Friday, November 21, 2008

Gone 25 Years Ago

(I had intended with all my might to complete this story on the 25th anniversary of her death, November 22, but obligations kept me from completing it.)

My mother's family is where I get my "game face". They are the pensive and stoic people, who intimidate upon a first meeting.

It took me many years to ease that face. My wife merits most of that credit. She has a smile as big as Texas, and has done her best to erase my frown.

It's not all gone. I still get in the zone and revert back to the Aguirre mode often. It's hard, as I'm naturally gene-pooled to that side of the family more than dad's side.

Either way, there was one exception to that heritage. Sadly, we lost her on November 22, 1983. Today, twenty-five years ago, we lost the one bright smile in a family, a family, which, really misses her.

Tia Martha was one of four girls my maternal grandparents brought to this world. For my grandfather (a man who most called, "El Gato"), not having a son made things difficult to manage. He was classic macho, with a very few expressions of fatherly love -- the kind that would make a little girl feel like she was daddy's girl.

My mother was the oldest. She took on that role (oldest) seriously, married in her early 20's and had the only grandchildren in the family -- my sister, brother and myself. Next came tia Aurora, who has devoted more than a quarter century to religious life in the Roman Catholic Church. After her, was tia Martha. And, lastly, tia Dora, who tried many careers and jobs, not really finding a calling in any. She remained single and with tia Aurora, now care for our grandparents, whose health is failing.

Tia Martha was the closest thing we had -- in the Aguirre family -- to laughter, energy and passion for all things life. She was an athlete, playing volleyball and basketball (her height was above average). And, she might have been the one to conquer the tough persona my grandfather put on for the public.

I can still hear faint voice. It sounded to me like she never got out of puberty. It had both a low and high pitch, almost like she couldn't decide where to stay.
One day, she announced she had a formal boyfriend and wanted us to meet him. Grandpa arranged a big feast at his home, as we awaited the arrival of what we thought must be a great man.
He drove up in a silver Mach 1.
My grandparents home in Mexico is a true fortress. It is a home protected by a 16-foot cinder block wall, which surrounds the entire property. When a guest arrives, someone must go and open the huge doors and let them in the drive.
He drove the car in and parked. None of us were prepared for what came out of that classic sports car.
He was about 6' and wearing jeans, a leather vest unbuttoned at the front, black t-shirt promoting Kiss -- the band -- , and tall black leather boots. His hair was long (to his butt) and braided in a pony tail. All his fingers -- except his thumb -- were adorned with silver rings, most of them skulls or other biker-like insignia. Because we were all motionless and speechless at the sight, he finished off the image by lighting up a Benson & Hedges, trying to break-up the thick air.
Grandpa spoke first and extended his hand. His name: Jorge, like my brother. Tia Martha soon introduced the rest of the small family, and we headed inside.
Not sure what to say to the man, who looked like he just stepped off a movie about the Hell's Angels, dad -- in a way only he can manage -- began asking questions.
Grandpa just glared. It was the kind of stare that could and would burn a hole through your skull, given given magic powers. Speechless, he finally said, "Come with me. Let's go outside to the grill and have a word."
So, all the men (grandpa, dad, my brother, the soon-tio-Jorge, and myself) headed outside.
We gathered by the grill and continued the shallow pleasantries, waiting for grandpa to join us. After all, he called the outside meeting to begin with.
Soon enough, he came over. His right hand was behind him, as he approached. When he got near the brick grill, he pulled his hand around, and we all saw he was holding a shiny .45 caliber pistol.
Honestly, I didn't get nervous. I knew he couldn't shoot him there. In my tender mind, I knew he wouldn't do that in front of us!
He did however, lay that .45 on the grill, and began his talk. In so many words he told this Jorge character this: "I don't know what Martha sees in you. I can't imagine anyone liking a man like yourself. You look like most of the criminals I arrest on a daily basis."
The air got thicker, and the faces lost their color.
"But, there is one thing. I trust her and she must know what she is doing. She sees something I don't, and I'll have to learn what that is. In the meantime, be very aware I will stop at nothing to protect her. Nothing."
Dad managed a clearing of throat and my brother went back in the house. Jorge's Benson & Hedges burned all the way to the filter during the one-sided conversation.
Nothing else was said. Grandpa returned inside and put the .45 up. We managed to find our place back in the living room and our best to pretend nothing happened.
Jorge kept looking at tia Martha. I imagine he wondered if she was worth the threat he just got from our green-eyed grandpa.
They married soon after. He cut the pony tail. He stopped smoking. I learned he had a drum kit, four Harley Davidson's and that Mach 1...such a classic.
They moved to El Paso soon after the wedding, and mom finally had a sister to go visit. I dreamed of the day I would have Aguirre cousins to play with.
Disease made its way to her being. In less than a year, she was gone. Tio Jorge, who had completely changed his style and personality for her, was devastated.
I clearly remember mom breaking down for days after the funeral. She'd be busy with house chores and began to sob without notice. On one occasion, she lost her footing, fell, and sobbed intensely on the kitchen floor.
I was only about 11. For the first time in my short life, I asked myself, "Why does God allow this kind of pain? Why love a human being so much, when they could be taken at any time?"
My grandfather had quit drinking -- cold turkey -- years before, and, with tia Martha's death, we were sure he might fall back. He did not. Instead he began a campaign of showering us -- the grandchidlren -- with baseball gifts and time. We were his consolation.
It would be years before things felt normal in the Aguirre home. Today, when I go to that house, as I walk in the living room, the first thing I see is her wedding picture, with tio Jorge.
He, tio Jorge, that "fearsome biker," turned out to be one of the most honest, well-mannered, loyal, and loving men we ever met.
Years after, he re-married and had children. I haven't seen him in over 15 years, if not more.
As we continue our lives as best we can, flashes of her memory remind us 25 years ago she was a huge part of our life. Today, she only lives in our memories. Pictures, stories is all we have.
Life would have been very different if she had formed a family and lived in El Paso. I might have learned to play the drums. Maybe, I'd own a Harley Davidson.
It still pains me to think of the day of her funeral. The pain. The anguish.
I see hints of her in my youngest daughter and I'd like to think it's not my imagination.
To you, tia Martha. Though the world has forgotten you, we have not.
Requiescat in pace, wherever you may be.
We love you.
The Najera Aguirre Family

