When a husband and a daughter die, how do you make room to love again? A trip to Peru opens the door.
For twelve years after my husband Matt’s death, I’d spent several weeks each summer doing volunteer work in Latin America, mostly as a medical interpreter. In 2016, however, there was no trip scheduled, so I accepted a friend’s invitation to go trekking in the Sacred Valley of Cusco, Peru.
I ached to be with Matt, but that was not an option. Gone were our traveling days – whether they involved a European adventure (Brittany and the Dordogne were the heart-tugging places we yearned to revisit), a trip to see family and friends in our hometowns of New Orleans and New York City, or a quick camping weekend with our daughters in the Sierra. So were the sacred days of reading in bed before falling asleep and waking up together.
But being with friends was always a good thing, and I agreed.
This was my girlfriend Andrea’s fourth or fifth trip with Theo, a guide and healer in Cusco. She told me that most days Theo led the group on hikes in the mountains, giving lectures about the history of the indigenous cultures that had lived there, and guiding visits to archeological ruins.
“I guess you’d call him a shaman,” Anrea said, “but he’s Western-educated and participates fully in both modern and traditional native cultures.” Throughout the trip, Theo led the group in spiritual work invoking Pachamama, or Earth Mother, and introducing an assortment of Andean belief systems and traditions.
I knew Andrea well from decades of working together at the Federal Reserve. She was sensible and down-to-earth. If she’d gone on so many trips with Theo, it had to be a valuable experience. I felt a twinge of guilt to be doing something solely for fun and for the joy of being outdoors but figured I could enjoy not working fourteen-hour days in ninety-degree heat.
We stayed on the outskirts of Cusco, in the suburb of San Jerónimo, at La Casona— “the large house”—built by Theo’s grandfather a century earlier in what was then the countryside. Theo was a native of Cusco, with a PhD in cultural anthropology, a former governor of the Cusco region, and an accomplished horseback rider and pianist. He resembled a distinguished professor, with a trimmed salt-and-pepper beard and a soft-spoken, authoritative demeanor. He’d converted the family home into an elegant retreat center, with native trees and shrubs, an extensive rose garden, and stone walkways crisscrossing the courtyard. Outside on the busy suburban street, buses belched smoke and screeched their brakes, and cars sounded their horns all day long, but inside La Casona’s stucco façade peace and quiet reigned in the rustic reception lounge, with overstuffed sofas, tall-backed wooden chairs, and rough-hewn tables.
We met with Theo after breakfast for far-ranging and often confusing discussions that touched on an unpredictable range of topics, including archeology, history, architecture, indigenous cultures, and abstract spiritual issues. He told us one morning that our goal was to “work toward bridging our conscious and unconscious beings into a single whole.” He emphasized that by using native Andean healing techniques, we could reach “a state of gratitude and joy and manage our energy to transform living into an art.” I tried to step away from my entrenched linear thinking to figure out what Theo was talking about. That was the only way for me to osmose, however marginally, his messages of openness and wholeness, the embedded consciousness of our ancestors, and a balanced relationship with light, air, water, rocks, mountains, vibrations, and the sun. I was partially successful for brief periods. It wasn’t something to think about, so much as something not to think about and just accept, clearly a job for heart, not head.
After our morning sessions, we’d head off for a day of trekking in the Sacred Valley, with snowcapped peaks as a backdrop. We held our breath as the driver maneuvered hairpin turns on the narrow winding roads that took us both lower and much higher than Cusco’s eleven-thousand-foot altitude. The names of the places sounded like incantations: Ollantaytambo, Chinchero, Salkantay, Sacsayhuaman, and, of course, Machu Picchu.
We hiked for six or eight hours a day, gasping for air, swigging water, and tracking the hundreds of feet (or more) of altitude we gained on each outing. We climbed up to fourteenth-and fifteenth-century ruins, where Theo described the spiritual traditions, geology, archeology, and culture of the Incas, as well as the story of the Spaniards’ early sixteenth-century invasion that put an end to the Inca Empire.
