The death of actress and national icon Betty White on New Year’s Eve 2021 has left many of us here in the United States shocked and despondent. White was just 17 days shy of her 100th birthday; an event which she and the rest of us looked forward to celebrating. Now she’s gone. Suddenly. None of us really saw this coming. How could this happen? Why? But none of us should be shocked.
Death doesn’t honor our designated times of order. My paternal grandfather once said that he respected death because it bears no prejudice. It takes who it wants when it wants. According to my father it was painful for him to admit even that much; as he had seen so many very young people and/or very good people suffer an untimely demise throughout his time on Earth. My grandfather died in 1969, and my father didn’t fully comprehend the meaning of what the old man had said until some years later.
Perhaps it’s easy for we older folks to have a more cynical if not sedate view of death. I’m at the point where I know I have more years behind than ahead of me. But currently I feel I’m surrounded by people enduring serious health struggles. A close friend is showing signs of Parkinson’s. Another friend is dealing with liver cancer. His doctors gave him less than a decade, unless he has a liver transplant. But his liver seems too badly damaged to qualify for a transplant. So he’s resigned himself to decluttering his life and reconnecting with people. One of my cousins who’s 10 years older suffered a heart attack in 2020 and is now battling kidney failure. The 40-something son of another long-time friend is still recovering from a catastrophic stroke he experienced about 2 years ago. He’s ensconced in a rehabilitation facility, but doesn’t appear to be making much progress – not according to his father. The latter says it seems his son doesn’t really want to cooperate with the therapists; as if – just a few years from age 50 – he’s decided he’s lived life to the fullest.
As a manic depressive in my past life, death often occupied more space in my mind than thoughts of the future. A typical artistic type, I experience the full range of emotions humanity possesses. But death haunts all of us throughout our lives. When I was in high school, a girl was killed when a train struck the car in which she was riding. Around that same time, lightning killed a boy walking home from school. Some years later, while working at a retail store, a teenage constituent was killed by a drunk driver, and another died in a car wreck. In the fall of 1992, I happened upon the obituary of a young man I’d known in grade school; he was 29. The following year a friend died of AIDS at the age of 31.
Looking at the myriad news events surrounding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I’m always heartbroken at the sight of very young people returning home with damaged bodies and minds or in coffins. The epidemic of school shootings and deaths of those caught up in civil unrest is truly upsetting.
How is it these things are allowed to happen? Isn’t there supposed to be an all-loving, omnipotent deity who could prevent such horrors?
I’ve always wondered what life is like on “The Other Side”; whatever it’s supposed to be and wherever that is. I like to think all those I’ve known in decades past, including my parents and even my dogs, are safely enveloped in such realms; where (hopefully) they are happy and loved.
Back in 2012, I had a brief dream of an English and German instructor I had at a community college in suburban Dallas in the 1980s. She was a quirky, yet truly inspirational character. I hadn’t thought of her in years when I had that dream. I think it was a day or two later when I found her obituary in the newspaper. And I thought later that, perhaps, she flitted through my sleeping subconscious to say goodbye – for now.
Betty White’s “sudden” death saddened so many people. But she was 99! So she didn’t quite make it to her centennial birthday! She always vocalized how fortunate she was to have lived so long and to have so many people admire and love her. She had reached the end of her time in this world.
We all will at some point. As sad as it may be sometimes, it doesn’t really matter one’s age or condition at the moment of death. It just happens. We have to make our time as valuable and fulfilling as we can.
A school principal shared some thoughts with Betsy Devos, U.S. Secretary of Education, in a video shared by Bored Teachers. The 2-minute video synopsizes the heroic efforts that teachers took on when the pandemic hit and how Devos needs to “sit down somewhere” and just listen. In fact, that’s the best advice we can give to any political figure – especially those like Devos and others in the Trump Administration who sit in their gilded cages in the ivory towers of wealth and privilege; far removed from the chaos and drama of REAL lives.