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

We Open at Nine

I've never been an organized bill pay-er. I have a good visualization of my family's overall financial outlook, but actual credit/debit entries drive me insane. They feel like such a waste of time.

That philosophy leads to other things, such as waking up on your day off and realizing some of those bills are due that day. In today's world, paying a bill can be as easy as clicking a mouse. I do that mostly, but the bill in question could only be made in person in order to be posted by the due date.

So, after completing our complicated morning routine, I left the house in full Red Sox winter gear and headed to the bank. This particular bank is national and has many, many locations. No sweat, I thought. I'll enjoy my cup o' java en route and take care of this expeditiously.

I parked and noticed there were a number of people holding java cups like me. The vapor of the hot, holy liquid rose in the morning's cold air. I figured the bank was not open yet, and like myself, they were all waiting.

Some of the bank's employees were making their way in. I always figured bankers and banker's assistants had a secret back door somewhere like doctors. I never dreamed they came in the front glass doors.

Through the glass doors we -- the java sucking customers -- could see other employees already in. They seemed to be engaged in hilarious conversations, as facial expressions displayed lots of laughing. Or, they were laughing at us for being on the cold side of the glass.

One of the inside employees saw the incoming bank people and unlocked one of the doors. The now-freezing customers, whose coffee was running low, assumed that was an open invitation for all. But, when the first non-employed approached, the insides employee said, "Sorry. We open at 9 a.m." With that she re-locked the door and went back to her laughing inside.

I looked at my watch. 8:58 a.m. No joke.

Things like this shouldn't aggravate me, but they do. Why not let people in 30 seconds early? Most of us, if not all, were there to LEAVE money.

I wasn't aggravated anymore. I was flat-out pissed. Again, as my previous post about the college bookstore, customer service is dead -- mostly.

Corporate America has always given me reasons to stay away. Employees make you feel like they are doing you a favor.

Just as I had enough, light at the end of the corporate river of crap.

A man, in his apparent 50's, asked the cold, java-empty group if we wanted to come in. He ordered the key Nazi to unlock all doors and "invite customers in".

Still, she said, "Why? The system is not up yet? We don't open until 9 a.m.!"

He glared at her and that's all it took.

The bank deprived refugees were allowed to come in, make ourselves comfortable and kindly wait for computers to boot.

In the meantime, this man and I had a long conversation about my chosen career. What started out as a bad not-open-yet bank experience, ended in a possible future banking relationship.

My transaction was posted.

A lot of this bias comes from my long tenure in small business. We also post business hours and other stipulations, but when needed, the door is open early or late.

This bank and the key Nazi, who laughed her way to a glare by management yesterday, continue to give me reasons to stay clear of Corporate America.

The Commish

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Why Are You a Red Sox Fan?

**The following was posted a couple of years ago on a Red Sox website. As an ode to my other grandfather, I wrote the story of how or why I am a Red Sox fan. I am the kid on the left, with the Red Sox helmet. Please visit the website for this and other baseball memories at:

Summers where spent at my maternal grandparents ranch in Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico. Regardless of the plan or the menu (for the day), the small 13” black and white television was always on, always transmitting a baseball game—when there was one.

My grandfather, a lover of baseball, who played in several Mexican semi-professional leagues and later served as umpire in the local city leagues, mesmerized us with his knowledge of MLB players and depth of the game. He had seen and met Fernando Valenzuela as a young man in Mexico sometime before he made it big, as well as others.

Las “Medias Rojas (Red Sox)” and “Los Dayers (Dodgers)” were always on his mind. The Red Sox were almost a mystical team to us, as Boston seemed so far away from our small world in that part of Mexico. But anytime their games were aired on national television (didn’t have cable or satellite), by God, we were there, glued to every pitch, every play. It was great to see grandpa scream and curse at the tube when he disagreed with a call!

Game 6 of the ’86 series was an especially memorable one. I was 13, and my brother was 9. After Bill Buckner’s faux pas on that grounder that gave way to another failed attempt at greatness by the Red Sox, grandpa—disgusted—pushed the TV off the dresser it rested on, and we went outside to the roof (a favorite spot of ours in his ranch in Mexico), where we sat quietly for better than 30 minutes. We lived that dreadful moment alongside the Fenway Faithful, though we were better than 2,400 miles in distance.

