# 16: Memento mori

 Saturday, August 29, 2015

            Mexico is the land of the memento mori. The Day of the Dead. The brightly painted ceramic skulls for sale in every market. La Catrina, the elegant skeletal lady dressed as a Mexican Revolution revolucionaria. The sugar candies in the form of various fleshless body parts that we give to children as treats. Skeletons on tee shirts; on TV cartoons; on home altars. The Victorian gravestone with the incised “Not Yet” that has been cheering me up every morning for the last 40 years from its place in our garden is at home in this company. These reminders are not macabre; they are positive incentives, uplifting, practical. Only the everyday consciousness of our mortality, they say, will give us the impetus to live every day fully and usefully, as if it were going to be our last.

            But of course, we humans prefer that these metaphysical naggings about the fragility of life and the inevitability of its ending remind us generically, and in the abstract. Mementi mori in the concrete are something else altogether.

            A tough time in the Etlas. Devastatingly sad for the expat community of San Pablo Etla and the Mexican communities with which we are entwined. Late Friday evening Mary Stecher was visited by Federal Police who informed her that earlier in the day her car had been crushed and incinerated in a fiery automobile accident on the highway from Oaxaca to Puebla and that none of the four occupants had survived. Though the police were unable to identify the victims’ remains, they traced the car to Mary through the license plate. Mary knew instantly who they were: Bill Stair and his wife Doreen, Jeff Charles, and her husband Bill. The four friends, all avid birders, and all musicians who often played with the Bodega Boys, had been on their way to a Gulf Coast village north of Veracruz to participate in the annual hawk migration count. Mary called Joanne Moeschl, a neighbor and long time friend who in her professional life had years of experience in hospice care, to come be with her through the night.

            Linda and I got the news on Saturday afternoon when we returned from a mini-excursion to a little reservoir at the north end of the Etla Valley, up in the Mixteca beyond Huitzo. My first time out since a minor bout of pneumonia a couple of weeks ago had laid me low. Emma Solís called us. Her mom, doña Carmen, had heard about the accident on the radio news. Emma reported that there were several dead and that Guillermo Stecher was one of them. I hung up and saw that our message light was blinking. The recording said to call Tom or Judith. As I reached to pick up the phone again, it rang. It was Tom, calling from Mary’s house with the full, awful report.

            “Should we come over?” I asked when the lump in my throat permitted.

            “Well, probably not now. It’s too confusing. Some folks are here, Joanne and Richard, the Estevas, but there is really nothing to do. Mary called us this morning, seven o’clock, and Judith went right over. She is going to stay with Mary tonight. Lucy and Mike are here. I think they and Tony Raab went over to the Stairs' and secured the house. Removed the valuables. And the laptops with find Bill’s and Doreen’s address files so we can contact their relatives in Europe. Florencio is helping.”

            “Anything needed over there, anything Linda or I can do? Food? Errands?”

            “Not for now. Later, maybe, when things sort out.”

            “How is Mary? She can’t be all right. Is she bearing up?”

            “For now, yes. She’s had sixteen hours or so to process the shock, and she seems pretty steady.”

            I go into Linda’s study where she is working at her desk and trying, unsuccessfully, once again, to keep her two semi-Siamese kittens from nibbling her toes.  I break the news and we just sit there, in stunned silence, staring at each other. Even the kittens are quiet.

            The rest of the day passes. Phone calls. Emails go out. I write Deborah and Abby and brother John and his wife.

When the kids were here they had gone birding with Bill, had sat on Bill and Mary’s patio in the morning while Bill quilted in the chill air, his coffee cup on the table, his binoculars and a bird book or two close at hand. When John and Pat visited us and we were still living in the casita, they stayed for a week with Bill and Mary. It didn’t take long before Deborah and Abby each call us, sobbing, and we share our grief. A little later John calls wanting details and Mary’s address so he and Pat can send a sympathy something. I explain that in the Etlas hard-copy mail is a rarity, and the expat community, at least, communicates long distance mainly with email and Skype.