Teachers like this gentleman stand at the front lines in the brutal world of education and are now faced with the very real threat of illness and death, as the Trump gang threatens to pull education funding from states that don’t open their schools next month for the start of the new academic year.
“In the midst of a global pandemic, states were forced to play some sort of sick ‘Hunger Games’ game show to save the lives of our people. Let me be clear: This is not a reality TV show. These are real things that are happening in the United States of America in 2020.”
– Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D-IL), condemning how states have been forced to compete for vital resources amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
My mother told me that one day in the early 1960s, she was strolling past a row of file cabinets at the insurance company in downtown Dallas where she worked at the time, when a man who had a history of playing pranks on his coworkers suddenly leaped out and popped her bra strap. At a time when people could normally get away with such shenanigans in the workplace, my mother said she didn’t think twice once she saw the smirk on the young man’s face…and smacked him across his face, sending his glasses to the floor. She cursed at him – something that most people, especially women could NOT get away with in those days – and merely walked away. Trying to play the victim, she said he complained to his manager who subsequently called her into his office. She reiterated the entire scenario, which generally would be a true case of he-said-she-said. But she had a supporter. Another man had witnessed the incident and confirmed her version. The bra popper was merely reprimanded verbally, and my mother was forced to drop the incident.
Not until years later did she reveal that to my father who surely would have stormed into the office and cracked a few heads of the all-male management. In fact, she told me she never told my father most of the stuff that happened to her at work – the ongoing and pervasive sexual harassment she endured in the old days – because she feared his retribution upon her male colleagues. But really didn’t need to do that; she could fend for herself.
My mother, Maria Guadalupe De La Garza, passed away last Monday, June 22, at the age of 87. She had endured a lengthy battle with dementia and the effects of a stroke she suffered last January, which almost completely rendered her left side immobile. After a lengthy stay in a rehabilitation center, I had to bring her home in May; whereupon she entered home hospice care. That, in and of itself, was an ordeal.
But I knew her time was coming to an end.
My mother had a difficult start in life. Her mother, Esperanza, was seven months pregnant with her, when her parents traveled to Taxco, a town just outside of México City, to attend some kind of family gathering in December 1932. While there, Esperanza suddenly went into labor. My mother barely weighed 2 pounds at birth; she was so small they carried her home in a shoe box and used her father’s handkerchiefs for diapers. She was born on December 12, which to Latino Roman Catholics is Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe (Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe). Thus, her parents named her Guadalupe. Knowing that she had slim chance of survival – like most babies born prematurely in the 1930s – a local priest baptized her and gave her last rites in the same ceremony.
But she did survive – and fought various battles throughout her life with that inborn sense of determination and perseverance. I still believe the unique mix of German and Mexican extraction only accentuated her unbridled individualism.
Esperanza died in México City on Christmas Day 1940, just 11 months after giving birth to her only son, William. They had wanted to name him after his father, Clarence, but no one could a Spanish language version of that name. Esperanza’s mother, Felicitas Basurto, stepped in to help Clarence raise his 4 children. Felicitas had lived in the United States for a short while and worked for a U.S. Navy admiral as a governess to his 2 children. She had actually taught herself English. Felicitas returned to México in the summer of 1940, as Esperanza’s health began to fail. She was there when her daughter succumbed to an abdominal infection.
In the September of 1943, Clarence moved his children and mother-in-law to Dallas where he’d found a job working an auto plant. He wanted to return to his native Michigan, but he spotted an ad for the job in Dallas.
It was a rough transition for my mother and her 3 siblings. None of them could speak English. Many strangers thought my mother and her older sister, Margo, were Americans because of girls’ fair coloring. But their maternal grandmother helped guide them into their new lives.
My mother met my father, George, in 1957, and they married two years later. I’m their only child.