During a late afternoon game many years ago, grandpa was the umpire behind home plate in a decisive playoff match in the city leagues. A wild batter swung, lost his balance and hit grandpa on the left side of his head with an aluminum bat, specifically the area immediately above his left ear, the temporal area. He dropped to the ground, unconscious.

For 60 days my grandfather was in a semi-vegetative state. His speech was slurred—at best—and his motor skills went to heck. We thought this might be the way things were henceforth. For a man that stood at least 6 feet tall (an anomaly in that part of Mexico) with piercing green eyes, watching him unable to raise his drink or his fork was very devastating.

At 60 days and a few hours, he began to feel a tingling throughout the numb areas of his body. Slowly but surely, and by the grace of God, he regained his motor skills. And though at first he was a bit unbalanced and “tipsy,” after a few weeks of constant rehabilitative exercises, he was back in full form. The doctor warned, though, this may come back to bite him later.

And it did…

My brother got married in 2001, late in the summer. Though hopeful, that year the Red Sox would not make it to post-season play. One thing I do remember grandpa saying was that he was happy Pedro finally beat the Yankees. It had been a year since he had done it.
Aside from another frustrating season, that was the last time my grandfather recognized me. Little did we know that Alzheimer’s was germinating with vigor in his brain.

On visits since 2001 (I live 650 miles away from him), he would hug and kiss me as he always had, but he was very quiet and stared at me with confusion. In the summer of 2004, as I ran to hug him and kiss him, he extended his arms and backed his face. He said some of the saddest words I’ll ever hear, “Who are you? Did we invite you over today?”

There was no denying it. The man who gave us baseball and the love for the Boston Red Sox was with Alzheimer’s in full form. And although his body was physically healthy for a man enjoying five years better than 3 score and 10, his brain was ravished by the evils of Alzheimer’s, a disease that only gets worse, making his world a strange, menacing one—even in the presence of his most beloved family. He’s lost so much weight and his eyes don’t tell the story they once did.
Here’s a man who served as a police officer for better than 30 years, a man so confident and well loved in the city that we never paid to get in any ball game. Here now is a man who can see, but doesn’t know what he sees or why?

Because this hurts my family and I so much, we cling on to anything we have with regard to grandpa, a man known by his friends as, “El Gato” (The Cat).

Baseball and the Red Sox are my favorite memory of him.

And so, because of this tragic episode in our mortal lives, baseball has come back into mine. I was away for a while (baseball-wise), going to college, enjoying marriage, raising children and evolving in my profession.

I joined the Red Sox Nation this year.

The 2003 ALCS and the devastating Aaron Boone missile launch re-fired my passion, but it was really the Varitek-gives-A-Rod-the-glove in 2004 that brought it all back for myself, my brother, my dad and now, our kids and wives.

I blew up the cover of Faithful, a great work by Stephen King and Stewart O’Nan, and hung it in my office.

Then, of course, there’s the greatest comeback in history, during the 2004 ALCS and the Yankee choke! The World Series win pushed me to action and regain my love for America’s pastime and the Red Sox.

A North Texas resident, I have access to Ameriquest Field, home to the Texas Rangers, who this year, 2005, will host the Red Sox twice. I’ll be there.

Though we told grandpa of the 2004 World Series, he doesn’t understand—completely—what happened or why. But, I still believe that when he sees that “B” on our caps, there’s a twinkle in his eyes.

Here’s to you grandpa…thanks for the love…I know one day you’ll remember who we are, again.
Las Medias Rojas!!!

Javier E. Najera is a mortician and the director of funeral service operations for a funeral home in North Texas and writes in his spare time. His grandfather still lives at his ranch in Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico, where his living room is adorned with trophies, pictures and other memorabilia of his baseball days. Javier may be reached at

What Is the Hardest Part of Your Job? Part IV

(continued from previous post)

Comments like his have fueled my motivation to stay in the business.

A few years ago our office administrator's father died at home. It was about 3 a.m., and I was on call. Her father had been ill off and on for many years. His body finally gave in.

It was a rare and cold February day in Fort Worth. I put on my suit, made myself presentable, and we were at the house in less than an hour. I rang the doorbell, and she (my co-worker) ran to hug me. She said, "I'm so glad to see you. Daddy is over here."

Yes, we still make house calls.

It's not easy. Ask my wife. My parents. My siblings. My daughters.

I have been pulled away from special family events, concerts, and many, many activities that most people can't imagine giving up -- especially -- for a job. I dedicate 26 of the 52 weekends to my profession. All kinds of big family events, i.e., weddings, have been planned around my free weekends.

We don't have holidays. Our place of business is open every hour, of every day, of every week, of every month -- all year long. With rare exception, a live person will always answer the phone at a funeral home.

What people never think about is how much a good funeral director will completely change the dynamics of a death. You will never know how a death will affect you until your there, and the last thing you want to be doing is trying to figure out how or who will help you.

Different organizations around the country have tried to make funeral directors thieves, abusers of mourning people, and outright cold-blooded members of society.

Added to that are the reality shows, which paint a very distorted image of what we really do. That's the case for any reality show, not just those specific to our business.

