Tag Archives: spirituality
Have you ever had a friend with whom you disagree on something? You know what I mean – someone you’ve known for a while; shared things with; commiserated with; know some of their family; treated to lunch or dinner for their birthdays. I have a few of those friends. As a bonafide introvert, I don’t have many friends in the first place, so I value those relationships I’ve managed to maintain over any length of time.
I had one such friend, Pete*, until recently. He and I have known each other for over 30 years. Ironically, we attended the same parochial grade school in Dallas. I didn’t know him back then, as he’s three years younger. Even more curious is that our fathers had known each other; they grew up in the same East Dallas neighborhood and attended the same high school. When Pete’s father died several years ago, my father was heartbroken, as the two hadn’t spoken in a while. I attended the funeral service at a church in downtown Dallas. In turn, Pete attended my father’s memorial service in 2016; his sister and her young daughter joined him.
Pete used to host annual Christmas gatherings at his apartment; his sister and her two sons, along with many of that family’s mutual friends, joining us. In effect, I became part of their family. I was fond of Pete’s parents, as he was of mine, and was truly excited when one of his nephews joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 2006.
So what happened?
Last month “The New Yorker” published an editorial on the sudden and unexpected support for Donald Trump among Latinos. In Texas trump won a larger share of the Latino vote in the last election than he did in 2016. Reading the piece left me stunned – and curious. How could a man who made such derogatory comments about Mexicans in general, the same one who hurtled rolls of paper towels at people in Puerto Rico, find greater support from others in those same groups? Even though Trump had disparaged Mexican immigrants, I felt it was just a small step away from demonizing all people of Mexican heritage or ethnicity; people whose Indian and Spanish ancestors had occupied what is now the Southwestern U.S. since before Trump’s predecessors arrived on the East Coast. Many of those people are also among the nation’s working class; the blue collar workers who form the unappreciated and under-appreciated backbone of any society. And yes, even the white collar workers, such as myself, who have struggled through the chaos of corporate America. Regardless of race or ethnicity we’re the ones who suffered the most in the last Great Recession and in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. That an arrogant, elitist, tax-cheating buffoon of a charlatan can find kindred souls in this crowd truly boggles my mind.
Pete, on the other hand, said the editorial made “perfect sense” so him. He had already expressed some support for Trump, especially in relation to his reactions to China. He then went on to demonize both Joe Biden and Kamala Harris; dubbing them “evil” and decrying what he perceived to be their socialist agenda. In other words, Pete was reiterating the paranoid mantra of right-wing extremists.
But he went further. He bemoaned the stimulus payments coming out of Washington; claiming they were unnecessary and that anyone suffering financial distress during the pandemic and the ensuing economic downturn deserved no help or sympathy; that they should have prepared better for such a calamity.
I pointed out that I was one of those people struggling now. I had taken off a lot of time to care for my aging parents and had managed to save some money over the years; adding that a lot of that hard-earned money was now gone and reminding him I have had trouble – like so many others – finding a job. I also noted that it’s that people don’t or won’t save money; it’s that they can’t – not with both the high cost of living and stagnant wages.
Pete sounds like many evangelical Christian leaders – the folks he once denounced as the heathens of Christianity – the idiots who propagate the myth that poverty is a result of moral failings; that people choose to be poor because they have no desire to work hard and sacrifice. He got upset with me over that; he – a devout Roman Catholic – being compared to an evangelical Christian?! The people who read and study only half the Christian Bible?! How dare I make such an analogy!
But that’s how I felt. Then and now. His new-found beliefs and sudden change of attitude are one reason why I left the Catholic Church and why I no longer align with any branch of Christianity.
I reiterated my discussions with Pete to friends and a relative who his both agnostic and generally conservative. The latter considers himself a Republican and has been very successful in life. He also subscribes to “The New Yorker” and had read that particular editorial. And he found it “awful” that so many Texas Latinos supported Trump who he does not like. He also noted that anyone can experience financial problems and that a lack of personal resources isn’t always a sign of any kind of moral failings. Like me he was raised Roman Catholic, but – unlike me – is not in any way spiritual. He also reassured me that I’m not a failure. A few other friends have told me the same. At times like this, I need that kind of support.
