Chiapas: The Land of Birth and Death

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In 2009 I died. From a birth comes death and from death comes a rebirth. Indigenous ways of thinking view life through cycles and this truth became reality for me through ways I could never imagine.

July 7, July 8, and July 9 are days of anniversary very difficult for me.

“I want to write my story but writing it makes it hard to be detached.”

Mississippi summers are notoriously hot, unrelenting expansive months of sweat, tortuous in their summer heat. In 2009, I was a Ph.D. student in the process of writing a dissertation on Chiapas. One year from completion my world up-ended and froze in the summer. On my daughter’s first birthday, I sat quietly next to my husband who fought for his life in the ICU.

‘How could this illness be so swift?!’

‘What do you mean that his body is shutting down?’

‘He was fine two weeks ago.’

‘He understands your English, you don’t have to yell at him. He’s too weak and responds in his tongue, Spanish.’

‘Yes he’s Latino, but he doesn’t drink or do drugs you fucking racist!’

‘I don’t know what’s wrong? Why don’t you know what is wrong? You are the fucking doctor?’

On his daughter’s first birthday, Adan could barely speak. His mouth bled from the pure oxygen they fed him. I dabbed his forehead with a wet wrap in a vain attempt to bring down his soaring temperature. He vomited when I tried to feed him. His kidneys no longer functioned and Adan was angry that the nurses insisted on a catheter. Adan was a very private individual, dignified, macho and proud. I found myself not only negotiating with the nurses, but also with him. In exchange, he ceded that I could bath him and clean him, care for him. He wanted the nurses gone.

That night, his daughter’s birthday I held his hand. He gripped it with what strength was left and told me that he did not want to die. Please don’t let me die.

Death was knocking. I just refused see it.

To calm him I spoke of Naty and said everything I would ever want to say to someone I loved more than life itself. He was agitated and deeply afraid. I soothed him to sleep.

I left at 11:30pm, as he slumbered in a morphine haze.

In that cold room, alone Adan waited until 5 minutes after the day of his daughter’s birthday to leave this world. A kindness in a sense, but to me it was the cruelest of actions. He abandoned me.

“Autumn hasn’t yet slept since we’ve arrived and each member of the family she holds inspires tears. Tears for a husband she barely got to have, tears for her daughter that will never know her father, tears for a family in poverty, a poverty that no American can truly understand. These are the insights that she holds.”

2014:

To return to Chiapas opened a raw wound that may never heal. To be a young widow was unimaginable. Who is a widow at 34? I denied it. I cried. I was angry at Adan, at everyone. Angry at the world, angry at God most of all. Five years passed before I returned to visit his family and they respected the space I required even though they suffered the same pain.

“Autumn is an inspiration, my best friend, and mentor. She knows this yet can’t understand why anyone would aspire to be her. She refuses to recognize her wisdom, knowledge, and love. “

“Ella no se habla Español? Porque no? Naty no entiende cuando decimos te quiero mi nina!”

How do I explain that I haven’t taught her Spanish? Deeply embarrassed, this is my fault and I am ashamed.

2009:

Trauma. It’s because of the trauma. When the hospital called me at 12:30am I knew he was dead. How do we know these things? Hospital staff shuffled me into a small cold room and I waited. My head bowed, I had the sense that someone stood next to me and I kept looking up certain that I was not alone. A strange sense of peace filled the room.

I could not call the family in Mexico to break the news. Someone else had to do it.

The first funeral was a blur. I don’t remember much, only that Naty as a baby refused to be near her dead father. Lila was eight years old and cried at my side while my Ph.D. advisor read the service in both Spanish and English to a stunned room.

While the process of picking out a casket was painful, the torture was only yet to begin.

Corruption exists both in the United States just as much as in Mexico, as I found out. The coroner refused to do the autopsy so that I could repatriate Adan’s body. So I waited, languished for three months on the phone daily trying to explain not only the cause of death but also someone’s ineptitude that I could hardly comprehend.

Finally, in October I laid my husband at the feet of the Sierre Madres where they meet the Guatemalan Highlands in a town named Villa Comatitlan along the Pacific Coast highway. Villa Comatitlan is an Aztec name, a vestige of a conquest that predates the Spanish, the Mayan name of the town long forgotten by its inhabitants. Adan and his family are (as I found out later) Guatemalan Mayan. He never knew this. Never thought to ask. As a researcher I asked. Jesus, his father, could only muster a faint memory that his own father had come to Chiapas in the early years of the Twentieth Century fleeing war. No doubt Adan’s grandfather fled some local repression in Guatemala only to flee into the arms of the Mexican Revolution. Histories Adan never and would never know.

I sat in 95 degree Chiapan heat along the coast for a second funeral. In the heat my psyche crumbled and I climbed the walls. The casket sat in the living room surrounded by hundreds of flowers and every woman from the community. I will never forget the smell a mix of lilies and assorted mixes. To this day I can’t stand the smell. We closed the casket as the heat melted the glue keeping his eyes shut. His body felt like a cold stone. Six hours into the wake I climbed on top of the casket. At that point the family put me to bed. From that point on I was a broken soul, body and spirit.

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