The title itself -- funeral director -- implies many things. It's a fairly new title. In the old days, funeral directors were termed, undertakers. Political righteousness, bureaucracy and idealistic forward progress slowly brought about the title change.

It's an amalgamation, to be honest. We are a profession evolved from taking the science of embalming from physicians; the casket manufacturing from furniture makers; and the exclusive response to take charge of a death from ambulance service. The trade is rooted in the days of the Civil War, where servicemen were sent back home to family. Abraham Lincoln's embalming and funeral may be one of the most famous early attempts of our trade. It really gave notice to the general public.

The title, mortician, is not as popular. It carries connotations of one who only works with the preparation of bodies and does not arrange and/or direct funerals.

Since the days of the Civil War, states have formed boards to oversee all funeral director/mortician activities. The federal government also governs certain activities, in conjunction with state and local law.

There are a number of mortuary schools in the country, some tied in with medical schools. Some states are more strict than others about education and internships. Texas is about midway compared to others.

The State of Texas conferred the license of funeral director and embalmer to me on January 14, 1999. I am in the 11,000 range, as far as how many have been given such a license in Texas. Though the numbers are growing, I am a rare breed due to my ethnicity. There are not many Mexican Americans in my business, certainly not when I started out.

Through hard work, determination, early research, and some key moves, I became a member of one of the most recognized and prestigious firms in Texas, perhaps in the country. I have participated in funerals for the artistically famous, politicians, oil barons, and world-renowned clergy. I have seen humanity's darkest side with violent deaths, atrocious accidents, and mind- boggling events.

In spite of all spite of all the emotion that must be spent on any of the preceding examples of our work, I get up every day hopeful I can be of service in some way. I could write a book about many, many more experiences I've lived. Maybe I will.

There is nothing I can say to a family that will make them feel better. I can only simplify what has to be done, and execute it to my best abilities. All extreme emotions show their face at the death of a loved one. Nevertheless, I go to bed every day knowing I did my best to care for the dead. I know I was there from the beginning, and I am there when the vault is sealed and lowered to the earth, forever.

The practice has been around since the beginning of humanity. We must and should care for our dead. It is my wish, should you be put in that position with one of your most beloved or someone of your acquaintance, you have a respectable and trusted funeral director that will guide you through.

In the meantime, live today for tomorrow we die.

The Commish

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

What Is the Hardest Part of Your Job? Part III

(continued from previous post)

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.

Monday, November 10, 2008

What Is the Hardest Part of Your Job? Part II

(continued from previous post)

At that time, I was not a father. Nevertheless, I felt horrible seeing that tiny head. From my view, she looked like a little doll.

I stood motionless for a couple of minutes, wondering how I could ever accomplish the simple task to measuring her for height. "How does anyone do this?" I wondered.

After a few deep breaths, I got closer. Without looking directly at her face, I did my best to ascertain a measurement to bring back to the conference room. When I was sure I had a good measure, I could not help it. I looked directly at her face. Though men are not typically known for expressing tenderness, that's all I felt. To see a child lay there lifeless broke my heart.

To-date, I have never forgotten that face.

Somehow we got through the rest of the funeral arrangements with this family. A time and day was agreed upon, and they left to gather additional things we needed.

The child was dressed in a white outfit, which would have been suitable for a First Communion.

One of the most difficult times for a family during a funeral is the first time they get to see their loved one in the casket. This would certainly be no exception. Gently opening the door to let Mrs. Mom in to see her daughter, alongside her parents, was as difficult as the day we sat with them in the conference room. I closed the door behind them, as they walked slowly and defeated to the small casket. They relived the pain at the graveside, when they had to leave her behind for the rest of their earthly lives.

We were with this family a total of five days from the moment we were notified of the death, to the long good-bye at the grave. It was a true test for me. In the end, I did survive.

I had just experienced my official calling.

There's no other way to describe it. I could explain the logistics of how I met that director. I could say that a number of events led me to be in the same insurance educational course as he.

But, to be honest, looking back I have to say I was called to do this work. All events that led me to that first funeral home and what I have been able to do since then confirm it.

It was not easy to evolve into a persona that allows me to serve families in the darkest hour. There's so much speculation and fictitious stories about what happens in funeral homes, that overcoming those insecurities -- in the beginning -- was very trying, to say the least. As opposed to popular belief, most funeral directors don't get into the field with some morbid lust. If you ask any funeral director, "Why?" most will have tales of a previous experience in their family with a funeral home; being associated or part of a family that owns a funeral home; or as a second career (which I had a lot of in my mortuary school class). Yes, there are bad apples, but I'm confident they are the minority.

My family was initially devastated. Being Mexican American, I heard a lot of superstition associated with death. My immediate family -- my wife -- was nervous, but she'll tell you "she saw it coming."

I was actually relieved, as I progressed in the field, most of it -- superstition, urban legends, folk tales, et al -- are just not true. The dead are at rest.

A year after the first case involving two-year-old, I enrolled in mortuary school. Because I had a psychology major in college previously, I was able to get through it fairly easily and promptly. I entered my internship in 1998, and it would be then that my second difficult test came.

One Wednesday morning, I got a call at 2:30. It was my brother and he said, "Grandpa has died. The family wants you to take care of all his arrangements."

