On Friday, July 20, Brother Stuart called me. “Hey, Stuart, how are you?” I asked on my way to the mall to buy Brother Juan a birthday gift. Juan turned 50 last week and I looked forward to celebrating with him over dinner that night or the next. “Not good, Laura,” he responded through tears. “Juan died.” In total shock I listened as Stuart told me that Juan did not survive a power paragliding landing earlier that day. A subsequent autopsy report stated a ruptured aorta as the cause of death.
Crap. After Sister Michelle, Juan is the sibling I liked best. Juan was warm, thoughtful, resourceful, transparent and ambitious. He was a devoted and loving brother, father, son and friend. I was looking forward to developing a closer relationship to him now that I had moved to Panama. Strangely, we had never lived in the same city and this would have been my chance to get to know him and his 12 year old daughter Joanne more closely. Chance denied.
Over the next week, Stuart took the lead in organizing Juan’s funeral, communicating with extended family members and generally keeping everything together. I have new-found respect for Stuart, a former LAPD turned minister, who officiated Juan’s service — something no amount of training or experience could prepare him for. Family members and friends filled Stuart’s spacious church to pay their respects to Juan, who looked strange to me through the open casket. He didn’t look like himself now or the week before when I saw his body laying on the beach. I wasn’t used to seeing Juan without a smile, without a friendly, open expression. Indeed, an expressionless Juan was not really him — just his corpse.
Because Juan’s wish was to be cremated and have his ashes cast at sea, some family members returned to the Punta Chame beach, about 90 minutes outside of the City, where Juan had his accident. Once there we took turns passing the urn and sharing heartfelt words. When my turn came, I bent over to scatter a handful of ashes and dropped my car keys, which were insecurely tucked between my (small) boobs, into the water. Not a big deal when it happened but it sure turned into a big deal when my remote door opener would not work.
Back at the car, I could get inside using the manual key but couldn’t deactivate the alarm without a working remote. Of course, the purpose of the alarm is to prevent someone from stealing the car, which means the car cannot be started unless the alarm is deactivated. Humph. For about 30 minutes the men in the group – Uncle Larry and Cousin Marck– did what they could by turning off the battery to silence the screeching alarm, reading the manual to locate fuses and connections, etc. Tia Linda asked a local bystander if there was a mechanic who could help. He mentioned the Chinese neighbor, Antonio. Turns out Chinese’ reputation for being smart and knowing all things technical is universal! Antonio willingly did what he could to open the tiny remote and dry the battery, which he said was old. While he was helping we had no luck.
Since we brought 2 cars, we decided one car could head back to town while Sister Mariana and I waited for the insurance company to tow my car home. I had an extra set of keys at the house but didn’t want anyone to have to drive there, back to the beach and then home again; this would be a terrible way for any of the visiting adults in the group to spend their afternoon.
Facing the possibility of a long drive in a CRV with 6 people, Uncle Larry suggested I try the key one last time. Bingo — this time it worked. Being responsible for 7 other people having to spend an extra hour in 90 degree heat and heavy humidity after an emotionally challenging afternoon didn’t make me feel good. When I shared this with Michelle, she said, “It’s ok. It was a bonding experience.” And she was right. With respect to 4 of relatives, that extra hour in Punta Chame was the most time I had ever spent with them. Often the glue that connected estranged family members, the Velcro of the Guy family, Juan seemed to have created one final moment of connection. His commitment to family and relationship had a tremendous impact in my life. Thank you, Juan; I look forward to seeing my extended family members again soon — hopefully under cooler and more fun circumstances.