Last weekend our neighbor died.
I’m still thinking about it because the circumstances around his death and the response to his death are nothing I’ve ever experienced. And, it was our children’s first encounter with death, up-close.
Beto was 23. He was born and lived his entire life in this little village called Cacalotepec (population: 700) on the coast of the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. Beto was diagnosed several years ago with having kidney troubles. Since then, his mother administered dialysis to him twice daily.
Beto occasionally played drums in the local thatch-roofed Christian church here. He agreed to give one of our boys’ drum lessons and met with him several times before he became very ill. He would accept no payment.
I did not really know Beto, but I noticed that he was perhaps one of the most joyful believers I have ever seen. He walked around the village, smiling at everyone. He loved to worship through song; on Sunday mornings he would dance, jump or bow before the Lord — even though he was often in pain. The Sunday after the earthquakes hit Mexico, he ran up to the podium, read Psalm 46 from his cell phone and admonished the church to show to the world their confidence and joy from the Lord.
Several weeks ago, Beto’s sister took him on a long bus ride to a hospital to get some kind of care for his kidney issues. My husband picked them up from the bus station an hour away and brought them back home so they could travel in a bit more comfort. He said Beto looked thin and worn and expressed his concern.
A couple of days later, Beto complained of intense head pain. He was taken immediately to a hospital an hour away. They could do little, so he was taken to another hospital over two hours away. He had multiple seizures, then a stroke and then went unconscious for a couple of weeks.
That is all I know. And it seems that it is about all the doctors knew. Oaxaca is one of the most underfunded and neglected states in all of Mexico. The people suffer greatly and die because of a significant lack of skilled professionals and resources. The problem is complex and heart-breaking.
We prayed. The whole church here prayed, worshiped, fasted. They believe in healing. They do not just accept a lousy report with no push-back in prayer. After all, one word from God changes everything, and we all longed for that word.
Our boys took turns at the prayer vigil that went on in the wee hours of the morning. I saw them contemplating life and death, the power of prayer, healing, spiritual warfare, systemic sin, the suffering of those in a “developing world” and the mysteries of God.
The gospel has only been in these parts for about 25 years. Many Christians here are first-generation believers in the adolescence of their faith. We’ve been observing what this looks like in a community as a whole, not to have the shoulders of the generations of righteousness to stand upon. It comes with different challenges.
Beto’s family stayed with him during his three-week hospital stay. There was no couch in his hospital room. There was not even a chair. They sat and slept on the tile floor by day, and by night, they were on the ground outside the facility. The perimeters of public hospitals in Mexico are crowded with families — sometimes the patients themselves lying next to them with their IV’s.
Beto’s family had no food brought to them from hospital staff; there are no cafeterias in these places. If you don’t provide food for yourself and the patient, none of you get any. Beto’s mother still administered dialysis with supplies they had to bring in…while in the hospital.
The little Christian church in that town heard that “their family” was suffering. Immediately, they moved their services to the area outside of the hospital so Beto could listen to the worship, the preaching, and the prayer. Believers from Cacalotepec took turns going back and forth 3 hours away to be with the family.
It seemed for several bright days last week that Beto would live. He was awake, speaking, and eating. Everyone was hopeful. They wanted to move him to the capital of Oaxaca for better testing and care. But then, Beto developed pneumonia, and his lungs filled up with fluid. He was sitting up in his bed and talking with his father last Friday morning when he started choking.
Twenty minutes later, he was gone.
No more pain. No more need for prayer or care.
God spoke, and he was healed.
Just not here, only not as we had hoped.
His body was wrapped crudely and put in a black coffin after a mandatory autopsy by government officials. Here, if a person dies in a hospital, this procedure is law, even if they can’t afford it. The family must hire an automobile to have the body transported back to their home. It’s a terrible hardship on the poor.
Beto’s body was back in Cacalotepec by last Friday afternoon. I heard his mother wailing as she followed the men carrying her son. I’ve never heard such a sound.
Within hours bushes and trees were cut down in their dirt yard to make room for hundreds of plastic chairs borrowed from around town. Beto’s bedroom was cleared out within minutes. Wooden benches were placed against the wall and his coffin set in the center. His mother lay down on the cement floor next to his body in the room and wept. It is the custom from her indigenous background not to exhibit too much emotion for her children in life but then in death to express lament loudly for two days.
My husband took our daughter and a carload of women into the next town to get individual white flowers used here for the dead. They needed containers to put the flowers in, so I offered all the tin baby formula cans I had been saving to plant seeds. Multiple baby formula cans with white flowers were placed around Beto’s coffin. And they were grateful.
That evening about 600 people descended upon the property of Beto’s family. They drank coffee, lemongrass tea, ate beans, rice and tortillas and sat. Most of them sat there all night long, after going into Beto’s room to show their respects.
When I walked into the cement bedroom with the tin roof, I went straight to Beto’s mother. I leaned down and wrapped my arms around her. She sobbed into my shoulder and said, “Oh Angela, thank God you are here, thank God! Do you know what has happened to my son? Do you know?” I could only look at her and nod and wipe her tears. She repeated this to each person who came to her.
I imagined this is what grief looked like in the first century, in a town Jesus might have walked through. He would have wept, for death is not what he intended, and though we have hope, it still hurts.
At about 9 pm a band came from the indigenous village in which Beto’s mother grew up. Trombones, trumpeters, drums, and a tuba played all night long right across the street from our house. This is what they do here. Can you imagine 600 people sitting around you all night long after your loved one died, listening to a band? It was a long night.
The next morning, after all the people had eaten together and after a short memorial service –we were surprised the words spoken were mainly for the family; there was no clear gospel proclamation– the coffin was lifted and taken out to the street.
I took my son’s hand, and we joined the crowd and the band that followed. My son squeezed my hand, keeping his eye on the black box that now held the body of his former drum teacher.
We walked through the streets, down to the ocean and along the beach. Beto’s mother cried the entire way loudly. We ended up at the local cemetery that is located there right on the sandy beach, just a few feet beyond the high tide line. Graves are layered there using bricks and cement.
We gathered around the hole that had been prepared. More Scripture was read. It was the children of the town who were at the forefront of the crowd. Our daughter and middle son got enveloped in with them, and I could not get to them to keep them back as is the natural impulse of an American mother. I watched the look on their faces as they observed it all with a specific understanding and acceptance. They know Jesus, and I could see that was their overlay to all of this.
We watched the coffin lowered. The men placed bricks on it and then mixed up cement. They filled buckets with the cement and poured it over the bricks, over the coffin. Then, they expertly smoothed it all out with pieces of wood.
These are their ways, and they know them well.
The crowd dispersed in all directions to return back to their homes and resume their lives. They chatted and called for their children.
Life here moves from event to event. And when they are over, they are over, and life is lived with the anticipation of the next one.
Yes, life to them is a grand event: it is born, it is lived, it is completed.
Or, in the case of the believers here, it is moved on to the next series of significant events in the presence of God.
Our two middle children ran to the ocean to put in their feet, for we were all dripping sweat. They ran and laughed. I joined them. My husband held our baby and reached out to hold my hand.
Our oldest son grinned at me and then took off alone down the beach, taking great strides with his long legs. He would beat us home again.
But Beto, he beat us all home.
“For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord, your labor is not in vain.”
– Corinthians 15:53-58