At the age of 25, the care of my family's patriarch was laid on my hands. He had been ill for some time, and we knew this day would come. My wife booked the first flight to El Paso. I put on my suit and headed to home.

I had instructed the funeral home in El Paso I would embalm him myself. As I drank my coffee on the plane, I kept asking in silence, "Can I do this?"

I arrived at the house late that Wednesday morning. The entire family was there. After greeting my parents and siblings, my grandmother literally collpased in my arms. She began to sob and there was not a dry eye in the house.

For the first time in my life, I was the man in charge of the family. All the men, including the senior members of my family, followed my lead.

Pressure? Yes. And incredible amount, but the experience elevated my confidence more than ever.

I headed to the funeral home. I entered the preparation room and could see my grandfather's face from a sideview. It was then, and only then, I broke down and cried. I held it in front of the family so they would know I could make take care of this.

The embalmer assigned to help me that day walked in the room. A former master sergeant of the U.S. Marine Corps, he put his arm around me and gripped my shoulder firmly. With a deep voice and determined look he asked, "Son, are you sure you want to do this?"

**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.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

What Is the Hardest Part of Your Job? Part I

Anytime my occupation comes up in conversation, that question is always asked.

By implication, everything about my job is. Most people tell me "they couldn't do what I do," which is a constant reminder of the unique situation I'm in. So often I have to defend the reason, as if I was castigated and made to do this.

It's a very interesting dynamic.

It's unnatural for anyone to think of death. We're not built that way, and if you are a person of faith, you have some understanding that this life is not all there is. As much as anyone tells you death is as sure as taxes, we don't want to think of it. Even friends of mine, who do not believe and are sure death is the end of the road, don't like to think about it. Their desire to live as long as possible is just as strong.

Some people also think that, because of my tenure in the field -- and my choice to be in it for that matter --, my feelings towards death are somewhat neutralized or non-existent. I've been told to my face I must have no feelings, or any I did have (always past tense) must be very cold (implying evil in some way).

In either case, I thought I'd post a multi-part defense of why I do what I do for any sake. After all, caring for our dead has been a practice since the beginning of time. Whatever you think of the Bible, the last verse of Genesis talks about Joseph's embalming and subsequent burial.

The Hardest Part

For me, after 13 years of doing this work, the hardest part is to see a mother cry for a lost child.

Nothing compares to that.

I cannot speak authoritatively about how it feels. I'm a father. At the sight of my child's pain, it instantly becomes mine. You want to endure any pain for you child. It's practically unbearable.

I cannot fathom the feeling of losing a child in death.

I said mother -- specifically -- because the face of a mother losing a child is something so strong, so intense, at times I wish I could ask the Lord, "Why?".

It's not to say father's don't feel -- or worse -- feel less. I've seen fathers grieve intensely. But, when talking about what is the hardest thing for me, that is it. Seeing a mother's face, especially at a grave site, where it is understood she has to leave her child behind, is practically unbearable for me. I have no qualms telling people mothers may be the closest thing to an angel.

For one mother, her devastation came on my first call to duty, on October 15, 1995. I had made my decision to join the ranks of practicing morticians in America, and though my journey to become a licensed practitioner would be three years from that date -- at the very least --, I officially took part in this case, which remains very fresh in my mind.

Her husband had decided he no longer wanted to be part of the family about a month before our story took place. This couple had come to the U.S. a few years before, and with an all-out effort became naturalized citizens, ready to enjoy the American way of life.

Mrs. Mother did not know that the change in lifestyle from her world in Mexico would eventually carry her husband off to other adventures. She and her husband had worked in her parents' farm in southern Mexico before their immigration, with sights on "the other side" (the U.S.).

It was a very small town in Mexico. It was quiet. It was inviting and scenic. It had one school, one grocery store, and a "plaza" (common term for town square) in the center of the town, where folks would gather after mass for fellowship and exchanging of news. If you needed to talk to anyone in the town, you had to call the grocery store and have one of the boys go get the person you needed. It was that kind of lifestyle, and though dreams of living in the U.S. appealed to Mrs. Mother in those days, she often thought this life would suit her just fine, too. But, it was all past tense now for her. The town continues to exist in its simplicity.

Because she had not worked outside the home in the U.S., she would have to move in with her parents, who had since moved here as well. Single motherhood was not in her plans. Nevertheless, a fighter she was, and now she had a daughter to rear, one who was born in Fort Worth. Thoughts of the simple farm life in Mexico were looming. Little did she know that it could get worse.

Mrs. Mother's daughter was only two. She loved to play in the front yard of her grandparents' home. Grandad was having a terrible time adjusting to life in the U.S. , but like his recently separated daughter, he was a fighter and felt an obligation to keep trying for the girls.

On a cool Sunday morning, grandad was having a particularly hard time with his daughter's recent separation. Anger flared up when he felt his daughter and granddaughter were not cared for by a husband who promised he would. Distracted and evasive, grandad decided a drive to his friend's house would help.

He got in his truck and began to back it up.

It's such a routine thing. Who has to think too much when backing up? Sure, you check the mirrors and hear for cars, but other than that, you don't expect any trouble.

Except, his granddaughter was outside. Playing. Behind the truck. Out of sight.

