Dying Beautifully

Dying Beautifully

This essay was originally published by Jimena Sánchez Ravanales on her blog.

For the Spanish version, click here.

At my mom's funeral, my aunt, her twin said that she always knew when my mom had come by her house because she would find it more beautiful - perhaps a new frame that perfectly matched the existing collection, clothing that had been left around was picked up and rearranged, or some fresh sandwiches from the deli were left in the counter. Later, as she looked at all the white flowers people had sent our family and seeing everyone dressed in white at my mother’s request, she remarked that she had no doubt that God had called her because He needed help making things more beautiful in Heaven.

Growing up, my house always felt like home because my mom cared a lot about making it look beautiful. The way she arranged the pillows and throws in the living room couches to make it feel cozy, the religious images of the Sacred Family and the wall of crosses made from wood, iron, and ceramics, and the decorations that would change by season: green plants and yellow colors during the summer, pumpkins and orange gerberas during autumn, and pine needles and Nativities in all shapes for Christmas. It was not glamorous or filled with expensive things; it was just very well-thought-out, like the jar where you knew you could always find a bite-sized Kit Kat milk chocolate in case of an emergency.

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Childhood home in San Salvador

Her meticulous planning of menus for the week, always trying to balance simple and new recipes, and the way the table was always set up, even if there were no guests coming, were also part of her. Food was typically served on a nice serving plate, not directly from the pan because “when things look pretty we enjoy them more”, as she would say. And how could I forget her occasional freshly-baked banana breads, or all the dedication she put into our birthday celebrations? No matter what had happened in school–a bad grade in an exam or a disappointment by a friend–or even the problems within our family, the warmth of her good taste would always be waiting for us at home. And from time to time, if you were a good friend, you could expect a dozen of her famous alfajores at your door.

But it was not just about the house decorations or the cooking–I don’t think I ever saw her looking untidy. If she went for a walk or to the gym, she made sure to take a bath first, brush her hair, match her outfit, and then dress up before continuing her day. It was more than vanity; she knew that the way she looked brought seriousness to the situation and showed respect and care for herself and others.

Mom being cool in Madrid in the 90s
Mom with the biggest smile the day she got engaged to my dad

Even on her last day on Earth, when her muscles had lost all strength and her lungs were struggling to catch a breath, she asked slowly if I could help her change and dress. Without much thought, I grabbed the first pair of pants and shirt I found, but by her look, I understood she wanted to look nice, so I went back to pick some khakis and a flowered shirt. At her request, I also grabbed her makeup bag for her because she was tired of looking pale from all the medicine and lack of sunshine. She knew that, even in this moment of suffering and illness, her appearance could transform not only the way she felt, but how she made others feel. In some sense, she was telling us, “this is hard, for me, for all of you, but I am still fighting and long faces will not help anyone”.

She cared so much about these details that she thought carefully about how she could help us navigate our grief. The weeks before her death, without telling us, she recorded some voice notes that we found on her phone after her funeral–for my dad, my brother, myself, her friends, and even our dog who she adored–to express her gratitude for being part of her life and urging us to look to God in these moments. These raw, unedited notes, where you can hear her voice breaking and her struggles to breathe, were her last detail of love.

December 1997 (probably)
December 1998 (probably)

Even on the early morning of her death, the chirps of birds were louder than usual. Some would say it was my sleepiness from that long night that had heightened the volume. I prefer to imagine that angels had joined the birds, slowly descending from heaven to take my mom home and opening my senses to the beauty of a heart full of love.

Someone who knew my mom told me not so long ago that she gave us a great lesson on dying, and today, two years after her death, I would say on living and dying beautifully. Sometimes we may believe that beauty lies in writing the greatest play, building a marvelous cathedral, or painting the next Mona Lisa, but it is not. We do need more of that, but it all starts in our messy ordinary lives, and especially within our hearts. Just like this woman, who I am honored to call my mother, who cultivated beauty as a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother, a friend, and above all, as a Child of God.

Mom being cool pt2

P.S. I would love for you to know that I have been following your petition for me to keep traveling very closely and know that I take you with me everywhere. I love and miss you, mom.