I was recently in Los Angeles, taking a class on self-development and the topic of abuse of power came out. A tall man on his seventies, stood up and expressed:
‘All women I know have been sexually molested.’ Immediately I had the image of my spiritual teacher, Carlos Castaneda, saying the same phrase to me more than 20 years ago.
Holding the mic on his right hand, this man continued:
‘And I want to tell to all women here that I am not one of the abusers, and that there are many men like me respect, honor and appreciate women,’ his voice broke and tears rolled down his wrinkled face with kindness. I noticed freckles on the back of his hand. He didn’t have children of his own: he was helping his wife raise her granddaughters.
‘I condemn the abuse; it is wrong’ he concluded. A moving applause from the large group followed. He reminded me of my father.
Seven years ago, I was having dinner with my dad the night after my mother’s funeral. We were at a small restaurant, in Buenos Aires, near the corner of his apartment building. My dad wasn’t that hungry, but I insisted. He looked pale and breathless and I knew some food would help bring some light back to his being. I wanted to spend time alone with him, away from the rest of the family grieving; to take a break from being surrounded by my mother’s belongings.
The wooden booth where we sat down felt uncomfortable under my skinny buttocks. I had lost weight since my mother had been hospitalized.
My dad ordered a milanesa with French fries, a typical Argentinean dish; I was frantically searching for a vegan option. The waiter, willingly, offered me a ‘off-menu’ dish with quinoa and squash. I consented. The glasses the waiter brought us were dirty, and the table was poorly cleaned. It was momentarily comforting to notice the petty little things of daily life, in the midst of a stressful, intense experience.
Deep in my heart, I knew everything I had learned from Castaneda, all of the years of meditation and practice were to prepare me for that moment: embracing the death of my mother opened-heartedly, feeling the great loss without denying it or dramatizing it, experiencing my father’s pain, and allowing it to be.
Two months earlier my mom was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. She was hospitalized for three weeks, had a surgery to remove water from her lungs, and was given large doses of corticoids to force breathing. She went back home, where she died a few days later.
All the time, my father stood next to her sleeping in rough public hospital chairs, going home only when my mother requested it. He did not complain. He was kind towards the doctors and nurses. I witnessed him sitting in silence by her side for hours, holding her hands, looking down searching for an explanation or praying.
My mother was the strongest one, the commander in chief that called the shots. She made trusted decisions. She told my dad what to do, which bills to pay, which birthday parties to go to. She had a hand in everything and a tough personality.
My father had been a marine in his youth, with a caring, noble, honest, soul. He was tall, dark-complexioned and handsome. He was an introvert. He never raised his voice to us his children. He suffered a heart attack and stopped smoking. But then, when I was a teen, he was laid off from his job. He became depressed and withdrew.
“Still can’t believe she was in that box” he said looking into my eyes for the first time. The box with my mother’s ashes looked like a cardboard shoebox. There was an option to pay more money for a wooden box, but my brothers declined.
The memorial service took place the day before, at the church where my parents got married, and all of us, baptized. The charming basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe was a second home to my parents, where they offered marriage counselingl as part of their community service. We walked the two-blocks distance to the church carrying the box with her ashes on a paper bag. The priest placed the box on the altar.
I was sitting next to my dad, on the wooden church benches, when he held my hand and whispered close in my ears “can you believe that mommy is in that box”? He was eighty-years old but his voice felt so young, and innocent.
“No dad, she is not really there,” I managed to say.
At the end of the service we all followed the priest outdoors to a garden area with flowers. The priest signaled my father to hold the ashes, but he passed them onto me. I opened the box and spread the ashes on a community pit, joining the ashes of other members and priests. When the service ended, I noticed a large line of people coming to greet us, to tell us our mother had been their mentor, and that they were sorry for our loss. I realized the impact of my mother’s work in her community.
“This was not supposed to happen in this order, this is wrong;” in the restaurant my father was resisting the inevitable. Instead of joining in despair, or judging him, something within me decided to listen to him. “Listen to others as if your life depends on it” Castaneda used to tell me. I did listen and gave space to my father to say anything he wanted to say, unconditionally.
The food finally arrived and mine tasted too salty. My dad’s looked better. I stole some of his French fries.
“Your mother was the only one for me. Nunca hubo otra.” he said surprised by, almost in awe of his own words. “She was the only woman in my life.”
My dad did support my mother even when in disagreement. He praised her, thanked her for her work at home and with us, brought red roses, her favorite flowers, celebrated the time they had together. But I didn’t know how deep their love was.
Would my father make it without my mother? I thought while listening to him falling apart in tears. A part of me wanted to console him, to tell him he was going to be ok. Another part of me wanted to place my head in his shoulder, to be consoled by him, for him to tell me he was going to live long.
I did none. I kept eye contact, listening to his recounts of how he met my mother; how they used to talk through the radio while he was travelling around the world; how they decided to get married; how he gave up having a university degree to become the bread-winner and raise six children.
Twelve months later, in the same month my father died. I drove directly from the airport to the funeral house. His body was cold, but he looked still fresh and alive. He died in the morning peacefully, sitting on the sofa of his home, after finishing his tea. I kissed his forehead and held his hands. I was able to love him the way he loved.