March 30, 2012

Life, Death & Punk Rock.

A Tribute to Orestes

“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”

~ Carol Sobieski and Thomas Meehan

On Sunday, March 18th my grandma Gonzales (Mom’s Mom) turned 89 years old. Her name is Virginia and she lives in San Antonio, Texas. She suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, which is just plain sad, but her personality has become a lot sweeter and more relaxed as a result.

She said to me, “You live in Guatemala? That’s nice. I bet it’s beautiful there,” rather than worrying that I live alone in a dangerous place like Guatemala.

That same day, my youngest amiga turned one. Her name is Lago, and she lives at Lake Atitlán here in Guatemala.

I am not typically a baby person. I think my biological clock is broken, or perhaps I just “haven’t met the right guy yet,” but I totally and uncharacteristically adore this baby. She’s beautiful and fun and funny and tranquila. It certainly helps that her parents are amazingly warm and wonderful, down-to-earth, authentic eco-hippies.

The weekend of March 18th, I was visiting Lake Atitlán (the place I will call home beginning in June), celebrating the beauty of nature, the joy of friendship, the community created by live music, and the drama of my latest romance.

We’d attended a music festival the day before, and I suspect that something I ate there caused some gastrointestinal drama of its own. The food poisoning, along with a heartbreaking conversation with my Colombian crush, led me to feel ill, tired and weak as I drove myself the three hours back to the city. But I made it.

I was sitting in my bedroom early that Sunday evening, feeling a little self-pity, wishing things could be different, when I checked my email and got the most horrible news. Immediately, nothing else mattered. All other problems paled in comparison to this. Our friend, Orestes, was on his deathbed in the hospital. He was suffering from cirrhosis of the liver and likely cancer as well. He was too weak for treatment and was expected to pass away within days. He had been my best friend Amanda’s best friend for the past 12 years. Though she now lives in New Orleans, she dropped everything and went to Austin, staying by his side nonstop for his last few days.

We met Orestes in the year 2000 when he and Amanda worked together at a cafe. Over the years, we hung out many times and he even came sailing with my family once. After this, he would inevitably start singing “Sailing,” by Christopher Cross whenever he would ask about how my dad was doing.

I never hung out with Orestes one-on-one, without Amanda, until I last saw him in December when I was in Austin. He looked and seemed lively and good. He was not drinking. He’d been sober the past couple of years.

Though I never personally witnessed the dark side of Orestes’ drinking, just the fun-loving, cheerful, witty side, I now know it existed. Liver failure is not a sudden occurrence. We don’t know how long it had been since he had seen a doctor. He’d lost 60 pounds in two months. He was jaundiced, his stomach distended. Amanda said he looked like a Holocaust victim.

Though he had no family to speak of, Orestes had thousands of friends. His rapid decline and death coincided with the massive annual SXSW music festival and at one point, there were 25 friends visiting his hospital room.

Though he could no longer speak, Amanda would put the phone up to his ear so that people like me, who could not be there in person, would have a chance say their goodbyes.

Through tears, I told Orestes that I love him and he is an amazing person. I babbled for a while in English, but when I switched to Spanish. We think he understood because his breathing changed and he made some guttural sounds of recognition. The following morning around 9:00, Orestes Perez, Jr. passed away peacefully, 12 days after being admitted to the hospital with a lingering cough and abdominal pain.

Orestes was an incredibly soulful, hilarious, big-hearted, alive person. He was of Cuban and Salvadoran descent and born in LA in ’69. He moved to Austin in ’96. He practiced Santeria. He was totally punk rock and he had sleeves of tattoos.

I’m pretty sure he never did yoga, and yet, he was the purest of yogis, overflowing with metta (loving kindness) for cats and people, no matter what they looked like. He had infinite love and laughter to share with everyone he encountered.

He left us way too soon, and in such an ugly and difficult way. It still seems surreal. Just a big practical joke.

Orestes cannot be gone; his body cannot have been cremated, no.

He must be cooking, dancing, crowd surfing, playing air guitar, singing, alive.

But he is gone, he has left, and that is final.

May we each remember that we do not know what will happen next.

Not in one minute, or one hour, or one day or 10 years. We must be present to experience everything fully within this one precious gift of human life. Human nature is to attach to people and things but we ultimately have to let go and release everything… every memory, every organ, every book, every pair of shoes, every friend.

Anything can happen next, and you can ignore or resist or accept that fact. Life is a messy, sublime paradox. Every thing matters and no thing matters. Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form.

Yesterday, I dedicated my yoga class to Orestes. We giggled and danced and did some rock star asanas. At the beginning and end of the practice, I shared this quote from the superb book, Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana:
“The essence of our experience is change. Change is incessant. Moment by moment life flows by, and it is never the same. Perpetual fluctuation is the essence of the perceptual universe. A thought springs up in your head and half a second later, it is gone. In comes another one, and then that is gone too. A sound strikes your ears, and then silence. Open your eyes and the world pours in, blink and it is gone. People come into your life and go. Friends leave, relatives die. Your fortunes go up, and they go down. Sometimes you win, and just as often, you lose. It is incessant: change, change, change; no two moments ever the same.”

Te quiero, Orestes. Gracias por todo. Que tu alma esté en paz. I love you, Orestes. Thank you for everything. May your soul rest in peace.

~ Michelle


Editor: Brianna Bemel
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