The beauty of death in Mexico

The call came at 6:54 pm on Tuesday. I saw the number and I knew instantly what it meant. ” mi papá falleció,” Ely said in a broken voice. I tried to tell her I was sorry and that her brother wasn’t at home right now and I would have him call at 7:30 when he got back from school. I tried to tell her we would be there tomorrow and not to worry. I’m not sure what I actually said or what she heard because suddenly she was gone.

My mind filled with so many thoughts simultaneously… A choking sadness that we wouldn’t see him another time. A deep gratitude that we both spoke with him on Saturday and gave him our thanks for his gifts to us, though he could no longer answer back. A tremendous panic that I was responsible to get my husband to Mexico. I took a deep breath and turned on the computer.

We knew of his father’s failing health. In July, when we last visited, he was just starting to decline. He had lost his ability to walk and needed help to get himself out of bed. After speaking to his family one night in early August, my husband was so sad that I instantly purchased tickets for Labor Day weekend. It was only going to be a short visit but he wanted so badly to see his father again that those 48 hours in Mexico would be precious. Sadly, Hilario couldn’t wait those ten more days though his daughter’s kept telling him that his son  would be visiting him on September 4th. Solamente 10 días más ‘apá. Solamente 10 días. Only 10 more days papa. Ten more days.

After finding out our available options for changing our flight I sat down on the couch and waited. He called and asked me how many tickets he should buy at the grocery store for the State Fair. “Just come home, honey. I’ll get the tickets tomorrow,” I said. “But I’m almost there,” he said sounding frustrated with my change of mind since an hour earlier when we spoke I had insisted he stop and pick up the tickets and coupon book for our Thursday night at the fair. “Just come home sweetie. I’m sorry I changed my mind.” A few minutes later he came in the door and I asked him to come down stairs and sit next to me. He was cautious, like a kid who knows they are in trouble but not quite sure why. As he sat next to me I felt the tears fill my eyes. “Sweetheart, Ely called. Your father passed away today.”

The change on his face was instant, almost before I had finished the sentence. The cry of complete agony that came from him jolted my heart like a lightning bold. He pressed his face to the pillow and sobbed not wanting me to touch him, not wanting comfort. His mother had died when he was 15 and spending time with his father was the most important reason he had for going to Mexico. We had both seen the decline in his father since our first visit in March of 2008, a mere 17 months before his death. When we had left in July, he was crying as he hugged his father and as our taxi pulled away he said, “I feel like this is the last time I will see my dad.” How terrible that he was right. “I’m sorry he didn’t wait for you, honey,” I say now as I pat his back. “But you know he was proud of you.”

After a few moments when the initial wave of despair had softened, I told him that I already called the airlines but that he needed to call Mexico and ask about the details of the funeral so I would know what flight we needed to take. I handed him my phone and he called, finding out that the church ceremony was going to be at 3pm the next day and the cemetery at 4pm. “That’s so early,” I said worriedly, knowing our flight options were slim. “They have to have the body in the ground within 24 hours,” he said. “Can we go tonight?” It was already almost 8 pm and there was no way we could get packed and get a flight to Mexico for the same evening. The earliest we could get to Mexico City was 1pm in the afternoon. That gave me some hope because I knew the taxi ride was around two hours to his town which would put us there at 3 pm.

The rest of the evening seemed to pass slowly and quickly at the same time. We packed our suitcases, my mother arrived to spend the night so she could take us to the airport at 5 am, I emailed some clients letting them know I would be gone for the next week. At about 11 pm we left our house and drove to Minnepolis so we could tell his two brothers the news. First we went to his younger brother Roni’s house and waited for him to return from work. After we told him, we went to Gigio’s house and waited for him until 12:30am. He was in the United States when his mother died also but that time his sister’s hadn’t even told him how seriously ill she was. After we returned home at 2 am we tried to sleep. I don’t know if either of us slept much between then and 4 am when we had to get up to go to the airport.

