‘No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less. As well as if a promontory were. As well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’
England’s 17th century writer and preacher, John Donne ( in his meditation XVII ) says the bell tolls not just for the sick man on his deathbed – it calls us all. He says that once you know the bell will one day ring for you, then every bell becomes a reminder of one’s linked mortality. During Donne’s time, church bells rang on numerous occasions: they were rung to call people to church to pray, and they were rung for baptisms and funerals. They were rung also to notify the community of an impending death, and during plague times they ran all day and night. ‘ Bring out the dead!’ was the dreaded cry.
Though the bell that rings calls us all, how much more me who was recently brought so near the door of death as a sufferer of stage 3 breast cancer. Many days during chemotherapy I questioned my survival. I heard the bell, but was afraid to examine the meaning of that sound. God seemed conspicuous by His absence and most of my friends stayed away. Loneliness stalked me like an unwanted suitor. Donne says that when one man dies his chapter is not torn out of the book but is translated into a better language. I wish I could believe that.
When my husband and I were in Manzanillo the other day he bought a rustic bell – una campana – to hang on a bar above the gate to his property where he works on projects as a carpenter in Barra de Navidad. This was done mostly to help us remember Adelfo, now dead for less than a year, whose one ambition among many was to hang a cement-covered styrofoam ball at the front of this property that faces the ocean, simulating a large bell rung at sea. Adelfo was an immensely popular and gifted fellow and we miss him. He died of cancer and his sudden death threw my husband into an ordeal which caused him to face fears, challenges and heartbreak, so shocked by his death was he.
Most people are aware of Mexico’s Day of the Dead festival, a celebration of death, a macabre recognition of the country’s pre-Columbian and colonial history during which most people died early from violence or disease. Ceremonial recognition of the dead no doubt had its origin in the dim past when rituals were designed to please and placate the spirits of departed family members and ancestors. Rather than ignore it or attempt to hide from it, Mexicans joke about death as if it were a comic ritual. Death can’t be avoided so Mexicans make the most of it in an effort to demonstrate that they don’t fear it and are determined not to let it destroy the joys of living. This expresses how Adelfo’s family felt. They made an altar of him in their community during the Day of the Dead and decorated it with marigold flowers ( flores de los muertos ) – it held offerings of food and drink and photos and was especially for him. In the Indian cosmos, the spirits of the dead remained among the living, to be acknowledged and communed with through rituals of song, dance and food; and although Adelfo’s family is Catholic, the presence of this custom remains with the Mexican people.
No doubt one’s attitude towards life should be joyous, as in the simple words of a popular Latin singer who sings a contemporary song – ‘Vivir la Vida’ – accompanied by beautiful female dancers:
Voy a reír, voy a bailar, vivir mi vida la la la la ( I’m going to laugh, I’m going to dance………………………………….) Voy a reír, voy a gozar, vivir mi vida la la la la la ( I’m going to laugh, I’m going to enjoy, to live my life……..)
Voy a vivir el momento, voy a entender el destino ( I’m going to live in the moment, I’m going to understand my destiny……………………………………………………) Voy a escuchar el silencio, para encontrar el camino ( I’m going to listen to the silence to understand my path……:……………………………………………………….) Empieza a soñar, a reír, voy a reír, voy a bailar ( begin to dream, to laugh, I’m going to dance………………………) Vive, sigue, siempre pa’lante, no mires pa’tras ( live, keep going, always ahead, don’t look behind…………..)
Life is a fiesta where you dance and laugh….I guess that’s a good thing though I seldom get into the fiesta mood. I mean, I live here. And it’s hard work! I have to work out my salvation with Immigration Mexico and help put things back together again after a hurricane, just as an example. And I may die here. May I be on my way when the bell tolls for me, slung across a paddle board or distributed as ashes from one of my husband’s coffee cans ‘en el mar’, moving quickly towards ‘el Más Allá’ – the Great Beyond.
‘La la la la!’