Tag Archives: death

Frozen in Dust

8926 C.E., Northeast Texas

They’d found another one.  It was huge.  A drone surveying the area counted 109 figures; its sensors initially identifying them as human.  Rivas and Mugabe had stood in awe upon studying the preliminary data, alongside the rest of the team.  If 109 human bodies did lay in the rubble – remnants of what they believed to be a hotel – it would be the largest collection of human remains the team had discovered in more than a decade of scouring the locale.

The region itself was gigantic; what once had been a placed called Texas.  More specifically, the northeastern stretch; where two of the most heavily-populated metropolises had once thrived.  Until seven millennia ago.  Before the 2019 event simply known now as “The Cataclysm.”

“There have to be thousands, if not millions,” Rivas had told the expeditioners just a day before the drone returned with its stunning data estimate.  “Not just here in this one building.  I mean, across the entire region.  These cities were among the grandest of their time.”

“Right now,” Mugabe interjected, “let’s just concentrate on this one building.  Or what’s left of it.”  He didn’t want the group to get too excited about anything; least of all a site containing so many bodies.

“Yes, of course,” Rivas concurred with a grin.

The crew was already stretched; pushed to the precipice of exhaustion as they continued searching through the unimaginable layers of dirt, rock and dust.  But whenever they did find the remains of someone, they’d also noticed the individual was clutching an object in their hands.  All of them – each and every corpse – held a similar object.  Every single one of them – holding tight to a single item.

The 2019 sunstorm had been massive; the worst on record.  Then and now.  Among the archived records of all the sunstorms hitting Earth before and since, none matched the 2019 event.  That’s why scientists dubbed it “The Cataclysm.”  The word is so bland, so ordinary in a way; yet it said everything.  To the untold numbers of people who studied the event – and the subsequent, wide-scale societal collapses it induced – the term “cataclysm” itself had come to signify that one unimaginable episode.

It was inevitable.  By the start of the 21st century, humanity had come to rely upon technology too much.  People across the globe identified with tangible pieces of metal and plastic more closely, perhaps, than their own families and friends.  In fact, personal interactions seemed routed through the mystical electronic clouds they’d created for their world; a world they claimed was better than any before.  To their descendants of the 90th century C.E., such flippant beliefs were almost laughable.

It remains a miracle – no minor one – that anyone should survive to the present day.  Any human, that is.  When the multitude of satellites cluttering the ionosphere fell silent in the days immediately following “The Cataclysm,” it appeared – from what records remain – a brutal chain-reaction of minor cataclysms exploded across the planet.  Power plants – able to remain operational for a while – eventually died; as did water treatment plants, telecommunication lines.  Everything attached to an actual or virtual wire just…died.

And thus, so did people.  Countless numbers of people; millions of them.  A mass exodus of souls floating from the decaying flesh of their hosts; rising past those same darkened satellites and up into the brighter stars.

Perusing photos of other recently-discovered sites made Rivas and Mugabe think of an even more ancient but equally horrific episode: the destruction of Pompeii.  Pictures from 20th century archaeologists captured the disaster in a manner never seen before.  The city-state’s residents – trapped in the environs of what they surely thought was a safe place – caught off-guard in the worst possible way.  Their bodies and terrified expressions frozen in swarms of scorching lava for future humans to see and study.  There was nothing like it.

Until now.

But this – this was on a much larger scale.  Pompeii was a single prosperous city with the unfortunate coincidence of being situated beneath a ubiquitous volcano.  What the explorers saw in the remains of some nondescript building in the midst of a place once teeming with life was a tiny fraction, a sliver of the human wasteland that stretched across the globe.  The societal collapses had driven many of their ancestors underground into vast caverns constructed for just such an event.  Or something like it.  But surely even those initial survivors couldn’t have foreseen the rolling swathes of brutality that followed the darkening of those wicked satellites; surely even they couldn’t have imagined the blessed sun betraying them in such a vile manner.

