I cleared my throat, wiped my eyes and took a deep breath. I pulled my tie off, and turned to look at the man who would become a good friend of mine later. I said, "Yes sir, it's the least I can do for him and my family. I have been away from El Paso for six years, and this is a good way to contribute, perhaps make-up for lost time."
He guided me to a changing room, where I "scrubbed up" and armed myself with all protective equipment to begin the procedure. The master sergeant told me, as we both got ready, "I've never known anyone who has done this. I know I couldn't, and I really admire you for it."
We walked back to the preparation area and I got my game face on. I had to set aside -- momentarily -- the fact that I was about to embalm my own grandfather.
Embalming is a surgical procedure, which involves incisions, suturing, and other minor invasive procedures. I convinced myself if I was a doctor, treating live patients, I could and would surgically treat my grandfather. That reasoning paved the way for what I was about to do.
We positioned him properly, and as I took the scalpel, my mind traveled to the one of the most memorable days I had with the man before me.
Jose Rosario Najera Sr., was a man's man. The picture above is early in his life and marriage, probably at some party. Grandmamma, to his left, is a lady's lady as well. To-date, she still dresses, speaks and carries on like the elegant lady she has always been, with her jet black hair and wonderful disposition.
On July 29, 1998, we lost The Man. He was the undisputed patriarch of the Najera family. At the family business office, a hand-painted portrait hung behind the main desk, and everyone who was an employee or friend of the family always addressed him as, Don Chayo. It was The Godfather scene, but in El Paso.
To us he was, Papa Chayo. He only stood about 5'7" on a good day, but his voice, demeanor and presence -- especially at work -- commanded the power of a man twice his size. His most impressive feature were his hands. They looked like big, strong lion's paws to me. I never once knew him to miss work. I never once saw him take any break other than lunch, and I never once heard him complain about having to work as hard as he did.
Years before, the family planned one of many fishing trips to Mexico. Business was good and financed an RV, boat and vehicles appropriate for outdoor fun. We drove to one of our favorite lakes in northern Mexico. One day, the wind picked up at dusk, right about the time we boarded the small canoe to the shallow banks of the lake in search of crappie. It was my brother, Don Chayo and I.
The wind continued to increase in speed and force. It kept moving the canoe farther and farther away from the shallow banks to the deep, dark part of the lake. The waves bumped the small boat, splashing water inside. My brother and I began to panic. We could hear from a distance dad's calling, as well as other cousins and uncles. They pleaded we row back (didn't have a motor) before a big wave topped us into the black abyss of that lake.
Don Chayo remained as cool and collected as if the day was sunny and there was not a hint of weather in the sky. When he finally took a good look at our faces, he saw we were terrified, though we didn't dare speak out of order. He simply asked, "Tiene miedo bartolos? Vamos a regresar pues." (Are you scared boys? Let's go back).
With an ease only he could have mustered in that wind and with those waves, he forcefully rowed that canoe back to shore. As soon as he gave the order, my brother and I stood and literally jumped out of the boat and into dad's arms to safety. To dry land.
Don Chayo slowly collected the tackle and rods. Dad tied the boat to the dock, and Don Chayo headed to camp, where hot coffee awaited for the cold night ahead. The emotion and adrenaline of the event wore off my brother and I. We collapsed in our beds without dinner.
As I pressed the scalpel to his skin to begin our procedure, that memory carried me to a happy place. I sorta narrated the story to the marine sergeant as we continued, and before I knew it, we were done. He offered to finalize matters, and I agreed. As I walked away from the surgical table, I said to myself, "Papa Chayo, I took care of you now."
The funeral was planned, and over 400 people attended. I was able to do much more than I thought by way of associations with funeral directors from Fort Worth and El Paso. For the first time, I really felt the fraternity amongst funeral directors, one I still enjoy to this day. They were key in helping me guide my family through the loss of Don Chayo, one that happened ten years ago.
Still, to this day, family and extended friends ask me about that day. I have also cared for two of my wife's great-grandparents, and the looks of gratitude I get from family and friends when I am able to provide this service is priceless.
Recently, a good friend lost his 19-year-old son in a tragic car accident. When I was summoned and walked through the hospital doors to greet them in the hospital room, he told me this, "When I saw you go through those doors, I knew everything would be OK."
**I'm writing this as a multi-part series. I really feel strongly about what I do, and giving a detailed narrative of my first official case may express that to you. I have worked very hard to control my emotions with families I meet and have met since that dreadful day in October. I do that because when a family calls on me to help, my priority is guiding them respectfully, honorably and effectively through the worst day of their lives.