Memorial for someone we didn't know

Sally lived in San Miguel but, for Stew and me, she was a bedridden unknown. We inquired about her periodically, but her brother Doug, one of our best friends here, would only mutter, predictably, “Oh, she’s about the same.”

Sally, 77, died on September 28 from the multiple sclerosis that had kept her barely conscious, in a special room set aside in Doug’s house, for the past twelve years. It wasn’t until two weeks ago, when we attended an ad hoc, but deeply moving memorial sendoff, consisting of a brief service at a Catholic church followed by a rousing fiesta at Doug’s house serenaded by a mariachi band, that we got to know Sally, however fleetingly.

By the entrance: Mariachi fanfare for Sally.

For years, Sally didn’t, couldn’t, say much. But during her last moments somehow she communicated her appreciation for all the extraordinary love and attention she had received from Doug and his wife, as well as the team of Mexican caregivers who looked after her, round-the-clock.

She mouthed a last-minute “thank you” to Doug minutes before she died. Even Sally’s husband Hans, who died in 2000, may have returned to bid her good-bye too.

Neither Sally nor Hans could talk, but somehow each got a few last words in.
We met Doug Lord and his wife Brianne ten years ago at a yoga-for-geezers class in San Miguel and soon became fast friends. None of us drinks. We’re all liberal Democrats, the Lords from the San Francisco area, us from Chicago, and we can hoo-hah, or at times groan, endlessly about he foibles of Republicans. We gossip, schmooze and laugh over lunch or dinner for two hours or more, and walk away confident there’s plenty conversation left for the next get-together.

Sally’s memorial rites were held on October 11 at Las Monjas, one of San Miguel’s most beautiful churches, which gets its informal name because of its attached cloistered convent. The services were arranged by Oscar Peña, who runs the home-care service that looked after Sally, and was attended by him, his wife and a few of the other caretakers, plus about twenty-five expat acquaintances.

Neither Doug nor Brianne, nor I suspect most of the other Americans in attendance, were Catholic, and so the young priest wisely dispensed with most of the normal church liturgy for the dead and improvised a set of readings—in Latin and Spanish—that were unintelligible to all but the Mexican attendees yet stirred everyone with their simplicity and cadence.

Recalling Sally’s Life: Doug speaking,
Oscar to his left, Brianne sitting. 

As if for added dramatic effect, the priest, in his mid-thirties, read and sang the readings in a high and resonant tenor that echoed throughout the church and was met by the distant responses of soft female voices, presumably coming from cloistered nuns huddled behind the grille in the church’s choir loft.

From what I could understand of the five-minute sermon, it was a matter-of-fact exhortation, light on hell-and-damnation, and more along the lines of, “life is a limited engagement, folks, and we’d better enjoy it while we can.

A serious teenage boy clad in white and red vestments, hanging about ten inches above his white sneakers, went around and collected donations. The half-hour service concluded with the priest sprinkling holy water on the container holding Sally’s ashes, which rested on a small stand by the communion rail at the front of the church.

At the end, Stew sat there speechless for a minute or so and, visibly moved, turned to me: “I don’t understand any of this Catholic stuff, but I want something like this when I go.”
Sally and Hans Saxer both worked in the San Francisco area, she as a secretary and he, a hulk of man who was born in Switzerland, as a loan officer at a bank. Doug commented he was a thrifty guy who probably owned only one pair of shoes.

In some ways, their love affair was as unconventional as the memorial service. They dated for seventeen years and finally got married in 1987, about the time when Sally began to show the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, an incurable disease that causes the body’s immune system to attack a sheathing of the nerves in the brain and spine, and leads to loss of muscle control and other basic body functions. It often starts with problems walking that turn, as it did in Sally’s case, into paralysis.

Shortly after their marriage Hans took Sally on a month-long trip to South America. But tragedy struck again years later when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He died in 2000.

By this time, Sally, incapable of taking care of herself, was moved to a nursing home in Oakland, where she stayed for three years.

Then Doug and Brianne, planning to retire in San Miguel, faced the quandary: What are we going to do with Sally?

For Brianne, it was no quandary. “We’re taking Sally with us to Mexico,” she said.

So in 2003 they booked a flight to Mexico for the three of them on Allegro Airlines, a Mexican airline now out of business. Sally, wrapped in a heat-saving “space blanket,” was loaded onto the plane by the flight crew, and brought down at León Airport near Guanajuato, by another crew of six Mexican guys who also carried on as if this was a routine movement of passengers, Brianne recalled.

She said that gesture, and the care Sally received later, left her with an indelible memory of the kindness of Mexican people.

Sally settled into her own room at Doug and Brianne’s home, where she was cared for by a team of nurses and caretakers led by Oscar. Once a week, Dr. Jorge Martínez, long revered locally not only for his medical skills and attention but also his looks—some of his American women patients call him “Dr. Gorgeous”—checked in on her every week.

Life of the fiesta: Mini-mariachi with a maxi-voice.

Doug said he couldn’t imagine more attentive care at a nursing home in the U.S., where even twelve years ago, the fees ran at $7,000 a month for a shared room plus incidentals, and the doctor came around only once a month.

Indeed, Sally’s stay in San Miguel was a mixture of the tragedy of a lingering, terminal illness and the blessing of the personal attention she received, as if she had been a family member, from Oscar and the Mexican care team.

Ever attentive, Oscar arranged for the service at Las Monjas Church and hired a mariachi band—one of the best I’ve ever heard—to play during the farewell brunch at Doug’s home. The celebration was a mixture of somber, sometimes tearful, stories about Sally’s last days, and the festive blaring of trumpets, violins and singing. An amazing solo by a boy, about ten years old, dressed in full mariachi get-up, capped the celebration.

Sally didn’t die alone. During her last few hours she slipped in and out of a coma. She was almost pronounced dead by Dr. Martínez only to rally a couple of hours later. When Doug was summoned to her room for the last time, she opened her eyes, looked straight at him and mouthed a silent good-bye.

Two of the Mexican nurses later reported that during those last few days they had individually, and on two different occasions, witnessed a large and distinct silhouette of a person—a palpable presence they said—standing by Sally. Could it have been the hulking Hans, stopping by to pay his final respects?

Even Doug, an avowed non-believer, nodded as he told that story.


6 thoughts on “Memorial for someone we didn't know

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s