Yet, they lived; they survived.  They survived to repopulate and prosper with a greater understanding of their own humanity, their vulnerability, their fragile nature.  They survived to love that sun unlike their immediate ancestors who lived within the confines of those mystical clouds.

Rivas and Mugabe stared at those antiquitous photos of Pompeii’s victims; frozen in lava; terrified and helpless.  And then they looked at the drone photos of the bodies in this building; the 109 discovered so far.  And they realized the vast difference between the two events; a difference apparent in the faces and hands of the dead.  The people of Pompeii had died clutching their loved ones.  The victims of the 2019 event died clutching their cell phones and laptops; waiting for the Internet to come back up.

Rivas smirked.  “Bunch of dumbasses.”

© 2017

Bottom image courtesy: Freaking News.

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Echoes on Carpet

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“Goodnight, little boy.  I love –”  I stopped, catching sight of the blank floor space against the wall, next to the closet in my room.  He wasn’t there, curled up into a crescent of silver and white atop a towel riddle with holes and tears.  Wolfgang was gone.

I was reaching for a lamp on an end table, when I started to tell him goodnight and that I love him – as I’d done for years.  I remained in that odd position – propped up on my left elbow, right arm stretched out towards the lamp – for what was probably just a few seconds, but felt like several minutes.  I wondered how long I could hold that position without dropping dead.

I finally shut off the lamp and laid back onto my trio of pillows.  Beneath a single sheet, clad in nothing but skin and body hair, I felt a stick of anxiety materialized in my throat.  I rattled off my usual stanza of prayers to all those who’ve gone before me, pleading for their protection and their strength.

I looked again at the spot on the floor where Wolfgang would camp out every night; that ragged towel – seemingly held together by strings – bunched up beneath him.

I don’t know why, but Wolfgang had a fetish for towels.  It may have come from his previous daddy, Tom*, my former friend and roommate, who carried the puppy around in a lunch cooler; an old purple beach towel of mine that he’d stuffed into it.  The towel provided some comfort to a tiny critter who would grow into a 20-pound monstrosity filled with eons of canine angst.

In early 2005, I lived and worked temporarily in Northeastern Oklahoma on a government project that was part of the contract my employer, an engineering company, had.  The area, bordering Kansas and Missouri, is a mostly toxic wasteland where soil and water had poisoned by decades of lead and zinc mining.  I stayed in a nice and recently-built hotel, along with a coworker and our supervisor.

For most of the time I was in Oklahoma, Wolfgang stayed with my parents.  But, for the month of May, I rented a car and drove all the way up there because I’d decided to take Wolfgang with me.  Some of the hotel staff came to like him.  The first time someone with the housekeeping staff heard him barking, she was certain I had a pitbull ensconced in the room.  There mere sound of his voice frightened her.  But she and a few others were mirthfully surprised to see how small he was.

That little thing can make that much noise?!

Yes, he can!

One night, as I sat at the desk in my hotel room, working on my laptop, I noticed Wolfgang exiting the bathroom with a small white towel in his mouth.  Because of his presence, I made a deal with management that no one was to enter the room, unless I was there also or in the event of an emergency.  Wolfgang’s bite matched his bark.  Consequently, I let bath towels pile up beneath the sink.

A few minutes later, I turned to Wolfgang and was startled to see that he’d removed every single used towel from beneath the sink and to a spot in front of a cabinet.  He lay in front of the pile, curled up like a hairy conch shell.  I laughed.

I keep trying to think of things like that, now that Wolfgang is gone.  It’s the same with my father.  Memories of him behaving like the lunatic he was – imitating Flip Wilson’s “Geraldine Jones” persona, threatening to tickly my mother – roll through my mind.  It eases the pain of losing both of them within a 5-month period.

Today is the first birthday I’ve marked without either of them.  It’s such a weird feeling.  How could this happen?  Why, in the name of all that’s great and wonderful in this world, did they pass away so close together?  Talk about timing!

