In March of 2015, I visited my paternal grandfather, Papá Franky, in my home town of Brownsville, Texas. It was a brief trip, but in the end, I told him I would be back in three weeks to spend time with him and interview him. I returned in three weeks, but instead of finding him outside shirtless, working with his tools, and cuddling his dogs, I was walking into the hospital room where the rest of my family was arriving.
Papá was a cancer survivor, beating it twice over his lifetime, He had gone to the hospital because he had fallen ill, but while he was admitted they ran tests discovering cancer that he had once defeated had returned. It had started colonizing his stomach and spreading throughout his bones. The doctor gave him at most, a couple of days, so we decided to take him home and keep him comfortable as long as possible.
The first few days, it was as if Papá was more alive than ever. He had all his children, and grandchildren crammed into the tiny house. It had been decades since we were all reunited like this. Papá was elated, and we all laughed, retold old stories and ate as a family. But by the end of that week, I watched death walk into the house, sit in the corner, and patiently wait for Papá.
The once strong, tall, beautiful man that used to intimidate me as a child, was deteriorating before us. Cancer made it impossible for him to eat or drink anything because he would instantly start coughing up blood. His bones began to twist and protrude from his body, and he had become restless, refusing to fall asleep. He lost the ability to speak, and communicated in his own form of sign language that only my grandma could translate.
I could see the panic in his eyes, and I felt uneasy. I would sit with him in the dark, putting my face in front of his, looking for him and asking him,
"Papá me vez? Estoy aquí, me vez?" / "Papá can you see me? I'm here, can you see me?"
His eyes would dart left and right, seeing through me, staring at one of the corners of the bedroom.
Guiltily, after seeing his health deteriorate so quickly, I had almost begun to hope for time to speed up. But instead, it slowed and stretched for several hours where we all took turns cradling him, caring for him, and reassuring him it was okay to leave us when he was ready. Death watched silently from the corner, and I resented myself for any time wasted away from Papá.
In his final conscious night, we all gathered around him as he tried to finally fall asleep. He would wake every few seconds and look around. I finally circled around to face him, and he awoke, looked at me, and smiled. He finally saw me, and I wept. This was the last time I would see him smile.
"Me quede bien dormido, y ví a la muerte. Me estaba molestando. Que van hacer?" / "I was fast asleep, and I saw death. He kept bothering me. What will you do?"
Emotions were intensified, and each of us longed to touch and feel close to one another. I would turn and see my family embracing, weeping and hurting together. It was like the real world had stopped, and we were in our own tiny vortex. Nothing seemed real. No prior pain or heartache seemed tangible in those final days. I remember feeling constant exhaustion, and sobbing until my body forced me into unconsciousness.
I felt my mom shake me awake. She told me we had about five minutes left. All the guilt rushed back as I cursed myself forever wishing for time to speed up. Now I only had five minutes and I could feel myself in panic. All the mental preparation and rationalization vanished. I wasn't ready.
I stumbled through the threshold of my grandparent's bedroom and sat on the bed next to Papá´s feet. My family filled the room. I know there were prayer and worship happening around me, but I don't really remember it. I remember feeling everything, and at the same time, I couldn't feel anything at all. I remember my face and hands starting to go numb and tingly. My vision blurred completely from all the tears, and it felt like my head was underwater. I remember thinking I needed an anchor to keep me still. So to ground myself, I started counting the seconds between Papá´s breathes. One Mississippi, Two Mississippi, Three Mississippi... I would start over every time I saw his chest rise and fall. I counted to 60 seconds before I realized his chest would never rise and fall again.
At that moment, we heard Papá´s two dogs begin to howl outside of the bedroom window from the backyard. Could they see Death leading Papá into the next life? When our hospice nurse confirmed he had crossed over, it was a wave of relief and denial. I remember I could feel my mouth moving, and heard myself whispering over and over and over, "my God, my God, my God."
I watched my family fall into one another. I heard the wailing escaping from their mouths. I felt the hands desperately grabbing onto me. Grabbing onto each other. It was bittersweet, I watched the beautiful dance of unity that we had never experienced before, and to be honest, we will likely never experience again.
I felt hot and cold. I couldn't stop shaking. I walked around in a haze, wondering if I stared long enough at Papá, would he wake up?
I watched the day turn into night. I moved throughout the rest of the day weeping. I didn't even try to stop it anymore, it just flowed and flowed. That night, I slept with a towel under my head as the tears rolled from the edge of my eyes, through my hair and onto the back of my neck.
As I entered unconsciousness, I dreamt of Papá. I saw him, a younger version of himself I had only seen in photographs. His strong body, dark glowing skin, black hair blowing in the wind and the sun spilling its golden light around him. I saw him smiling and sailing his ship into the eternal sea. His eyes were closed as the sea breeze kissed his face and pushed his hair back and forth. I could smell the salt and hear the ocean humming around him. He was home.
Death is fundamentally tied to our culture. We live our lives speaking of it constantly, and casually. So much so, that at the end of our lives it's like reuniting with an old friend. I wanted to share this experience to provide insight and context for why we celebrate Dia De Los Muertos. This is a sacred holiday for our people, one that tethers us through generations and a practice that survived colonialism. This holiday is not about painting our faces, or simply a cute Halloween costume. It is a symbolic reminder that they could not erase our indigenous identity. We honor our ancestors by remembering them and celebrating death as a transition into the next world. Something not feared, but embraced as the next portal of our journey.
I documented those final days on my iPhone and uploaded it to my personal Instagram as it was unfolding. The images no longer live on my account but are memorialized here and to those who followed along at that time. I want to thank all the friends, family, and strangers who stumbled across my posts and shared their kind words, prayers, and love for us. I carry it with me forever.
Finally, to the compassionate and kind hospice nurse we were blessed with, thank you. You guided us through the final moments of the difficult journey. She later revealed that in all her years of working as a hospice nurse, she had never wept or felt the sensation that she did that day with our family.
In eternal memory of Jose Luis "Franky" Sosa. I think of you every day, Capitán.