My mother’s strong personality made her almost fearless. At some a gathering in the early 1950s, a nun got angry with my Uncle William for some unknown reason and called him a “spic”. My mother was nearby and slapped the nun across her face. That got her into trouble with the church and her father and grandmother. Shortly before my parents wed, a priest told my mother that he hoped she’d do the “godly thing” and have lots of children. My mother said she didn’t want many children, but the priest insisted; telling her it was her duty as a married woman. She then agreed – and told the old man she’d bring all those children back to him so he could help her raise them.
Her sharp criticism of some people – especially other women – was boundless. She called Paula Jones – the woman who accused Bill Clinton of exposing himself to her – a “dumb broad” because Jones apparently believed that she really was going for a job interview at his hotel room at 10:00 at night. In May of 2004, my father’s second oldest sister, Teresa, died of cancer. At the rosary, we spoke briefly with the husband of one of my cousins. He was a police officer and mentioned that he was part of the security detail for former First Lady Barbara Bush when she came to Dallas and had to carry his gun.
“Why did you need to carry your gun?” my mother inquired. “I mean, who wants a piece of that old hag?”
I burst out into laughter, as my cousin’s husband tried to keep his eyeballs from falling out of their sockets.
She called another former First Lady, Nancy Reagan, a “screaming banshee”; said she didn’t realize how fat Oprah Winfrey was until she saw her in jeans, when the talk show maven visited Dallas; and denounced Monica Lewinsky (the woman who had a sexual tryst with Bill Clinton in 1996) as a “cheap-ass whore”.
My mother first started showing signs of dementia more than a decade ago. Recipes for the simplest things sometimes eluded her. My father and I finally got her to start seeing a neurologist in 2011. In the four years since my father died, she occasionally referred to me as her brother, William. A few times I had to call the paramedics to help me deal with her increasingly erratic behavior. Their sudden presence always managed to calm her down. I believe it’s because they were all men, and my mother was partial to men.
At the end of this past January, she suffered a mild stroke. I didn’t realize it at first, but noticed she couldn’t get up out of bed. I had her transported to a local hospital where an MRI discovered bleeding on the brain, which had already begun to heal. It had paralyzed her entire left side.
I had to make the difficult decision of admitting her to a rehabilitation center to help her recover. I found one nearby, but I developed a sense of dread the night the hospital transported her to the facility. I felt like I was abandoning her. I had promised my father many years ago that, if she should die first, I’d do everything I could take care of her. And, of course, he died first.
The rehab center turned out to be incredible. Physical therapists helped her regain mobility in her left arm and even her left leg. I brought her back home at the end of March, as the COVID-19 calamity was unfolding. I’d reports of residents at similar facilities contracting the novel coronavirus and even dying.
I contracted a health care agency to help me care for her. But, after a week, things didn’t turn out well. She became increasingly hostile and combative. She also developed a urinary tract infection, but I thought she was experiencing another stroke. After one night at the hospital, I had her readmitted to the rehab center. Unfortunately, health care in the United States is still very much an actual business. Her Medicare benefits were exhausted, and the facility had to discharge her in May. I wrote about this in an essay a few weeks ago.
After returning home again, she entered a home hospice care program with same health agency. They were quite phenomenal in helping me. I couldn’t depend too much on relatives, friends or neighbors. But her health continued to decline. I had told a long-time family friend who lives nearby – a woman who’s known my mother for close to 50 years – that I didn’t feel my mother would make it to the end of summer. Our friend was shocked, but when she came over to visit on the 18th, she realized I was probably right. My mother had grown incoherent; she didn’t seem to recognize anyone, even me; and would often lie in bed staring at the ceiling or a wall and asking for her sister, Margo. Margo had died of cancer in June 1989.
It’s incredibly frustrating and sad to watch someone who raised me descend into the depths of cognitive bewilderment. The once vibrant, strong-minded woman I’d known my entire life had reverted to a child-like state of mind. Now I know why dementia is often called “the long goodbye”. You see your loved one disintegrate before you, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about.