When Mrs. Mom was telling me this, she began sobbing intensely. I was sitting across her in the arrangement conference room. I began to sob with her and her parents. At the precise moment, I felt an emptiness I wasn't prepared for. I asked myself, "What have I gotten myself into? What can I possibly do to help this poor woman, who until an hour before, was a total stranger to me?"

I was not in charge of the arrangements. I was sitting in the conference with the director who was. That man and that moment was defining for me. I told myself, "If I am able to effectively deal with this situation in the manner of professionally serving this family, I will be a funeral director one day."

The director in charge of that funeral, that day, was my initial inspiration to become and continue the journey in funeral service.

When the sobbing eased, the director continued with the conference, always mindful and careful of his questions. His patience and sensitivity were key in directing them to the eventual goal of planning a funeral for a two-year-old.

I was asked by the director a favor. The selection of a casket is one of the hardest things a family has to do for their loved ones. Because children are extraordinary cases, it's not always clear which caskets are suitable, and care is taken in knowing the size of a casket for a child.

At that time, mom and grandparents were not sure how tall she was. The director said, " Will you please go to the preparation room (embalming suite where people are treated and cared for) and measure her for height?"

I had been in the preparation room before. I had seen other people in there -- never a child.

I slowly opened the main door. I immediately saw a small head, full of dark brown hair.

**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.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Guest Post About Being Mexican

**I was invited to guest-blog at "is it 5 o'clock yet?" blog. Here's the entry and some comments. Some of that blog's fans have already commented.


why you shouldn't tell your family where you live

after i wrote this
, the commish made a comment and i knew then that there was a story waiting to come out. so i asked him to spill the goods. and boy did he. after reading his tale, i'm not sure i'm qualified to bitch about my family again. one thing was made crystal clear, it sucks to be mexican. thanks commish, for sharing your story. collectively we agree that you have it the worst. don't forget to leave some love for the commish.

“Dia De La Slug -- Revised.”By Javier E. Najera (a.k.a. The Commish)

Hola, Shauna Glenn fans! I was invited to vent my Mexican dirty laundry on this great blog, and in doing so I must make some disclaimers:

I am a third generation Mexican American, born and raised in El Paso (which is Little Mexico for all intents and purposes).

I transferred to the Chicken Fried Nation (which means DFW for you non- Galloway fans) in 1992. So, when I write of my people’s woes, I speak from experience.If you are a Mexican, Latino(a), Hispanic, et al, please don’t think I’m “dissing” my people. Remember, you laugh and the world will laugh with you. Cry and you cry alone!

The thing I enjoy the most of the 5 o’clock blog is its brutal honesty and color-esque vernacular. When Shauna spoke of trying to have a “dia de la slug,” a myriad of memories came. There is no such thing as a Mexican holiday or day off from family. Really, there isn’t…

In 1995 my wonderful sis-in-law graduated from college. My wife and I felt a celebration was in order, so we “got the word out” to local friends and family in El Paso. We planned a western-themed party, complete with hay, denim, cowboy hats, etc. At that time it was only my wife, sis-in-law and myself that left that nest of El Paso, so we were sure it’d be a quaint little crowd. It would have been precious memory, except for the following:

Mexicans don’t RSVP even if you demand one. We had no clue if we were planning for 20 or 200. Because we (wife, sis-in-law, and myself) were all at the tail end of college, we shared an 800 square foot apartment near campus with two bedrooms and one bathroom. Thinking nobody would show up from El Paso, we didn’t worry (remember, when Mexicans visit, they stay with you. There’s no such thing as hotel reservations).

Someone in the family did call to say they were coming, and used this exact wording: “It’s just a few of us. Don’t worry, we’ll be fine in the apartment.”

On the eve of commencement, I awoke to the sound of the phone. It indicated someone was at the security gate, surely the “few” from El Paso. I buzzed them in, managed the three S’s, well one anyway, and waited by the door. There were four cars, two vans and a truck with a camper in a distant sight. I started counting passengers, but stopped at 26. I pretended I hadn’t seen them parking yet, went inside and prayed for the first time that year. I awoke the ladies and said, “We have a problem.”

The final count was 28. They ALL stayed in the apartment. At one point, I was able to manage some floor space for a quick nap at night, and awoke to the sound of running water. Grandmamma was on the throne taking care of #1 business, with her gown all the way up. Yes! No over-the-shoulder-boulder-holder in sight! I haven’t been able to get that one out my mind after 13 years.

There are highlights in my memory of a two burned turkeys, a visit form the apartment complex management, who wondered why so many people were lounged in my balcony? At point we couldn’t find grandmamma, and someone spotted her sleeping in the back of the truck, the one with the camper. When asked why she went M.I.A., she moaned, “There are too many people in the apartment. This might have been a bad idea.”

You think?!

Not counting the lodging arrangements, the party was a blast! We danced and drank deep into the night!


With two kids, XXX nights alone are at a premium. I know most of the readership knows that. Well, my wife and I plan such nights when sleepovers and gracious aunts want the girls to stay over. So, we dust off ye old see-through undies, chill the wine and plan a good meal. Sounds like a routine married-with-children-with-no-children plan. Yeah, but does your entire family have keys to you house? Do they all know the code to your garage door?