It’s a shame I felt the need to sever ties with Pete. I mean, how does a 30-plus-year friendship come to an end over an editorial? Is that something that needed to happen? I wonder if I was overreacting or my past hyper-sensitive persona had suddenly resurrected itself.
I’d like to know if any of you folks have encountered the same dilemma. Have you ever felt the need to end a friendship with someone over such strong personal disagreements?
“If the you of five years ago doesn’t consider the you of today a heretic, you are not growing spiritually.”
This story is based on a true experience that occurred in the spring of 1980. All names have been changed.
I met Marlene during our first year in high school. Her soft Quebecois accent complimented her modest demeanor and gentle smile. I rarely saw her upset.
I can’t recall how long she’d been in the U.S. Her mother had moved Marlene and her older brother from Canada to Texas for a job opportunity. I knew other people like Marlene at the suburban Dallas high school we attended and I always wondered how people like Marlene’s mother found their way to our isolated community from other countries. But I’m glad Marlene did.
Marlene’s best friend at the time, Kristin, lived in a neighboring community and attended the local high school. They had a mutual friend, Ryan, who attended the same school as Marlene and I. I never got to know Ryan very well, but he was more outgoing and better-looking than me. He also had his own car – a sporty red coupe that he liked to drive fast with the stereo blaring. He was the proverbial “ladies’ man”; the type who thought girls would orgasm at the mere sight of his face or mention of his name. As a naïve teenage boy, I was naturally envious. But, although Ryan and I didn’t know each other very well, we still got along.
On a few Saturdays throughout the 1979-80 academic year, Ryan would pick up Marlene and I in his car and drive up to Kristin’s house. We’d do normal teenage stuff: go to a movie; drive around in Ryan’s car; visit a local mall (very popular in those days); talk about family and school; the girls would sometimes roller skate up and down Kristin’s street (I never could get the hang of roller skating); Ryan and I would talk about girls; and I’m sure Marlene and Kristin would talk about boys. In some ways, I suppose, things haven’t changed for teens in the following decades.
But one Saturday afternoon in the spring of 1980 stands out more prominently than any other. The four of us did something completely different on that particular Saturday afternoon; something that seemed innocuous at first, but quickly became frightening. It’s something that remains terrifying to me – even all these years later.
After a day of doing much of the same things we’d done during previous gatherings, we ended up back at Kristin’s home; our young minds wondering what we could do next.
“I have an idea,” Kristin said and asked if any of us had played with a Ouija board.
None of us had.
Kristin hadn’t either, although she had one stored in her room. I recall her saying another friend had given it to her some months earlier, but neither Kristin nor anyone else in her family had used it yet. In fact, I don’t believe Kristin’s parents even knew she had it.
She skipped into her room to retrieve it, and the four of us gathered around the dining room table. No one else was home. Kristin’s other friend had explained briefly how to utilize the Ouija board. This one was essentially brand new, but Kristin said she didn’t know why her friend had suddenly decided to give it to her.
With light from both the chandelier above and a nearby window, we all placed our hands on the planchette. And waited. And waited. And waited.
Then, after a few minutes, we collectively felt it moving; sending a nervous tingle through each of us.
I asked if anyone was actually making the device moving, and my friends responded with a chuckle and unified ‘No’.
“What is your name?” Kristin finally asked.
The planchette stopped, before slowly sliding onto the letter ‘M’. That it had been moving on its own prior to the question didn’t make us pause. It then glided onto the letter ‘I’. After several minutes, we got the name ‘Michael’.
Kristin then asked if ‘Michael’ was dead, and the planchette moved up to the word ‘Yes’ on the board’s surface. Ryan interjected by asking if ‘Michael’ had died in that particular house, and the planchette coasted rightwards onto the word ‘No’.
Kristin asked another question, but I can’t remember what exactly. I do remember, however, an odd sensation coming over me. Kristin made yet another inquiry, but again, I can’t recall what it was specifically.
That curious feeling metamorphosed into a barbed needle slowly injecting itself up into my spine, and I abruptly lifted my hands off of the planchette and leaned back.
“Why’d you stop?” Kristin asked. She and the other two looked at me with surprise, almost irritated. “Why’d you stop?” Kristin repeated.