The highlight of the trip occurred two days before our return to the States. Andrea prepared me for what she described as an intense spiritual session with Theo.
“You go upstairs after dinner, to a dark, candlelit room,” she told me. “You sit in a circle on the floor for four hours or more, so bring pillows and blankets from your bedroom. Take a jacket because it can get cold. Don’t plan on getting out before midnight.”
“Why does it go on so long?” I asked.
“Theo talks with each person privately—but ‘privately’ means he talks to you in a soft voice while others are sitting on the floor nearby.” She added, “You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to. It’s voluntary. I’ve done it a few times and am going to skip this time.”
I felt I had nothing to lose and possibly something to gain, as seven of us entered the room and arranged ourselves in a U-shape on the floor, leaning against the wall, with pillows at our backs, blankets on our legs, and bottles of water at our sides. The room was the size of a conference room, without a table in the center. The only furniture was a chair at the front, where Theo sat and greeted us as we came in. He stood up and turned off the lights in the room, then returned to his chair, a shadowy figure with a small flashlight to guide his way. He called one person and talked with her for what might have been twenty or twenty-five minutes, as we sat quietly, scarcely able to hear their whispering. Then he called a second person. I lost track of time until Theo called me to approach. I felt unsteady in the dim lighting, concerned that I would trip on someone’s outstretched legs. I could barely make out the outline of his body but could tell where he was from the direction of his voice. He surprised me by addressing me in Spanish, which he hadn’t done during our ten days together. But he’d heard me talking with the bus driver, people on the street, and the employees at La Casona.
“¿Por qué andas preocupada? ¿Por qué estás triste?” he asked. What worries you? What are you sad about?
I hadn’t had a single personal conversation with Theo and didn’t think I’d projected that image to the group. But he was right.
“I’m worried I will never love anyone again,” I told him. “Not the way I loved my husband and my daughter. I may never again love at that level, to that depth. I don’t love the way I used to, the way I want to.”
“How did your husband die?” he asked. “When? How did your daughter die? When?”
I answered him, stammering and trying to hold back the tears. Matt had died of stage four invasive esophageal cancer in his spine, right kidney, and liver. The oncologist had made it clear that his chances of survival were zero. Heather had been a helicopter pilot in Kosovo but died of an unexpected interaction of pain medications she took for two discs she’d herniated during parachuting jumps. I was with her the week before she died, four years to the day after Matt did.
“What have you done to celebrate them? Have they spoken to you?”
I don’t recall anything else about our verbal interchange because I was sobbing soundlessly, inside my entire body, so silently that I doubt people sitting in the circle a few feet away could hear. I felt the years of sadness flooding through my body and soul. I relived the grief of losing the husband and daughter I had loved in a way I desperately wanted to love again. Celebrate them? – I had no idea what that meant, much less how to do it. What was there to celebrate? I had carried their loss inside me, deep in my core. But talking with Theo stripped away the armor I had constructed, which had enabled this colonel’s daughter to rise and shine when she wanted to lie down and cry. Theo remained sitting in his chair, interspersing his questions with commands for me to move toward him and away from him, turn in different directions, slow down my stride and speed it up, look up and look down, and make motions with my hands. Then he stood up and approached me in the dark, chanting in a beautiful baritone voice. He shook rattles at and around me, rang bells, and waved a large feather up and down my body, front and back, making an eerie whooshing sound.
I stayed with him for about a half hour before he gave me his final instructions and had me repeat them.
“Esto es lo que tienes que hacer,” Theo instructed me. “This is what you must do. You have to do it on the right days and in the right order. You will arrive home on Tuesday. On Friday you start drinking a cup of special tea every morning and washing your face and head in an herbal mixture every morning. You will do this every day until Friday of next week. I will give you the dried herbs for the tea and the wash.”
I carefully repeated his instructions.