Since 1995, we have had some family move here. It’s assumed and expected that they will get keys to your house, cars and know all codes to get in, in lieu of. In one of our most successful Night Sans Kids, we were just about to the hot wax and feather phase when we heard the garage door going up.

A cousin decided she wouldn’t make it to her place to watch her novela (soap opera), so she thought it’d be OK to come to our house and watch it. Unannounced. She saw no problem in tapping the 4-digit code on the garage pad and coming in.The fact that the lights were all off (we took advantage of all square footage) did not make any impression on her.

We rushed to pickup the props, oils and candles, headed to the bedroom and got dressed. I came out and asked, “What are you doing?”With a confused almost offended reaction she said, “Nothing. Just came to watch TV. That’s OK, isn’t it?”

“Why not. We weren’t using it anyway. Enjoy.”

Defeated and deflated, I joined my bride in the bedroom. We accepted our defeat and feel asleep hoping our guest would remember to lock the door behind her.

And we can't leave out...

Camping is a favorite activity. Very, very nice friends of ours offer their 35’ RV every year for our use. The RV is suitable for 12 people. This past summer, we decided to do the unthinkable. We – just the four of us – went camping in East Texas. A wife, two daughters and me – all alone! Finally! It looked like a nice, well planned time. We planned the covert operation with surgical precision and left the house unnoticed at 04:00.

Well, we made it to campsite a couple hours later (still at a 4-count), checked in, and to that point I really felt we could and would enjoy it. Breakfast was the word, and as much as we “roughed it,” cell phones are never far away. They started ringing.The first calls were to my wife, with questions of, “Where are you guys? We’re here at your house. Your cars are here, where are you?”

The second round o’ rings were friends, who found out from the first group of callers we had an RV. By the time breakfast was done, the damage was too. Knowing what was about to happen, I convinced the ladies a walk and paddleboat ride was the thing to do.

Katrina? Ike? Bring them on. What was about to happen at the magical family campsite could not compare. I wasn’t about to make it easy for the masses, which I was sure were on their way.

We had to admit our location, but not our campsite. Let them look through the 1000 wooded acres.I forgot one thing, though. I hoisted my Cowboys flag (in honor of the 13-3 season) and my Red Sox flag (in honor of the World Championship), both high and mighty at our site. That would be the only beacon they needed. Who else would have a Red Sox flag in East Texas?

From our position on the lake we could see our borrowed RV. I wanted one last look for a lasting picture memory before the storm-o-Mexicans flooded in. We saw about 7 cars pull up, cheerful and excited to be non-invited, unannounced guests.

The fridge was raided. The drinks consumed. Two people, who felt it necessary to “look for us”, broke my Dallas Cowboys folding chairs. We kept paddling, pretending not to see them. They did have the decency to go to the campsite store and re-stock. We finally made our presence known at sunset, and enjoyed a great dinner…for 20.

Those are just a few. I could go on, but I’m already at way-too-long status.

My people are known for their loyalty to family above just about anything. And, though the above named examples made me want to use a nail gun to my temples, in hopes of relieving stress, I wouldn’t change it for the world.

In the end, all we have are memories.

And, I have many, many memories of all my unannounced family to take.

The Commish

PS – If you ever want to a Mexican to arrive at your party/meeting/event on time, please tell them it starts two hours before it really starts. Mexicans have two clocks: real time and Mexican time. We don’t pay much mind to the first.

The Commish

Monday, November 3, 2008

They Don't Sell Anything

My wife and I were asked a favor recently by another member of the family, who is attending college. The favor was simple: buy a textbook for her that was not available in any bookstore in North Texas. She found one far, far away, but couldn't get to it. We had a day off and wanted to help. So, we Mapquest-ed it and headed to a little college, south of Dallas County, hoping the trip would allow us some catching-up time without the girls.

Off we went and catching up we did.

I have to disclose, before I go on, that both my wife and I have customer service as the core of what we do for a living. Truly, without exceptional customer service in our given fields -- funeral service and interior design --, we'd be out of a gig. Some say mine -- funeral service -- is something we will always "need." True as it may be, funeral service is not without competition in a Capitalist society. We have nothing guaranteed about how much business we'll do. People have choices, and customer service remains the Golden Rule.

Back to our story...

So, we finally find the college through a myriad of obscure signs. The college baseball team was assembling in a parking lot, and we got our first taste in I-don't-give-a-crapness. I asked one of the fellas where the school's bookstore was, and he turned to the another. Both shrugged their shoulders and continued their business before my wife and I ruined their lives (or so their faces expressed). I let the car roll to the next player, and he never even looked at me. He did manage the comment, "It's near the student center." That didn't help either. I gave up on the baseball team and sought life elsewhere.

To the college's credit, on-going construction resulted in signs not being up-to-date. Besides, who visits this place anyway, if not a student? I guess only desperate book-seekers like us.

I'm in my 36th year, and I think I'm eligible for a "yes sir" from a college student now, right? That's what I got from the next person I saw. I was floored. A young man, not only gladly came over to talk to us, but acknowledged my greeting with a "yes sir." He kindly pointed to the bookstore and wished us a good day.

Wow! They do exist!

That's not really the point, but you get the sense of what this entry is about.