            Linda and I talk again a couple of times with friends who are at Mary’s, and with Rebecca Raab, who lives just down the dirt road from them. I email Manuel Grosselet and Georgina, the Oaxaca Valley’s professional birders with whom Bill has [had] worked so closely over the years. [As I write I find I am having difficulty with verb tenses.] We ask Rebeca Romero, a journalist friend, if tomorrow’s long scheduled lunch date is still on. She grew up in Puebla, and has already invested many hours in preparing chile en nogada, Puebla’s most famous dish, stuffed chiles bathed in a creamy walnut sauce and pomegranate seeds. She says that yes, it’s still on, if we are comfortable with that. Life does go on, she says; we all have to eat, and we can share our grief over a really special meal. Linda and I will go over to Mary’s in the morning, on the way to Rebeca’s.


Sunday, August 30.

           I start early to bake some bread to take over to Mary’s house with an extra loaf to give to Rebeca Romero. Oats, whole wheat, chopped walnuts, raisins. Dense, to be sliced thin and eaten with jam or a good cheese; we take a ripe bleu cheese with us as we drive the 1.6 zigzag kilometers of dirt road and deep arroyos between our houses. Though Qalba and I mostly do our early morning bird walks here on the Santa Cruz lomas, about once a week I had been trekking over to the 3rd section of San Pablo where the Stechers live to bird with Bill. Bittersweet, I think, as we jounce over the ruts. I probably won’t be walking this route so frequently now.

            Those early morning walks have been a big part of my life here in the Etlas, both when we lived in San Pablo, not far from the Stechers, and now that we are here in Santa Cruz, two lomas distant. In between our greeting the neighbors who walk those roads on their way to work, or to school, Bill and I talked about our lives, about the foibles and joys of coping with Mexico, about geology and ecology, village and state politics, of his projects up at La Mesita, nothing and everything. Always the conversations were punctuated with pauses to gaze at this or that bird, to scrutinize a thorn thicket where one of us thought he had seen movement, to listen to a distant birdcall. My eyes are better than Bill’s, and I have much better peripheral vision, so often I took the lead in where to focus the binoculars. Bill’s ears were much better than mine; he could hear things at both ends of the spectrum that I could not hear at all, and he was much, much better at identifying calls and songs. Over the three years that I knew him he gradually, patiently, taught me how to listen. I am still a novice, but I credit Bill with setting me on the path. Six months ago he got me to start chronicling the Santa Cruz birds daily for the Ebird list run by Cornell, to start a record parallel to the six-year-long daily log he has submitted for the 3rd section of San Pablo.

            On Mary’s enclosed patio and in her living room and kitchen we find a dozen or so neighbors and friends, expats and Mexicans. There are nibbles set out on a table, a counter for drinks. Mary, tall, thin, white-haired like Linda and so many of our friends, hugs us both as we come in. She is indeed bearing up, but the pain in her eyes, and the dark circles around them, speak loudly of the stress that she is under. I add our bread and cheese to the nosh table and Linda and I circulate slowly among the visitors, exchanging impressions, hugging each other often for comfort.

            Mike Conroy fills us in on the immediate plans and challenges. The driver of the truck has not been found. The four bodies have still not been identified to the satisfaction of the police and coroner. The corpses have been so charred beyond recognition that officials are having to work with subtle clues. A history of broken bones now healed. Impressions left by wedding rings that the extreme heat had melted away, and a mark where a chain had lain around a neck. Dental records have been sent for. The US and British consuls are involved. The bodies have been brought back to the state forensic facility near San Bartolo Coyotepec, so relatives can make the identifications there. In the case of the Stehrs, who had no local relatives, someone would be flying in from Britain, and the formal identifying will wait until they arrive. Kirsten Johnson’s son Nicholas, an arts administrator who works as an arranger for the Harp Foundation (the largest private philanthropic institution in these parts), has taken charge of interfacing with the coroner, the police, the insurance companies, and other such. Linda and I volunteer our casita for any visitor who needs housing. Memorial services will be scheduled shortly. Mike also tells us that next week’s “End of Life Issues” meeting will be postponed.

            In many ways the two- to four-dozen international expats scattered across the Etlas constitute a community. There are small circles of friends who often do things together, larger circles who come together for major events; there are full-time residents and half-year Oaxacans, with additions and subtractions from the community as people come and go. Despite our great diversity, we have many things in common. Most of us are “of an age.” We are all residents, not visitors, and as such we need to engage with workpeople, government offices, public utilities, and the health care systems. We need doctors, lawyers, notaries. Bill Stecher maintained an X-cel community directory of addresses and phones that he updated periodically and emailed to all members of the informal community. In a second directory Bill compiled the contact data for the community services –veterinarians, health care and legal people, utilities- with whom we often need to interact.