In the few weeks preceding her death, I often felt we weren’t alone in the house. I had prayed to my Aunt Margo to come get my mother, and I actually began to sense it was her moving about. I also began to see shadows of a small animal trotting down the hall or the sound of tiny footsteps. I realized immediately the figure was my dog, Wolfgang, who died in October 2016; just less than four months after my father. In many cultures, animals, birds, and butterflies are often seen as either an omen of death or a conduit between our world and whatever other world might exist. Both my parents absolutely loved that little dog of mine. He actually became our dog. Since I never married and had children, Wolfgang became their pseudo-grandson. I even mentioned Wolfgang as a “canine grandson” in my father’s obituary. On just a handful of occasions, though, I actually did spot Wolfgang – but only for a second or two. I needed no further reassurance that my mother’s time here was coming to a close.
There’s no easy way to say goodbye to a loved one. As a friend told me, that person can live a thousand years, but their demise is still painful. I’m at peace, though, with what happened. I’m glad I could get her back home to die. She and my father had worked very hard to get and to keep this house. We’ve been here almost 50 years. And I couldn’t let her die anywhere else.
From illness and tragedy, art always seems to bloom to place ourselves and our world into a grand perspective. After the “Black Death” rampaged through Eurasia and North Africa in the 14th century, the “danse macabre”, or dance of death, became an artistic representation of how death is the ultimate equalizer. Beginning in Western Europe and gaining popularity in the Middle Ages, it was a literary or pictorial representation of both living and dead figures – from pope to hermit – leading their lives as normal, before entering a grave.
Recently some pallbearers in Ghana envisioned the dance for contemporary deaths and the ensuing funerals. As many Africans tend to do, they celebrate death as the next stage of life – mournful and often tragic, for certain. Singing and dancing, they honor the deceased for the life they led on Earth and the glorious new life they should have in the next realm.
It’s how I view death. My paternal grandfather said he respected death more than any other aspect of the world because it’s not prejudiced or bigoted. It simply spares no one. I felt some measure of glee when I watch the ending of the 1997 movie “Titanic”, as the ship sank and the plethora of furnishings and luxurious items shattered. Not because I love seeing things destroyed! But because all of the vainglorious possessions of the vessel’s wealthiest patrons could not save them. They may have been rescued because of their wealth, as many of them entered the smattering of lifeboats first. But, whether dead at that moment or dead later, they would never be able to take those items with them.
We all come into this world naked and screaming, clutching nothing but our souls in our hands. We leave with the same.
The sight of various medical personnel clad in head-to-toe coverings to protect themselves from the COVID-19 virus has become common in recent weeks. It used to be frightening to see something like that; images that were usually relegated to toxic waste dumps and crime scenes. But such garb is nothing new.
Beginning in the 17th century C.E., as more epidemics of bubonic plague swept Western Europe, doctors often wore a variety of outfits to protect them from the miasma, or “bad air”, then believed to carry disease. This was still a time when most people believed health scourges were acts of God and not the result of microbes gone awry. (Some people – even in so-called developed nations – are still stupid enough to believe that! The AIDS epidemic is a perfect example.) It was long before people realized the importance of basic health measures: handwashing, sanitation, not listening to politicians or religious leaders.
These long-ago costumes look theatrical (almost comical) now, as they typically consisted of a head-to-toe leather or wax-canvas garment; large crystal glasses; and a long snout or bird beak, containing aromatic spices (such as mint and cloves), dried flowers (usually roses or carnations), or a vinegar sponge. The strong smells of these items — sometimes set aflame for added advantage — were meant to combat the contagious miasma that the costume itself could not protect against.
They attire wasn’t just fanciful. The ankle-length gowns and beaked masks could offer some protection against germs. The design of these particular outfits has been credited to French physician Charles de Lorme who may have developed the concept around 1619. By the time the “Plague of 1656” ravaged Italy (which was then a collection of city-states) and killed an estimated half-million people, the beaked coverings had become mostly mandatory.
Terrifying in centuries past, they make for good Halloween apparel today!
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
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
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.
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.
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.