Sleeping on the plane the next morning was impossible. Most of the ride we passed in silence just holding hands. We plotted each moment at the airport to make sure we made our 28-minute connection in Houston and got from plane, thru customs, to taxi in Mexico City in less than 20 minutes. Somebody was watching over us because our taxi got us to Tetelilla a few minutes after 3. We stopped at his house and put our suitcases in what has become our room and then had the taxi take us to the church. As we stepped out of the taxi I saw my brother-in-law Alejandro and nine-year-old son Fernando sitting outside of the church and the backs of others – our nephews Edgar and Jaime and many people I didn’t recognize.

My husband and I stood at the back of the church and saw the wood coffin with light purple satin gathered along the sides and dark purple velvet edging and cross along the top. Filo, Ely, Abelina and Sofia were standing one at each corner of the coffin. As we stood there at the back of the church I told him to go up with his sisters. He pushed through the back few people and stood there waiting with his hands folded. His nephew Edgar came back and took us to the front of the small church where we sat for a few moments in the second row. With only one pew on each side of the aisle, large enough to hold 4 or 5 people and about 20 rows deep, the church was full to the bursting point with people in mourning.

Sadness spilled down my husband’s cheeks as his sister Abelina on his right and Filo and Sofia in front turned around and tried to comfort him. I noticed that the people at the corners of the coffin were switching. Soon Filo, the oldest sister, tapped my husband, and me also, told us to go to his dad and stand. We stood at the front by his feet, closest to the altar. I focused on the Jesus statue trying to control my tears not even trying to understand the Spanish. After that I tried counting the flower arrangements which covered the entire front of the church. The top of the coffin was in the shape of a cross where it would cover his head. The velvet cross was open and you could see his face through a plastic window.

It looked smoother than I remember. The cotton put in the nostrils seemed to have broken his nose giving it a small bump I hadn’t seen before but otherwise it was the same face we had seen just 6 weeks earlier. We stood at his feet for the rest of the service while the people behind us took turns switching and silently showing their love and respect. Mariachis were playing from the back of the church on the second floor where a pipe organ would usually sit. At the end of the service all the siblings and spouses and grandchildren came to the front of the church and opened the plastic window to say good bye. Afterwards they lowered the velvet cross and closed the coffin.

Gently, his coffin was lifted up on the shoulders of four men who carried him out of the church as everyone followed. People took the flowers from the church and carried them, surrounding the coffin on either side as the mariachi’s followed playing a somber processional. Periodically the procession would pause as the men carrying switched, to rest from the weight and the intense heat. “You are going to get sunburned,” my husband said to me. I told him not to worry about me right now but that I know how much he loves me and wants to take care of me and his dad would be proud of the man he is.

At the cemetery everyone paused at the metal gates to allow Hilario to pass first. We walked through to the front where there is a cement slab with a cross. I was looking at the graves as we passed and noticed one wooden cross painted with bright white letters 5 feb, and the year my husband was born. “Look sweetheart, that person died on your birthday,” I exclaimed before realizing it was inappropriate. He did look with me and acknowledge my comment.

As we neared the front of the cemetery I saw the hole dug next to my husband’s mother and sister Hilaria, where Hilario’s father and brother were buried. There were two black garbage bags tied shut next to the tree and some rope and shovels. The men put his dad on the cement table and opened the coffin. There Filo, the oldest daughter, straightened his body and arranged him with the same love she had given him in life. Then she took a glass of water and used a flower to sprinkle drops of water on his body while she spoke to him. Each person in the family took turns with the glass, sprinkling water as they said a final goodbye and giving him a kiss on the forehead. All the while the mariachis were playing their somber music.

When everyone was done Filo put his favorite hat inside with him and closed the coffin. The same men picked up the coffin and carried it to the mound of dirt next to the grave while my husband’s brother Alejandro, nephew Jaime and brother-in-laws Leonardo and Eligio wrapped the bright blue rope around it. I realized in surprise that we were going to stay there while they actually covered his body, something I had never seen before.

The rope was looped just once on each end of the coffin and the men lowered it in slowly. Towards the bottom the coffin started to tilt slightly to one side and I worried that it would tip all the way. I kept thinking how his sister must want to go down there and fix her dad again. How terribly sad to watch. Then someone jumped in and straightened the coffin and unlooped the ropes. Alejandro picked up a shovel and started to throw dirt in. Ely, the younger daughter collapsed in to her friend. Everyone’s face ran with tears. Katy clung to her older brother Edgar. Neto stood on the other side with his girlfriend. After a foot or so of dirt was on top, Alejandro threw in the two black garbage bags and it wasn’t until then I realized those were the remains of Hilario’s father and brother which had been recovered when the hole was dug.

