I wasn’t there when her heart stopped, three times.
Neither were my cousins, though we peeked through the small, rectangular window that separated us from the inside of the intensive care unit, curious and sad, not knowing whether we would soon have to embrace ourselves, cry, and mourn Abuelita’s death. For days, we had been camped out in the antiseptic waiting room: cold and white with opaque glass windows and hard chairs. A TV in the corner sat playing some Spanish telenovela, but no one was interested in the drama of soap operas. We brought sleeping bags, pillows, sweaters, blankets and change for the vending machines – we lived on Oreo cookies and Coke while we were there. Although we rotated, there were usually about seven or eight of us present at any given time.
Only Abuelito, my mom, aunts and uncle, eight of my Abuelita’s eleven adult sons and daughters, were allowed inside the intensive care unit where Abuelita lay wrinkled, small. The doctors and nurses had given up on shooing us out, trying to abide by the two-visitors-at-a-time rule. She wasn’t expected to survive, so they acquiesced to our large family.
In those critical seconds between her heart stopping, while we cousins watched from the outside, Abuelito and her children were huddled tightly around her, each with one hand on her, the other fingering rosary beads, whispering the Lord’s Prayer between Psalm 23: Padre nuestro que estás en el cielo. The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. Santificado séa tu nombre. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for you are with me. Ven a nosotros tu reino. And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
At one point, my uncle cried, “Go to the light, Mami. Don’t be afraid. Just follow the light.”
Three times, the heart monitor howled and the jagged lines straightened. But three times they started again. The doctors and nurses shook their head. “Let her disconnect,” they said. “You’re not letting her go.” They claimed she couldn’t let go, move on. My family claimed it was a miracle. How else were we to explain her resurrection?
Afterwards, I don’t remember who told whom, initially. Maybe my grandmother told us, her grandchildren, while we kept her company and brought her arroz, beans and sancocho. Maybe she told her children, and they told us, the information trickling down to the youngest. But she did tell, pleading with us each time not to tell Abuelito because he didn’t want to keep hearing about her near-death experience.
What I do remember is sitting in her living room. The shades were all drawn, and she sat in her recliner, her eyes closed as she dozed off periodically, her soft snores letting us know she was resting.
One of us asked her, “Abuelita, please tell us again what you saw.”
She hesitated, closing her eyes, before answering.
“I was following a path. There was a tunnel, and it was dark. I walked and saw everyone, you, your mamas y papás. I saw my own mamá y papaand other loved ones long deceased. I could see a light at the end, but there by the entrance was a large, dark man. I couldn’t see his face, but he frightened me. He said, ‘Don’t be afraid,’ but I was. In the brightness behind him, I saw a garden, birds, and I started walking towards the light again. That’s when I heard the voices of my children praying and I turned around to follow the voices. I left the tunnel and saw myself lying on the bed, everyone around me. And then I was back in my body.” She shuddered slightly, her eyes still closed.
“Who do you think that was?” we asked.
Abuelita shrugged and shook her head, her eyes still closed.
We didn’t talk about it much then, and today, only a few of us remember her story.
Though I didn’t think about it often, her story never left my memory. Occasionally, I would replay her story in my mind, trying to decipher her visions, the monster, the light. When I spoke about it to a friend, she claimed the monster was an angel.
“Angels,” she told me, “are hideous so only the true believers will recognize and follow them.”
When I asked my mami if she remembered, she quickly started lecturing me about what happens before death, and how the faithful would recognize the right path.
“Satan is always looking to deviate us, even at our deathbed,” she said. For her, that wasn’t an angel but the claws of Satan trying his best to take Abuelita.
I wasn’t afraid of Abuelita’s story or the stranger in her vision. Quite the opposite – for me, it was proof of an afterlife, that there’s more to our life than the physical one we’re living.
And the more I listened to the stories of the Bible, the more I saw believers cowering in fear at the appearance of angels. In the nativity story alone, we see the angel Gabriel appear to Mary, and she is afraid. When the babe Jesus is born, and the angels appear to the shepherds, they are afraid. The angels we see pictured are always beautiful creations of the human mind brought to us by centuries of misguided beliefs, but we’ll never know sus rostros.
Five years after her heart stopped three times, Abuelita died. This time, her heart was strong, but cancer whittled her down to a fraction of whom she used to be. When she died, I wondered whether she saw that same path and whether she remembered it, and whether her angel visited her again, and this time, instead of retreating fearfully, she reached out and followed him towards eternity.