            Early this summer Mike Conroy took on the task of coordinating approaches to end-of-life and long-term health care issues for the expats. The community “of an age,” which is most of us, met several times —all when Linda and I were in the States— to work on clarifying the rules, the procedures, and the variables. What sorts of palliative and end-of-life care are available here. How to coordinate foreign Advance Health Care Directives and DNR requests with their Mexican voluntad anticipada equivalents that it turns out vary from state to Mexican state. What we have to have done to make certain that our directives are followed. The regulations governing burial and donation of body parts. How to coordinate a will written abroad with an anticipated eventual death here in Mexico. How some of these rules vary according to our immigration and marital statuses (temporary, tourist, permanent visas). Mike has also begun to compile a centralized “who to contact” list that can guide the community in times of individual calamity.

            The frame around most of this thinking seems to have been ‘When We get Old and Begin to Decline;’ and ‘When We Die, Presumably in Some Orderly Fashion.’ We don’t seem to have been thinking of unforeseen events like cement trucks trampolining on the cuota and crushing us when they come explosively down. Clearly the agenda for our discussions has expanded.

            Linda and I leave Mary’s about 1:00 for Rebeca Romero’s house in San Pablo, half way between Mary’s and ours, on top of the intermediate loma. The other luncheon guests are Kirsten Johnson and Jayne Lyons, who have known each other since Peace Corps days in Guatemala. Kirsten, in fact, has known Bill longer than anyone else in San Pablo: back in the early ‘60s they were part of the second Peace Corps class and they served together in Bolivia. They were also connected through textiles: Kirsten’s mother was THE anthropologist who explored and chronicled the rich textile culture of the Mixteca, and Bill was an accomplished textile artist and quilter.

            Rebeca’s lunch is elegant, the food superb, and the conversation an affirmation of life and a memorial to Bill, who played such an important part in the lives of so many members of the expat and local Mexican communities.


Monday, August 31.

            Early afternoon I go to replenish supplies in the Bodega Aurrerá, the nearest large grocery store and, naturally, an affiliate of Walmart. By the meat and cheese counter I run  into Carlos Plata’s wife Selena, and we hug and commiserate. Two aisles over next to the dog and cat supplies I run into Elaine, who rents a small house up near the top of Camino al Seminario. Elaine is stocking up on fruit and vegetables. I ask her how she is doing.

            “I don’t need another reminder of mortality!” she says with a wry, painful smile.

            “Amen to that.”

            Back home, Linda and I learn that the memorial gatherings have been scheduled for Thursday and for Sunday afternoons at the Casa Raab.


Tuesday, September 1.

            We go over to Mary’s on our way to do an errand and find that she and the couple of Bill’s relatives who have come down from the States are fast asleep. The visitors came in on the 6:30 plane and they all went right to the state repository in San Bartolo. Their neighbors Gene and Melinda tell us the process of identifying the bodies took until 3:00 AM.

            On the way back to our car Linda and I talk with Virgilio, the gardiner-philosopher at the small complex of houses where the Stechers live, with whom I’ve become very friendly over the last three years. Every time I went to meet Bill for an early morning birding loop, I chatted with Virgilio on the way in. Always the same routine. He greets me. We compare chronic ailments. He waxes philosophic, I crack a joke or two, we both get the giggles, and resolve to agree that even though our world isn’t perfect, it is still a cause for celebration, and beats all of the alternatives.

            Today his usually happy face is grave. He shrugs his shoulders as if to honor the inevitable intervention of fate. “Un gran hueco, a great hole. Don Guillermo has left us.”

            I give him a hug and, a little tentatively he hugs back. Our usual greeting has been to shake hands, and if he has been working in the dirt he often only offers the back of his wrist for a brief touch. Not this time, though.

            Esta vida es un regalo, a gift,” he tells me. “No, a loan. The one up there” —he points at the cloudless morning sky— “ puts us here and then one day” —he snaps his fingers— “like that, he takes us back.”

            For some reason, as I walk back to the car I think of Tweedledum’s warning to Alice in Through the Looking Glass: “You’re only a sort of thing in the Red King’s dream. If that there king was to wake, you’d go out —bang!—, just like a candle.”

David & Linda