He continued, “Buy three pairs of beeswax candles—one red, one green, and one golden. This Friday night place the red candles by photographs of your husband and your daughter and go to bed with them lit. On Tuesday do the same with the green ones. And next Friday do the same with the golden ones. Let them burn out on their own. Don’t blow them out.”
When I asked about the meaning of the colors and the importance of the sequence, Theo responded softly, “Las velas rojas representan la pasión que sientes por ellos. Las verdes son para la regeneración, el renacimiento. Y las doradas iluminarán el camino para ellos y para ti.” Again, I began to sob. “The red candles are for the passion you feel for them. Put a red candle next to each photograph. Think about your passion, your love for them. On Tuesday the green candles will represent spring, regrowth, rebirth. You must think about being reborn. The gold candles will light their way, where they are, their path. And your way, where you are, because you have a different path from theirs.”
I repeated his instructions.
The next day he gave me the tea mix, made from dried white rose petals, and the herbal bath mix, which smelled like a heady mixture of roses and rosemary.
The day after getting home, I went to several stores before finding beeswax candles. Selecting the photos of Matt and Heather was easy since they are nestled into my bookcase in the den. In her photo, Heather is in her Apache pilot uniform, with a bit of red hair showing below her specially contoured helmet, with a miniature computer screen covering her right eye. (She once told me the hardest part of learning to fly was training one eye to look in the computer eyepiece and the other to stare ahead.) She’s wearing no makeup, and her freckles are visible, as is one blue eye. The photo should be on a kick-ass Army recruiting poster.
The framed photo I chose of Matt is actually two photos pieced together. As usual, he’s wearing a long-sleeved, red-checked shirt, jeans, brown leather vest, and a gray-green wool hat with a brown leather band. In the mid-1990s we were in Lourdes, France, a popular site for Catholic pilgrimages, and I asked him to stand next to a sign that read “Adoration Perpetuelle.” But he wasn’t satisfied with my choice of him as the focus of my secular adoration. He placed a photo of me on the other side of the sign, gluing the two together in a pre-Photoshop composition. On the photo, in ink, he drew an arrow on the sign pointing my way.
The first Friday morning I set a red-for-passion candle next to each photo on my bedroom dresser. I was comforted every time I walked into the room and glanced at the display. I lit the candles around nine o’clock, got into bed, and read until I fell asleep. When I woke up in the morning, the candles were still burning low. I put the green candles up the next day, even though I wouldn’t burn them until Tuesday. Over the next four days, I looked at the photos and candles multiple times and again felt peaceful, meditating on what the color green stood for: spring, grass, growth, regeneration, resumption of life. On Tuesday I lit the candles at bedtime and watched them burn as I read, not wanting to fall asleep and miss a single glowing minute. Again, I woke up to find the candles still burning. I repeated the ritual on the following Friday, lighting the path for Matt, Heather, and me with the golden candles. And I performed my last morning tea-drinking and face-washing rituals as well.
I left the golden candle remains on my dresser-shrine, next to the picture frames, for a few days, lamenting the end of the ceremony. I felt at peace in a way I hadn’t expected. Several of my friends, who didn’t know about the candle ritual, commented they found me calmer and more relaxed than usual.
“You’re different,” one friend said. “I don’t know what it is. You seem enthusiastic and quiet at the same time. And rested.”
I knew what she meant – I felt it too. But I didn’t understand how it had happened- mysteriously, inexplicably, unexpectedly.
Sallie H. Weissinger was raised as a military brat, moving frequently. She identifies as a southerner, with a mother from New Orleans and a father from Alabama. She now splits her time between New Orleans, Berkeley, California, and Portland, Oregon, where she lives with her husband, a retired doctor. Sallie devotes volunteer time to the Rotary Club, teaches Spanish, and provides medical interpreting for non-profit organizations in Central America and the Dominican Republic. This excerpt is taken from YES, AGAIN: (Mis)Adventures of A Wishful Thinker and has been edited slightly for clarity. Copyright (c) 2021 by Sallie H. Weissinger