix.

My father’s older sister, Amparo, was at the same funeral.  She knew how close my mother had been to her grandmother and (knowing those damned Texas summers) had brought a large jar of cold water.  After my father helped my mother back to the car and had her drink some of that water, my mother looked up.  And, as she recalled years later, she spotted a small figure dressed in black some distance away – a woman with a black veil covering her face.  “Go away,” my mother said into the hot air, and the woman left.

That crucifix, now over a century old, hangs unimposingly above my bed – just as it did throughout my childhood and through the three apartments I lived in before returning to my parents’ home a few years ago.  And, thinking back now, on that spring afternoon in 2011, I realize Wolfgang must have seen my great-grandmother.  Her presence most certainly startled him at first; he’d never seen her before.  But she assured him she meant no harm; she’s one of us.

On another nondescript afternoon, I was trying to help my mother find a pair of small scissors.  She always kept them in her nightstand, but she couldn’t even find the scissors there.  I looked through it, too, albeit with a greater sense of frustration.  I was enmeshed in one of those “Moods.”  How did I end up like this?  Unmarried, childless, 40-something, scarcely employed with a bad back, helping my mother search for a pair of miniature scissors.

I turned to see Wolfgang.  “Really?” his eyes bemoaned with a frustrated sigh.  “This is bothering you?”  His gaze slithered around me and towards the nightstand; he then scampered away.  “You’re getting on my last nerve!” he grunted.

I almost followed him, but something made me stop.  Look again, I heard in my subconscious.  I opened the bottom drawer of the nightstand and filtered through a menagerie of items.  My fingertips grasped a small envelope, which held a black-and-white photograph…my mother’s maternal grandmother.  It was her passport photo, probably taken in 1943 in preparation for her move to the U.S.

My father had said frequently he hoped he’d go before Wolfgang.  He’d grown so attached to him that the dog’s death would be too much to handle.  I told both my parents a while back, though, I believed he’d go before them.  I also told them that we needed to prepare ourselves for his inevitable demise.  In 1985, when we had to put down our beloved German shepherd, Josh, we had never considered the impact such a death would have on us.

Now my father is gone, having passed away in this house – just as he wanted – and Wolfgang keeps tossing his gaze around.

So I look at the various photos of my father and know for certain – he’s still here.

My father at his 60th birthday party in 1993.

My father at his 60th birthday party in 1993.

Leave a comment

Filed under Essays

What’s It Like?

road-in-the-grass-field-310-2560x1600

My father sat on a riding lawnmower; an interesting thing considering we’d never had one. But, as he traveled across a vast field of bright green grass, he came upon some people standing beneath a large tree; an oak, he thought. Getting closer to them, he realized they were some relatives: his parents, his oldest sister, his older brother and another sister. They all had one thing in common – they were deceased. He could see his parents clearly, especially his father who died in 1969. He could make out the face of his older sister. His brother looked to be in the shadows, and the other sister was cloaked in a black veil. But he knew it was them.

“Do you want to come with us?” his mother asked him.

My father turned to the expanse of grass and nodded his head no. “I can’t,” he told her. “I have to finish mowing.”

Then, he woke up. It was late 2004, and he abruptly snapped out of a depressive funk. He’d lost his second-oldest sister and his older brother within a five-month period that year. Our family was still reeling from that. But, when he recounted the episode to me, he wondered aloud if his time was coming sooner than expected.

“No,” I told him. “They were testing you. They wanted to see if you were ready to give up. But you obviously have a lot of things left to do in this world.” He’d always liked gardening, I reminded him; a trait he’d gotten from his mother. The large field of grass was just a metaphor for life.

What’s it like, I wonder, to be dead? How do people navigate in the afterlife? I’ve always been fascinated with that; what happens to people when they die. Unlike some people, I don’t pretend to know what exactly will happen to me once I expire. But, unlike others, I don’t believe this is it; our life here on Earth is all we get. I’m not so arrogant as to express a firm knowledge of such things. I just have my own beliefs.

When my father’s oldest sister died in February of 1998, we had a simple ceremony in a chapel at the cemetery and then watched her be interred in a place near her father. That’s how she wanted it: just throw her body into a box, drop her into the ground and go on with our lives. Nothing fancy; no drawn-out church mass; no miles-long funeral procession; and no rosary. When I told a close friend about it, he expressed shock that we didn’t have a rosary; a pre-funeral Catholic affair akin to a Protestant wake.

“I hate to tell you this,” he said matter-of-factly, almost ominously, “but your aunt’s chances of getting into Heaven are slim.”

If we’d been sitting face-to-face, I would have smacked him. “Who the fuck do you think you are?!” I screamed into the phone. I unleashed a slew of other invectives, before slamming down the receiver.

This came from a guy who was raised devoutly Catholic, like me, but who – at some point in his early 20s – detoured into voodoo. He had renounced the latter and returned to his Christian roots. Yet, his self-righteous proclamation about my aunt’s spiritual survival was more than an insult; it was an abomination.

Several years ago, while attending a Catholic parochial school, an antiquitous nun (I knew of no other kind) abruptly informed me and some other students that animals have no soul. They just die, she said, and that was it. I was horrified. Did that mean I would never see my beloved dog, a German shepherd named Joshua? I cried deep inside. How could that be? Why would God be so cruel as to deny we animal lovers the company of our pets in the afterlife?

Fortunately, I’ve long since recovered from the perversions of Roman Catholicism and Christianity in general. It’s one reason why I divorced myself from that mess – a sin unto itself. Religion makes people say and do stupid shit.

Theology or not, I’ve never really been afraid of the unknown. I’m not a Goth-like critter who looks for ingenious new ways to kill himself – well, not anymore. My fascination with death started when I was young; perhaps, because I really did think of killing myself. The relentless bullying I experienced in school and the loneliness of being an only child made me contemplate suicide when I should have been thinking about sports or games.

Now, as an adult, I still think about death, but not so much dying. I consider it the afterlife, or more appropriately, the after-this-life. It’s another level the human soul attains; a world superior to this one. I’m not eager to get there! I’m just curious about it. I tell people I have so many books I hope I get to read them all before I die. But then, maybe my after-this-life activities will include reading. And playing with dogs!

6 Comments

Filed under Essays