This is the story of two women who were very different in many ways but who somehow shared their deaths with me in significant and life-altering ways. This story will be spread over three posts, each revealing one phase of the events. The first part of the story takes place in Peru:
Herlinda died last night. The last time I saw her was in Peru three weeks ago in a little shack outside the jungle town of Pucallpa. Her family had moved her from her hometown of San Francisco, Peru – a secluded Shipibo village situated on an arm of the Amazon River – so she could be closer to doctors.
My two friends and I took a rickshaw from the airport and travelled around many corners and turns as we followed Walter's rickshaw, one of Herlinda’s sons, down a dusty pothole-filled dirt road to finally arrive in front of Herlinda’s "family compound in town”, as it had been described to us earlier. As far as I could see, this compound consisted of four mud brick walls, a door, a small window, a corrugated iron roof and a small veranda overlooking more mud brick shacks – other "family compounds”. Not a green leaf in sight, just dust and mud.
Walter opened the door to the shack and there she was, the mighty Herlinda! She looked so tiny lying there in her striped cotton hammock. She must have lost 30 pounds since I last saw her a year ago.
She was a big woman then in every sense of the word as the matriarch and the shaman of her village. I remember her sitting on the floor of the malaka – a ceremonial jungle building – with her husband Enrique. What struck me most about her then was how immensely comfortable it was for her to be in her full power. Shamans in that tradition lead ceremonies in which they give personal healings and sing ceremonial songs called Ikaros. Whenever Herlinda sang an Ikaro during a ceremony she opened a long-forgotten path to my own fullness as a woman; a path that is neither pretentious, or special or difficult – just there, available to every woman. Herlinda had nine children and 20 grandchildren and, as the matriarch and healer of her village, she had no question about her role in life. She had the remarkable ability of passing on her ease of authority and love with a playful directness that made it seem the most natural state any woman could be in.
I remember being shaken to the marrow with the realization of how inherently normal and ordinary it is to be a nurturing, powerful woman. Just as looking in the eyes of a great Advaita master can open the pathways to non-dual consciousness, listening to Herlinda’s happy and not necessary beautiful but fearless Ikaros brought me in contact with the essence of womanhood: Love, playfulness, creativity, nurture and power.
And here she was a year later in a weak, cancer-ridden body, unable to get out of her hammock any longer; lying in a dark room, her beloved jungle miles away. And to my great surprise, she looked beautiful! Her thick hair was still dyed black. She was not wearing her dentures, which made her look vulnerable. Yet, despite her physical weakness, a great sense of dignity emanated from her. While she was the impressive matriarch a year ago, she was now a humbled and fragile yet luminous being – a being in transition.
We both cried when I thanked her in my rudimentary Spanish for her songs and the impact she made in my life and the lives of my friends. She said she was looking forward to going home and I did not know if she meant back to her jungle village or to her death. And once again Herlinda touched me deeply, but this time through her surrender and vulnerability, showing me another face of life, that of transition.
And now she is gone. I will never sing or cry with her again. My jungle feels empty without her but in some wondrous way, I feel her influence in me more directly. Thinking of her now fills me with a sense of matriarchal power and joy all on the backdrop of impermanence. Gracias para todo, Herlinda!