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Photo by Tom Pablo, South America Semester.

My Uncle John

I have always looked up to my Uncle John. I think, in a way, this is something I have in common with all of my older siblings–all four of us went on outdoor education courses as young teens (three of four on the same exact NOLS course that my uncle did when he was 17), one went to Reed College, where he went as an undergrad, and two are thinking seriously about following in his footsteps to pursue a career in law. Even my youngest brother, who never knew our uncle but shares his name, loves to hike and climb so much that my dad calls him our mountain goat.

My uncle was one of the most empathetic and passionate people I will probably ever know. He was an advocate for native communities’ rights, an avid hiker, a dedicated worker, a tireless adventurer, and an environmentalist. We buried him in 2010, after he died in the Cascade mountain range. And, last Friday, I buried him for a second time in the Cordillera.

It was Day of the Dead in Bolivia, and my friends and I stood around a shallow grave, shoulder to shoulder with our Bolivian guides, Percy and Rayo. Sitting in the pit was an offering to the apus (the mountain spirits of native Andean tradition), which included a bright pink skull, pictures of deceased loved ones, and coca leaves, which we had each placed under the photographs after touching the leaves to our lips. I could still taste their earthy memory on my mouth, as the cold mountain wind struggled to infiltrate our tight-knit circle of human warmth. Inside our circle of shoulders, we scraped the names of our muertos into firm but yielding rocks, and then formed with those rocks a coencentric circle within the first, protected by the unity of our bodies.

One by one, we spoke the names of our dead and their importance to us in Spanish. And then we buried the rocks, along with the offering, in the soft earth. The Andes rose up around us, huge and white-capped and jaw-droppingly beautiful. A mule brayed. And as we went around the circle, hugging each other, I was reminded of the poem that my rabbi recites in synagogue every Saturday, before the Mourner’s Kaddish.

When I die, give what’s left of me away

To children and old men that wait to die

And if you need to cry,

cry for your brother walking the street beside you.

And when you need me, put your arms around anyone

and give them what you need to give me.

 

I want to leave you something,

something better than mere words or sounds.

So look for me in the people that I’ve known or loved,

and if you cannot give me away,

at least let me live on in your eyes and not on your mind.

 

You can love me best by letting hands touch hands,

and letting bodies touch bodies,

and by letting go of those who need to be free.

Love doesn’t die; we people do.

So when all that’s left of me is love,

Give me away.

I think that my Uncle John would have loved his second burial. In the naturaleza, which was so much a part of everything he did, participating in a native custom, similar to those for which he fought throughout his career. He would have loved the taste of the coca, and the howl of the wind, and the shadow of the snowy peaks.

More than any of it, though, he would have loved that I am on this course. He would have loved to see me live in native communities and listen to them weave their life stories over sopa at the dinner table, learn about injustices committed against human beings and against Pachamama, and become empowered, educated, and embattled so that my impact on the world can be something worthwhile. It is in this way that I will give life to his memory–not only by giving away love, but by giving back strength.