I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t. I literally couldn’t. I had never been the talkative type, but at that moment, I was rendered speechless – not out of shame or embarrassment. More out of fear. I truly felt paralyzed. I could only smirk – that peculiar teenage reaction when you can’t explain yourself – and waved a hand on front of my face.
One by one, the other three looked down at the planchette, before slowly retracting their hands from it. Like me, each of them sat back with a wide-eyed glare. We all studied the planchette for a few minutes; the eerier sensation that had crept over me now enveloping the entire room like a cold wet blanket.
“Well, hey,” Kristin suddenly blurted; startling us somewhat. “Let’s go back outside and see what’s going on up the street.”
“Sounds good!” someone said.
Kristin stashed the board back in her room, and the four of us left the house for a short while. Nothing was going on up the street, but it felt good to get back outside.
At school a week or two later, Marlene told me that Kristin had decided to cut up the Ouija board and toss it in the trash.
“Is she okay?” I asked; genuinely concerned about Kristin’s welfare.
“Oh, yeah!” Marlene replied with a nervous laugh.
Although I remained in touch with Kristin via telephone and letters, I don’t recall us ever gathering at her house again. And I never discussed the Ouija board incident with either Marlene or Ryan.
I keep thinking, in retrospect, whoever Michael was, I hope he forgave us – a quartet of stupid teenagers – for disturbing his rest. And I realized even then that it’s always best just to leave people alone – no matter where in the world they are.
It’s great to know the e-version of my debut novel is now on sale at Wal-Mart – right next to the cheesy romance stuff. But hey, a writer has to start somewhere, right?!
Juan Miguel thought of his great-aunt again and suddenly recollected another death even further back – one of his parents’ friends. He’d never met the woman, but watched his mother, Marisol, become overwhelmed with grief; an unusually emotional response from a woman who’d driven herself to the hospital during evening rush hour, when she thought she’d gone into labor with him.
She and some other old friends had gathered shortly after the rosary – another long-ass rosary – to reminisce about their younger days and quickly found themselves laughing in the sanctity of the funeral home.
“Like I’ve said before,” his father, Armando, interjected, almost philosophically, “you need to get together.”
And everyone agreed. They needed to get together; reconvene under more pleasant circumstances and relive the best parts of their lives. They promised to call each other and do something; have lunch or dinner – anything! Just stay in touch before it was too late. Then they left – and his parents never heard from anybody.
Until someone’s name popped up in the obituaries.
I wrote this poem in the summer of 1986, just as things were getting better for me, and I began to have more confidence in myself and my abilities. By then, I had asserted my desire to become a professional fiction writer – much to the chagrin of my parents who still saw me as a computer geek. But that’s when I first began to affirm that goals for my life must be made and pursued by me. And I conceded I would also stand alone in accepting any unfortunate repercussions from those decisions.
I no longer feared life and he people who occupied it. My desire for learning more about the world around me exploded, as did my passions for reading and writing. I’d always loved the latter two, but they took on new levels of importance by 1986. Some of my closest family members and equally close friends may have a different understanding when they hear me speak of my “whorish” nature. And they are more than welcome to keep their mouths shut.
If I may sound critical of I.
But I realized once a short time ago,
That I’m a whore.
A whore of the spirits.
My mind and body and everything in between are open to everyone and everything.
It’s not that I have no moral turpitude.
I’m a glutton for emotion.
I’m a fool for curiosity.
I’m in need of knowledge.
And the people who possess it.
People like you.
I’m a whore of the spirits.
Your spirit and mine.
The spirit of anyone who’s lived in this world,
And wants to share their ideals.
I’ve let myself be used for good and bad.
For all others to enjoy.
Now I demand to enjoy myself.
And be a whore for my brain.
I have no more qualms of life.
I don’t fear mysteries of the human creature.
I frolic with my pod of friends,
In orgied lusts of the good.
Beneath a midnight sky or a crystal sun,
Call me as you please.
I gleefully admit,
I’m a whore.
Because I understand my true soul.
I’m in need of company,
But only to learn.
Always and forever.
I feed from that.
I must nourish from a bountiful mass of gray matter.
It’s my blood.
It’s my breath.
Shout at me, “You whore!”
And I laugh.
“Thank you, my friend!”
Because I know who I am.
One of the spirits.
Hungrier and thirstier,
For a tapestry of brilliant introspection.
Image: Harvard Gazette
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.
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 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!