So, we made our way to the bookstore and entered the retail space. The only cashier there never greeted us, but at least did look up when we asked, "Where do we get a book that has been reserved by phone?"

She said, "In the back." That's it.

So, we headed to what we felt was the back, and this is where it got ugly.

A lady in her midlife crisis (or so her face expressed) saw us coming. She was sitting at a desk, pretending to be very interested in her computer monitor. We stood there for about 10 seconds, waiting for her to look up, giving her the benefit of the doubt that whatever was on the monitor was (in fact) important -- at least more than two in-house paying customers.

She never looked up.

So, I asked, "Is this where we get books on reserve by phone?"

With a five-second delay, she finally managed to look at us. She frowned and asked, "What do you mean on 'reserve'"?

"You know, we called and asked that a certain text be reserved so we can come buy it. A person from this bookstore agreed and told us we had 24-hours to come get it."

"I don't know anything about that. Go to the cashier."

And, with that she went back to her computer. Her tag announced her name and "manager" on it, so, I wasn't going to let her off so easily.

As my wife turned to head back, she whispered, "Why is she so rude?"

I said loudly, "Cause they don't have to sell anything here."

The manager sneered at me and probably wanted to run her mouth, but she didn't. As we headed back to the cashier, who was busy on her cell phone, my wife asked, "What do you mean?"

"Look around dear. This retail space is full of things students HAVE to buy. Only about 20% of it is things you have to try and sell. There were the expected magazines, school souvenirs, junk food, etc., but the money was made in college texts students needed."

No effort -- or very little -- is needed to run this store.

We made it to the counter again, and waited for our cashier to tell her friend she needed to end her cell phone talk.

"The woman on the back said she didn't know anything about our book. She said to come back to you."

"What? What am I supposed to do?" she asked, as if I was now responsible to solve her problem.

All along, the book was behind the cashier on a counter she never cared to look at. She rang us up, and it took an Act of Congress to leave the store because we paid with a personal check. I would have canceled that form of payment for a credit card in the spirit of leaving earlier, but I didn't. It was retaliation for their obtuseness and don't-give-a-shitness. Excuse my French, please.

The whole experience took 1.5 hours (drive plus unhappy workers/students). We met our goal, but the experience was unbearable. Because my wife and I sometimes spend more time with our clients than our own family, it'd be nice to get some of that customer service back here and there.

Our standard is so low now days. We just don't expect anything anymore. Have you ever tried to get anybody at Wal-Mart or Home Depot to help lately? You may hit the jackpot at 2 a.m. at Wal-Mart. Try Home Depot at about 6 a.m.

We just flat don't care.

You know, I'm sure being the manager of a college bookstore -- or cashier for that matter -- is not a life's goal, but I can tell you it certainly is a choice in this country. I'm continually baffled about people in the U.S. and how unhappy we seem to be.

Why do we have such a problem with worrying about what we don't have? What we are not?

How about a little "I'm happy to have another day of life!" every morning?

Here's a life lesson for you folks, who seem to be eternally unhappy with what you consider a "bad life".

A man was leaving his dad's house one Sunday afternoon. The man was in his mid-thirties, a rising attorney, and a newly wed. His new bride chose to spend the afternoon with her mother, as watching the Cowboys game was not her cup of tea.

The man got in his car after the game was over, on his way to pick up his bride. Comments I heard were that he had called his wife to let her know he was on his way, and that he'd made been better off spending the day with her, than watching the Cowboys poor display of sportsmanship. Dad -- his dad -- did not agree. After all, the Cowboys were a big part of the family sports allegiances. His last words to his son were, "A win is a win."

The man's dad did not know those would be his last words to him, neither did his wife.

The man pulled up to a stop light at a busy intersection. Two blocks and he'd be with his wife. When his light was green, he pressed the gas pedal. A person to his left was busy with the cell phone to notice the red light, and broadsided him hard. The man sustained severe internal injuries and died a short time later at a hospital.

Up until the second when his car got hit, this man's biggest concern was missing out on time with his wife and how badly the Cowboys had played. He could have never guessed those would be his last thoughts.

Stories like this are not just news items I see on TV or newspaper. There not second-hand stories at dinner, or cooler talk at the office.

This is everyday for me, folks. In my business, stories like this are real.

Take a deep breath.

Look around you right now and don't worry too much about what you don't have, what you are not, or what great/bad things the future holds.

It might be worth it to be positive about your day, as monotonous or uninteresting as you think it is, for no other lifestyle guarantees you more of anything.

The best way to use your valuable time is today, right now.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

A Proud Moment

Few things compare in life to witnessing your children's' accomplishments, especially those that come from their natural abilities.

My wife and I are blessed with two girls, and they have both made us very proud.
On this occasion I wanted to display some art that merited attention from the Visual Art Department of the Arlington Independent School District. Students' art from the district is chosen and displayed for public appreciation at one the district's main buildings.
The work is titled, Fireworks, and is on display at the 3rd grade section of the building.
If you are a parent, you know what I'm talking about. It's an indescribable feeling to see your children develop and produce wonderful things, especially works of art.
If you're not a parent, I'm sorry. I'm sorry there's no way I can describe what this feels like. I can, however, tell you that nothing you accomplish personally makes you feel as good as what your children do for you.