When the hole was filled rocks were piled on top and around the edge. Alejandro replaced the crosses of Hilario’s dad and brother and the family helped cover the entire grave with flowers. Everyone started to leave until it was only my husband and I. Then Alejandro came back and sat on a large rock at the foot of the grave. My husband said goodbye to his dad. Told him he had a good life and raised good children and thanked him for all that he gave his children and grandchildren, his voice cracking as he spoke. Tears streamed down Ale’s face as Fernando came back to sit by his dad.

We started to walk back together and passed the grave I had seen on the way in. “Your birthday,” I said again. “Somebody died when I was born,” he said. One life ends as another begins.

We returned to the house where people were sitting at tables under a blue tarp eating. My husband and I went down the street to Sofia’s house for a few moments of privacy. After about 15 minutes we came back and sat in the kitchen having some rice, hard boiled eggs, and tortillas, very different from a Lutheran funeral lunch of hotdishes and assorted bars. He visited with people in the kitchen. He saw his sister Ely laying on the bed and tried to comfort her. She wasn’t crying just exhausted after four nights of staying up to take care of her dad.

All evening people pass in and out of Hilario’s room sitting in chairs and talking and praying. Once everyone left, just as it was getting dark we finally went into his father’s bedroom. There was a table draped in black where his body had rested from the time of his death until his coffin was carried to the church 24 hours later. Covered in flowers, a black crucifix was at the head underneath a photo of his parents taken before their first child. The thick, heavy smell of incense overwhelmed my nostrils as I entered the room. A heavy wooden cross which will become his grave marker is laid down the center of the table. On the left side of the cross amongst all the flowers is a glass of water and plate with two tortillas. On the right side is a little jar of beans, and his glass of chocolate with sweet bread resting on top. These are called ofrendas and they are at one time the thing I find most beautiful and most heartbreaking about death in Mexico. Every morning one of the daughters prepares the fresh food for his dad and brings it to him just as if he were alive.

Candles lighted on top and underneath the table along with a small light so you could see the picture of his parents on the wall even in the dark. We sat talking to Filo while she told Mex about his father’s last days. She told Mex how his father would always look at the picture on the wall of his four sons that we had brought for him in July. It was his wish to one day have all of his children and grandchildren together with him but that is one of the great tragedies of the Mexican. In order to support a family it is often necessary to leave and go to the US to send money home. The terrible sacrifice is that person then gives up the ability to return to be with family, even when death occurs. I’m thankful that we brought him that photo so he felt close to the three sons that were in the US and unable to be with him.

The flickering candles made the top of the black cross appear like a skull. Someone has to always be sitting in the room and awake so his father isn’t lonely. Even Karla had stayed home from the funeral procession to keep him company in the room. Mex carried a mattress in there and his sister Sofia slept there while he stayed awake until 4 am when I made him wake a sister to replace him. For 8 days there is someone always in the room with his dad’s spirit, awake 24 hours a day.

Every night at 8 pm people from town come to pray and bring flowers. Each day as word spreads around town more and more people show up. Now the room is almost so full of flowers that it is hard to fit the mattress. Each night my husband and I sit in his dad’s room and watch his sister’s sleep on the mattress laid on the floor, holding each other and trying to fill the loneliness. One night Ely, Filo, Sofia and Arlin all squeezed onto one full-size mattress. On the eighth day after the funeral they carry what is left of the flowers over to the cemetery along with the cross to put in as his grave marker. Unfortunately that is on Thursday and we leave on Wednesday.

Walking by my suegro’s room in the morning on my way to the bathroom I no longer see him sitting in the door. He doesn’t laugh quietly to himself as I greet him with my broken Spanish. Instead I glimpse the black cloth covered in flowers and see the glowing of candles. Things will never seem the same here and my heart goes out to my husband and his family for their tremendous loss.


1 Comment

Filed under Family, Mexican culture, Mexico, Tetelilla, Morelos

One response to “The beauty of death in Mexico

  1. Mom

    good job, I feel as though I was there.

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