Last month I finally decided to rummage again through the storage shed in the back yard; a dilapidated structure where my parents stuffed anything and everything they didn’t want or need in the house.  It also had doubled as a tool shed for the plethora of gardening equipment my father had accumulated over the years.  In the fall of 2014, I carted a few large pieces – a dead lawnmower, an antique weed eater, etc. – to the front yard for him.  I taped a cardboard sign with the words “FREE TO GOOD HOME” across the mess and left it all there for whomever.  It was gone before day’s end.

At the same time, I retrieved several boxes of old National Geographic magazines.  “These don’t belong out here,” I told my father.  Old Home & Garden magazines, maybe, but not National Geographic.  I hauled them all into my room and rearranged them, alongside my gallery of books.

But last month I found several other items – a few as old as those National Geographics, but more precious.  There was a box of handwritten journals by my paternal grandmother, Francisca.  A couple of other boxes contained stuff from my childhood: drawings, poems, stories.  Among the latter was a one dollar bill paper-clipped to a fragile slip of paper.  It was a note from me to my father; thanking him for being such a great daddy.  I was about 5 when I wrote that.  And he kept it!  As an only child, my parents were apt to keep as much about my childhood around as possible.  But that a simple, handwritten note dating to the late 1960s would retain a place amidst all of that material stunned me.

And yes, it also made me sad.  But I realized – more than ever before – how fortunate I was to have a father as incredible as mine.  It’s why I get angry now when I hear people say fathers don’t serve a purpose in this world.

Back in July I visited a weight-lifting gym in East Dallas with a close friend, Pete*, who’s a regular there.  It’s a tiny, no-frills joint carved into an aged shopping center; where free weights are the main source of muscle-building and men can work out shirtless.  After showering and changing back at his house, Pete and I had dinner at one of our favorite Mexican restaurants near downtown.

At some point, the conversation turned to family, and – with my voice cracking – I emphasized how badly I missed my father.  I try not to get emotional in public.  Even during my dad’s memorial service in June, I managed to hold it together.  But, planted in a booth beneath dim lighting in the restaurant, I just couldn’t remain poised.  It must have been the margarita swirls.  I was already on my second one.

Pete knows how I feel.  He lost his own father 12 years ago.  Curiously, our fathers had grown up together in East Dallas neighborhoods now occupied by office buildings and overpriced condos.  “My father went to be with his mother,” Pete had told me that night on the phone.  I didn’t understand.  All of Pete’s grandparents were dead.  What was he trying to – aw shit!  I don’t know if there’s an etiquette rule for announcing the death of a loved one via telephone, and if there is, I could care less about it.

I still have trouble sitting in the easy chair near the fireplace where my dad used to sit while watching TV.  His urn resides quietly on the dirty white brick of the raised hearth.  I make it a point to touch it every day and tell my father I love him.  His mother had lived to age 97.  Why couldn’t he?  What is the proper time of year to die?  It seems we have rules for everything in our lives these days.  Meteorologists can track hurricanes with near-accuracy.  As soon as a massive quake struck northeastern Japan in March of 2011, scientists could determine how long it would be before tsunamis struck the Hawaiian Islands and the west coast of the U.S.  Why couldn’t the slew of doctors my father had seen over the years not tell me when his body would finally say, ‘To hell with this shit!’?

A few times over the past few months, Wolfgang would stare at that general area for the longest time.  I’d feel the pressure change in the house.  But it wasn’t a frightening sensation.  I knew my father was nearby.  He had said more than once he wanted to die in this house and not in a hospital, a menagerie of tubes pouring out of him like overgrown hairs.  If I did anything right, I feel it was that.  I was able to grant my father his most heartfelt wish.

There are so many echoes of him and Wolfgang around me, now that they’re both gone.  And the house is otherwise quiet.  I’ve never felt pain like this before.  But, on this 53rd birthday of mine, I’m not too distressed.  My heart and my mind are filled with the happiness of the lives they lead.  I couldn’t ask for more from either of them.

 

*Name changed.

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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.

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Father Wolf Transitions

My father in 1949 at age 16.

My father in 1949 at age 16.

