On Sunday, March 18, 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 truly sad but her personality has become a lot sweeter and more relaxed as a result. (She says to me, “You live in Guatemala? That’s nice. I bet it’s beautiful there,” rather than worrying that I live alone in 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, uncharacteristically, I totally adore this baby. She’s beautiful and fun and funny and tranquila. It certainly helps that her parents are amazingly wonderful, down-to-earth, authentic eco-hippies.
The weekend of March 18th, I was visiting Lake Atitlán 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 small 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 back to Guatemala 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. 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 expected to pass away within days. He had been my best friend Amanda’s best friend for the past twelve years. She was there by his side almost nonstop for his last 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, but I never hung out with him one-on-one, without Amanda, until I last saw him when I was in Austin last December… just a few short months ago. 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 sixty 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 last 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 nine o’clock, Orestes Perez passed away peacefully, 12 days after being admitted to the hospital with a cough and abdominal pain.
Orestes was an incredibly soulful, hilarious, big-hearted, alive person. Of Cuban and Salvadorean descent. Born in LA in ’69. Moved to Austin in ’96. He practiced santaria. He was totally punk rock. 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 and all beings. His heart was so big and he had much 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 in this life. Not in one minute, or one hour, or one day or ten years. We must be present and 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, let go, let go… of everything, every memory, every organ, every book, every pair of shoes, every friend.
Anything can happen next, and you can be a pessimist or an optimist or a realist about it. Life is a paradox. Every thing matters and no thing matters. Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form.
I love you, Orestes. Thank you for everything. May your soul rest in peace.
Here’s to the guy that would always ask what I was up to. While I lived in Austin I worked at AMD. You would say, “you still working on that chip?” and then pretend to work with your hands with tweezers… “you got that thing figured out yet?” This photo is one that I scanned in for Amanda. It’s sometime in the 80s when you were just becoming a rock star. You’ll always be a rock star. Even if your body wore out, you will live on forever in all of us.