Thursday, September 9, 2010

Perspectives on Life and Death

A beautiful graveside etching.

We arrived in a rush, as usual, after the typical morning struggle to herd all six of us out of the house at once.  One by one, we squeezed our way off of the overcrowded microbus, and before we were able to speak, we were left in a cloud of exhaust as the van scurried off down the Inter-American highway.  We crossed the road, four lanes of sporadic, speeding traffic that spans through all of Central America, only to find that the building where the meeting was to be held was locked and empty. 

“Sí, estoy en mi casa,” was Jesus’s response, on par with the day-to-day confusion to which we have become accustomed, when we called to ask about the meeting.  As head of ASOATITLAN, Chaquijyá’s own community development organization, Jesus is in charge of organizing meetings, and this one had apparently taken place earlier in the morning. In true Guatemalan fashion, ready to change plans at any given moment, we walked the winding road through the community to Jesus’s house, as instructed.

When we got closer, we could see Jesus in his fluorescent yellow button down, waving to welcome us.  After greeting each one of us with a handshake, Jesus began to explain that his uncle was sick.  We were all caught off guard when he then asked us if we wanted to meet him.  Unsure of what to do, we wearily said yes, unable to fathom the awkward silence if we had said no. 

We followed Jesus up a hill to his uncle’s home.  Like most rural Guatemalan houses, this was a row of three rooms, covered in chipped turquoise paint that opened directly to the outside.  Jesus entered the middle room, where the door was already open, and motioned for us to follow.

In the room lay two double beds, one unoccupied but covered in disheveled sheets and blankets, as though someone woke in a rush.  In the other bed lay Jesus’ sleeping uncle, covered to his chin in blankets.  The room was semi-lit with a dull bulb and two small open windows letting smoke in from the kitchen outside.  In contrast with the cold cement floor and walls, faded colored streamers hung from the wooden ceiling beams.  Perched on two plastic chairs in the corner sat a coffin, brand new, made of polished wood and decorated with a painted portrait of Jesus on the front.  A little girl no older than two played by herself underneath it. 

After setting out plastic chairs in the middle of the room for us to sit, Jesus explained that his 64-year-old uncle had a stomach tumor that an operation in Guatemala City had failed to remove.  So there he lay, waiting to die, surrounded by a mix of family members and strangers, next to the coffin where his body would finally be laid to rest.

I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by the feeling of morbidity, thinking how awful it would be to see your casket at your side, knowing what looming fate awaits you.  Death is not something that we like to acknowledge in American culture.  Death is private.  It is sterile.  It takes place in a hospital room, separate from the rest of the world where life is lived.  There are machines involved, ventilators and respirators and IVs, tools used to cling to life with every last ounce of hope, even when it bears no resemblance to what it once was.

But there, in that room, a man had surrendered.  He had accepted that his final days had come, that he had reached the end of the road.  And nobody was afraid. 

Though we silently squirmed in our plastic chairs, uncomfortable with the closeness of something we’d learned to fear, I couldn’t help but feel the slightest air of peace by the calmness of those around us.  I still sit in awe recollecting on that short-lived but most touching experience, pondering over what it might tell us about life.  Does understanding death help one live?  Are we in the U.S. crippled by the fear of the inevitable?

The rest of our afternoon was spent exploring a faraway part of the community, though a thunderstorm quickly put a damper on our plans.  As we tried to outrun the fast encroaching rainclouds, we found shelter in the homes of strangers.  One woman let us sit in her kitchen while she told us about her children and showed us how to weave traditional Mayan clothing.  Another family of at least 25 people invited us into one small room to watch their band rehearse for their day to play at church.  As sons and fathers and grandfathers drowned out the rain on the tin roof with their powerful music, I realized how beautifully this scene contrasted what we had experienced just hours earlier.

Though I still ponder over the occurrences of that afternoon, trying to derive meaning from two things so seldom experienced side-by-side, I know that we have been implicitly challenged to open our lives, as well.  That day people we had never met welcomed us in to see life, and to see death.  There was no fear or shame, just honest reality.  Perhaps in a life well lived, the two are not so different. 


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