At one family Christmas gathering in the 1980s, someone had invited an older couple most everyone knew.  They often provided musical entertainment at such gatherings; with the man playing a guitar, while he and his wife sang.  During this particular evening, the woman brought out a set of maracas and began yodeling.  I have to concede that – up to that point – I had never heard a Mexican yodeling.  I always thought yodeling was a characteristic unique to people only of Nordic extraction.  Even though I’m one-quarter German, I don’t possess such a talent.  But, if you’ve ever heard a Mexican yodeling…well, imagine a Chihuahua having a Maalox moment from hell.

Some of my male cousins and me tried to sustain our laughter and wondered how long this would continue.  The gathering took place in the house of one my aunts, Teresa, and her husband, Chris.  A massive abode with a wide, marble-laden foyer, a living room or seating area sat off to the left upon entering, and a formal dining room to the right, which allowed entry into the kitchen.  Most everyone had gathered in the spacious den, with several others in the kitchen and another dining area.  I stood in the den, with my cousins, our backs to the covered patio, with a clear view of the foyer and the front door.

As the woman yodeled, my father suddenly catapulted from the dining room into the living, straddling a broom like it was a toy horse.  He sported a bright smile and waved to the crowd in the den.  Those of us who saw him burst into hysterical laughter, while those closer to the kitchen, against the fireplace, or against the wall parallel to the entertainment duo jumped to their feet.  They clustered en masse in the center of the den, just in time to see my dad gallop back across the foyer into the dining room.  The woman singing saw him on the return jaunt and almost lost control of her voice.

It’s those moments that kept circulating through my mind these past several days, as my father, George De La Garza, began his transition into his next life.  It began last Monday, June 6.  After enduring an array of health problems over the past few years, capped by two weeks in the hospital just last month, he’d finally had enough.  We had a brief memorial service Saturday morning, the 11th, at a local funeral home.  Both my parents were wise to make funeral arrangements five years ago.  They had initially bought cemetery plots, but decided afterwards to be cremated and sold the plots back to the funeral home.  My father didn’t want an extended funeral; no real funeral at all, in fact, with a Catholic rosary, a lengthy mass, a parade of limousines and another service at the grave site.  His philosophy was simple: “just throw me in a box, toss me into the ground, say your prayers and go on with your own lives.”

I had written of my father previously, but he didn’t like too much attention bestowed upon him.  He was a unique character who liked to make people laugh and who often made himself the butt of his own jokes.  As a teenager, he’d often play pranks on his mother, Francisca.  Once she sent him to the store with a list of items to buy.  He left the house briefly and sneaked back inside and went into his parents’ bedroom; where he called the home phone number.  In those days, if you had more than one phone in the house, you could actually call your own number from within, and the other phone would ring.  His mother picked up the phone in the kitchen.  My father pretended to be at the store and confused by what she’d written on the list.  He aggravated her, until finally he set down the bedroom phone and startled her by walking into the kitchen.

My paternal grandparents had eleven children, but four of them – two boys and two girls – died either as infants or toddlers.  That was common in those days – couples would have several kids and some may die not long after birth.  But my father often said his parents had so many kids because his mother was hard of hearing.  As they got ready for bed, my grandfather would ask, “Well, do you want to go to sleep, or what?”  And my grandmother would respond, “What?”

My mother certainly didn’t escape his humorous wraths.  He told me that she and her younger sister, Angie, were so mean and bitter because they’d grown up in México picking avocadoes.  When their father decided to move the family to the U.S. in 1943, my father said, he could only afford train fare for four people.  So he went, along with his oldest daughter, his son and his mother-in-law.  For my mother and Angie, according to my dad, my grandfather leased a donkey and told them just to ride north until you run into bunch of White people speaking only English.

