I was out of town when the email came from my dear friend Jen: “Diego passed. Call me.”
It felt as though someone had just punched me in the solar plexus. My mind started spinning like a roulette wheel. Diego, dead?
Less than two years ago, Diego was a healthy, vigorous man who was building his eco dream house. When I close my eyes, I can see him standing tall in the middle of his construction site, exhausted and exultant, asking what I thought of an archway that would lead to his office. He had several possible solutions for supporting it. And now the archway is built, the home is inhabited by his family, but Diego has no earthly support. His spirit is floating somewhere, perhaps hovering close to life, or maybe elevating to its home in the universal house of peace.
It is hard to lose someone close to you. It is acutely hard to lose someone when you are traveling because your luggage suddenly becomes five times as heavy, weighed down by memory, impotence, worry. Like a charging cellphone, you are plugged in at night, downloading feelings and memories.
When I speak to Diego’s wife, I feel as though I am sucked through the phone, at her side. I can feel the vibration of her pain, resonate with the shock of loss. And when the call is ended, a piece of me stays with her. The call is over, but the vibrations linger until the next call.
In the middle of the night last night, the phone rang. My heart was pounding as I ran to the charger, wondering who else had died. I missed the call. I went down the mental Rolodex of my dear ones, terrified to contemplate more loss. When I played back the message, from an unknown caller, it was “69,69,69,69, you city bitch.” A random, malicious call to unnerve a stranger in the hours between dark and light. An unnecessary jolt to a nervous system. A sufferer, no doubt, calling to make someone else suffer.
I know all the things people say about death. The philosophical and religious beliefs, the conviction that human death is part of the cycle of life which is shared with all of nature. I understand the need to create a meaningful context for a random chop by the Scythe of Time.
On the road, I have visited ancient vault-like tombs of important prehistoric chiefs, and wandered among standing stones that marked a now unidentified life. I have been a silent witness to ancestral people, trying to make sense out of death, and building monuments to the departed. I have attended funerals where villagers spoke the truth about the deceased, and then banned any negative talk once the body was interred. I have seen parties at gravesites and watched native people eat and drink with their dead relatives and friends, toasting them with vodka, scotch and wine.
All of it helps, but none of it brings the dead person back to life. In the Bible, several prophets had the power to bring the deceased back to the land of the living. In hospitals or at accident scenes, people sometimes leave their bodies, look around, decide it’s a whole lot better on the earthly plane, and slip back into their bodies to resume their lives.
In the past few years, two other close female friends lost their husbands. They do not know each other, and yet they say the same thing: they are not separate from their beloveds. They get messages and signs all the time, and they converse with their mates the way they did when the latter were alive.
At the gym, we all do pushing and pulling exercises. In life, we do the same. We push away thoughts of our own death and the death of our loved ones, and, when they pass, we try to pull them close to us.
I think about these things because I am not home now. I am trying to process the great mystery of a person I love being here one minute, and gone the next. My mind wanders to a bullfight I once attended. I was horrified and hypnotized by the death of the powerful beast. It raged around the ring, bleeding and pained by the lances in its body, and then, suddenly, keeled over and was lifeless, a gigantic heap of hide, muscles, organs, devoid of all power and possibility.
Then my mind skipped to the moment of death, when the souls parted from people I knew. They had a personality, a spark of the divine, a sense of humor, a life. When the soul left, all that remained behind was an envelope which resembled the person, but had nothing inside of it. An empty envelope without breath or breadth.
There is only one solution to being away when a loved one dies. It is making a commitment to life, to love, to people who make you feel happy, empowered, strong, cared for. It is a commitment for us to be there for each other, so when tragedy strikes, whether we are at home or traveling, the principle mourners do not feel isolated and alone.
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Judith Fein is an internationally-award-winning travel journaliist, speaker, workshop leader, and the author of the acclaimed book LIFE IS A TRIP: The Transformative Magic of Travel.