Like most men, he was fiercely protective of his family.  My mother told me years ago that, if my father knew how some of the men talked to her at the insurance companies where she worked her entire life, he’d probably be in prison; meaning, he’d most certainly kill more than a few.  He always said he’d know I would be a boy.  One particular picture he took of me as an infant, he said, was the mirror image of what he’d dreamed about while my mother was still pregnant.  She almost lost me twice during what she said was a 10-month pregnancy and was in labor for several hours.  While they languished at the hospital, the staff was trying to reach the pediatrician; this being a time before pagers and cell phones.  When he finally showed up, my father asked where he’d been.

“What’s the big deal?” replied the doctor.  “You have a date tonight?”  I guess he was trying to be cute.

But my father – usually catching the humor in someone’s tone of voice – grabbed the man by the lapels of his jacket and slammed him up against a nearby wall.  “Listen, you bastard!  My wife is in pain, and I want to know what the hell you’re going to do about it!”

My dad could still find some way to turn a bad situation around.  During the extended funeral of John F. Kennedy, my parents had gathered with other friends and relatives at the home of my father’s older brother, Jesse, and his wife, Helen.  At one point, Helen asked why the “flags were halfway up the poles.”

“Because they ran out of string,” answered my father.

About fifteen or so years ago, my parents agreed to watch the pet goldfish belonging to the daughters of some neighbors; a younger couple who are about my age.  One day my mother changed the water in the fish bowl.  The next day the fish were dead.  My parents hurried to a pet store to buy two more goldfish; hoping the neighbors wouldn’t notice.  But those fish also died.  My father told me what happened, adding, “Damn!  I didn’t know I was married to a serial killer!”

I stare at pictures of my father scattered throughout the house and notice, in almost all of them, he’s smiling and / or laughing.  He was that rare type who never met a stranger.  Unlike me, he was an extrovert.  I always admired that about him.  He could never understand why it was so hard for me to make friends.

His health had begun to take a more dramatic turn for the worst at the end of 2014.  Following a partial colectomy, he was hospitalized twice for kidney failure.  He vowed he’d never allow himself to be taken to the hospital again.  “I want to die here at home.”

But, one weekday morning a month ago, he had a change of mind.  “I think I need to go the hospital.  I want to live.”

So I called 911 and had him hospitalized.  He again was suffering from kidney failure, but this time, his gall bladder had also become infected.  They got him as stable as possible, and after two weeks, I convinced the doctors to let him go.  Technically, from a medical standpoint, he wasn’t actually ready to be released.  But I made it quite clear to all the attending physicians that he needed to be home.

I had asked him only once the previous week, if he wanted to go back to the hospital.  He shook his head no.  He knew this was it.  The end for him was near.  I knew it as well, but I was still trying to get him healthy.  It’s so difficult to see a loved one in the grip of such physical agony.  It was so tough to see a man who radiated vitality – even into his 70s – gasping for air and barely able to move.  I had prayed for his suffering to end.  And we all know the old saying, ‘Be careful for what you wish for; you might just get it.’  Short of a miraculous recovery, my father’s health just wasn’t going to improve.

He wanted to die at home.  He wanted to pass away in the house he and my mother had worked so hard to buy and to keep.  And I wanted to grant him that wish.

My dog, Wolfgang, who will turn 14 this week, initially wandered throughout the house looking for my father.  Then, over the past few days, I noticed that something seemed to be catching his attention.  He’d suddenly sit up or prick up his ears.  And then relax.  I believe animals possess a stronger sensory perception than we humans.  It’s their one superior trait.

My grandmother Francisca died in February of 2001, almost three years to the day after the death of her eldest daughter, my Aunt Amparo.  The next two deaths were my Aunt Teresa and my Uncle Jesse, both in 2004.  Several months after Jesse’s death, my father had a strange dream that he couldn’t explain until after he told me about it.  He was perched on a tractor lawn mower, plowing through a large expanse of grass, when he noticed a group people perched beneath a tree.  As he got closer, he realized they were his parents and three older siblings.  He could see his father completely, but he could only see the top halves of his mother and Amparo.  Teresa was covered by a black veil, and Jesse was off to one side, shrouded in darkness.

My grandfather motioned for him to come closer and then asked him if he wished to join them.  Was he – in effect – ready to give up on this life?  My father said he turned to the field of grass and said no – he had too much work to do.  And then he woke up.

I realized the grass was a metaphor for all of the things my father still wanted to do in his life.  It was symbolic, too, because he loved gardening.  I also realized that – as my father had described them – the family’s appearances represented their time on the other side.  His father had died in 1969, so his spirit had time to metamorphose into what was a familiar figure.  His mother and Amparo had only died a few years earlier.  Teresa and Jesse and arrived on that side the year before, so their spirits hadn’t had enough time to take shape into people he’d recognize.  He only knew it was them because they each spoke to him.

I don’t believe the human soul has any definite shape, color or mass.  It’s not like what we see here.  I’m also much more spiritual, even though I started off the memorial service with the Lord’s Prayer.  I want to pray to my father to help me through the ensuing difficulties with my mother.  He’s just begun his transition into that new life, however; so I don’t want to disturb him too much.  Allow me to be greedy, though.  I miss him terribly.  My heart still aches, but I’m more at ease now than I have been in over this past week.

On Sunday night, June 5, my father kept pointing forward and uttering something.  After a minute or so, I finally understood what he was saying, “Door.”  There was a door in front of him; not the bedroom door.  That other door.  He was finally able to step through it.  And that’s what needed to happen.  At some point in time, we all step through that door.  No one really dies.  The body perishes, but the good souls remain alive.

My father and me in 1966.

My father and me in 1966.

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What’s It Like?

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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!

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All Saints’ Day – Day of the Dead

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“Life is eternal, and love is immortal,
and death is only a horizon;
and a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.”

Rossiter Worthington Raymond

 

All Saints’ Day.

Day of the Dead.

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Nathan’s Promise

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Judge Glenda Fuentes caressed her left ear. “Is he serious?” The neatly-typed words had started to blur. She really didn’t have time for this. But, she read it anyway. Nathan Hagel was already dead. Poor little bastard, she thought. He really believed in himself. He really thought he was the victim.

“I hope you all realize what you have done to me. I know if I told you this in person you’d just laugh. But, I’m not laughing. I did not kill those people. I told you over and over I had nothing to do with it. I was there, yes. But, I didn’t take part in it. I didn’t know that was going to go down like that. I had no idea my brother and sister-in-law wanted to kill anyone. I knew James was mad at his neighbors. But, I didn’t know he was that mad!  Mad enough to want to not just hurt them, but kill them. I still don’t think he planned to kill them. I seriously don’t think that. I still think he just wanted to scare the shit out of them.”

Of course, thought Fuentes. A lot of killers say that: I just wanted to scare them; teach them a lesson; make them understand whatever. But, I didn’t mean to kill them. In her nearly two decades on the bench, she’d heard that claim more times than she could count.

Nathan and his older brother, James, had a rough start in life. Their father abandoned them and their mother, when the boys were little. Nathan, in fact, never really knew his father; couldn’t recall ever talking with him. Nathan had told his defense attorney the only clear memory he had of his father was when the old man lay in his coffin. He and James had learned by chance their father had been killed in a bar fight in Arkansas. James was laid up at home after a car accident, so Nathan drove to Arkansas by himself for the funeral.

The Hagel boys’ mother provided them no greater comfort. A “paranoid alcoholic” is how Nathan described her. The boys were pretty much left to fend for themselves from a very young age. Why didn’t someone in the family take them in, wondered Fuentes. That was the question a lot of people – inside and outside of the court – asked. Tarrant County Child Protective Services failed them, too.

But, Fuentes reminded herself – and several others – at some point, the Hagel brothers knew right from wrong. If James and his wife, Sandy, had such trouble with their neighbors, why didn’t they seek legal counsel? How could a property line dispute turn so violent?

“My mother used to beat the living crap out of James,” Nathan’s letter continued. “He’d let himself get beat up, so she wouldn’t turn on me. He didn’t want me to get hurt. Even after I got grown and could care for myself, he still tried to protect me from stuff.”

According to police records, James and Sandy had dialed 911 more than twenty times to complain about their neighbors, the McFarrells. They all lived in a relatively older section of Fort Worth – not far from where they Hagel boys grew up. The McFarrells had moved into their house next door to James and Sandy less than two years before they died. Apparently, animosity developed from the start; beginning with a new fence the McFarrells built on their property. They had to tear down the old fence, which meant getting onto the Hagel’s property. That’s where the trouble started. James and Sandy had called police some twenty times. But, the McFarrells and others in the neighborhood had also called 911. There were, in total, about sixty calls to police from that one block – all related to the Hagel – McFarrell property dispute.

Where is this, mused Fuentes. West Virginia? No, it was Fort Worth, Texas, and we don’t solve property disputes with a gun.

“I think my mother was insane,” Nathan wrote. “I really do. She would do the craziest shit. We never knew what kind of mood she’d be in. She would just go off on us. And, everyone else.”

Fuentes had heard that sad story before. So, had Nathan’s court-appointed attorney, Mark Gaston. Gaston – who looked a circus side show reject – leaned heavily on Nathan’s upbringing as a reason for his behavior. “A reason,” he emphasized, “not an excuse.” Nathan understood the consequences of his actions for the most part, Gaston insisted, but he let himself get caught up in the drama of his older brother and sister-in-law. Besides, violence was all they knew growing up.

Huh? The statement perplexed everyone involved in the Hagel case. Okay, Nathan knew it was wrong to take the shotgun when his brother offered it to him. And, he knew it was wrong to follow James next door to the McFarrells’ house. Nathan knew bad blood flowed between James and Sandy and the McFarrells, like swamp water left over from a hurricane. But, somehow, he still really, in a strange sort of way, wasn’t completely and totally responsible for his actions?

“No, he wasn’t!” Gaston proclaimed during his closing arguments, answering the very question everyone had in mind.

“That neighborhood where James and Sandy lived – it was such a dump anyways. It’s like it was born dirty and rotten. But, that house was all they could afford. Then again, that’s all we knew – dirty, rotten houses and neighborhoods.”

Gaston had subpoenaed the Hagel brothers’ mother, Sheila. When she arrived in court, she was on probation for drunk driving and looked as if she was still intoxicated. Nathan didn’t even look up at her; not once. He kept his eyes down.

“I’ve had some problems,” Sheila mumbled on the witness stand. “I almost wish I’d never met their father.”

The courtroom expelled a collective gasp, which prompted Fuentes to pound her gavel. But, she understood the shock. This wretched woman was essentially trying to say she wished James and Nathan had never been born. That’s an awful thing for a mother to say – with one son already on death row and another headed there to join him.

“I don’t believe in no god or heaven or hell or afterlife. I think that’s all bullshit and anyone who believes in that is stupid. Since I don’t believe in that, I know nothing will happen to me after I die. But, for those of you who believe in god, may he, she, it, whatever damn you and your family. But, I also hope all of you suffer for what you did to me and my brother. Suffer bad. I hate you. I hate every fucking one of you!”

Sandy Hagel had been given immunity in return for her testimony. She was in the house when her husband and brother-in-law decided to walk next door and confront the McFarrells. She could have easily called the police – which she did. But, not before she heard the gunshots. She mentioned how both the McFarrells had stood outside on their back porch and waved their own guns towards the Hagel household. “They called us trash,” Sandy said in court. “But, they were just as trashy.”

Prosecutor Carly Watson had no sympathy for any of them. She never showed concern for criminal defendants. She smirked in court when Gaston mentioned the Hagel brothers’ rough upbringing. “Cry me a river of spit!” she told reporters after the jury in James’ trial issued its guilty verdict. She repeated herself after Nathan’s trial – the exact same verbiage. The statement made it onto the front pages of local newspapers. It was such a typical Texas-style response from someone sworn to uphold the law. “If everybody who had a rough childhood could get away with murder, we’d have dead bodies piled up in football stadiums, instead of morgues!” she groused. “I don’t feel sorry for the Hagel boys one single bit. They knew what they were doing. No one forced them to pick up guns and head over to the neighbor’s house.”

That night, Sandy testified, the McFarrells had stood on their back porch, waving their rifles towards her and James – again. The new fence was already up and bushes were planted.

“So, what was the problem?” Watson asked her.

Sandy paused for a minute. “They kept waving their guns at us. Like they were itching for a fight. We didn’t want no more trouble from them. We just wanted them to leave us alone.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“We did!”

“But, your husband and brother-in-law went over there anyway! Didn’t they?!”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Why?!”

“Because they called us.”

“The McFarrells?”

“Yes. They called us three times earlier that evening. I don’t know why. Just to be mean.”

“What did they say to you?”

“Just stupid stuff.”

“Define ‘stupid stuff’ for us, would you please.”

Sandy sighed heavily. “That we were ugly and stupid. That we’d better watch our backs. We thought things were settled once the new fence was put up. But, they kept at us. Kept haggling us. We didn’t want any more to do with them.”

So, as Sandy recounted, James and Nathan grabbed a couple of James’ shotguns and marched next door to the McFarrell home. They merely planned to stand on the sidewalk out front, waving the firearms in the night air; the same way the McFarrells had waved theirs to the Hagels so many times before. Sandy didn’t know why James and Nathan decided to step onto the McFarrells’ front porch and force their way into the house.

“James always looked out for Nathan,” Gaston noted in his closing argument. “They were all they had. They had no one else. No one cared for them. No one cared about them. They had to take care of themselves. Always! And, the police had not helped much in this dispute on Warren Lane. They just told everyone to be neighborly and then went on their way.”

Even after other neighbors reported the McFarrells often marched around their front yard with guns in hand, as if they were guarding a vault filled with diamonds, the police still did nothing. The McFarrells had waved their firearms at other people on that street. Some had avoided walking in front of the house altogether. They’d step into the street and make a wide arc, far from the McFarrell home, before returning to the sidewalk. Gaston made certain these other neighbors testified in court.

“None of these people were pulled from the nearest church pew,” Watson announced after James’ trial.

That was nearly two decades ago. James was already gone. Sandy had disappeared into another life far away from Fort Worth. Now, Nathan had a date with the chamber. A week before, he penned this letter. Then, he slit his wrists and his throat with a piece of metal he’d somehow spirited into his cell.

“But, I hope all of you suffer for what you did to me and my brother. Suffer bad.” For some reason, Fuentes kept reading that part over and over. Suffer – that’s such a cruel word.

She finally dropped the paper onto her desk and called for her assistant, Janelle. “Can you get Ms. Watson on the line for me?” She had yet another death penalty case to discuss.

“Right away, Judge,” replied Janelle.

Fuentes returned Nathan Hagel’s letter to its envelope and wished Gaston had never wasted her time with it. “I guess he can just come pick it up,” she murmured.

Janelle stumbled into the office, sounding breathless. “Your Honor!”

Fuentes was startled. “What?! What happened?”

“I just called Ms. Watson’s office. Her secretary said she’s been in a serious car wreck.”

“A car wreck?!”

“That’s what he said.”

“When?”

“This morning – on her way to the office. She’s at JPS right now.”

John Peter Smith took the worst of the worst.

“Oh, my God!” crowed Fuentes. “That’s awful!”

“Let me make some other phone calls. I’ll see if I can found out more.” She wheeled back out towards her desk.

Fuentes sat back in her designer leather chair. “Damn! A car wreck! Good God!” She leaned forward to stand up – but her vision seemed to explode, driving her back into the chair. “Oh, God!” she screamed.

“Judge?” Janelle called out. She was already on the phone.

Fuentes stood. Another fucking migraine! She thought she’d rid herself of those years ago. She reached for her desk. This one was different, though, from what she remembered. She managed to stand.

“Judge?” Janelle repeated.

Fuentes tumbled face down. She probably didn’t feel her nose splinter when she hit the floor.

© 2014

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