In my final year of college, my B.A. in Intercultural Studies required me to take a daily accelerated Spanish class. Thus I met Ñacuñán Sáez, the dazzlingly urbane young professor from Argentina who had recently come via Italy and Oxford to our tiny liberal arts college in western Massachusetts. Ñacuñan spoke four languages, adored Maria Callas, and showed up at his first faculty dinner party amongst the snowshoes, mufflers and plaid lumberjack coats of the Berkshire Mountains sporting a white dinner jacket and carrying a bottle of Campari.
Ñacuñán taught with theatricality and flair, keeping us students awake and interested, even at the ungodly hour of 8.30 am each day. The sample sentences he concocted as grammar exercises were gems of Latin American magical realism, provoking laughter as well as thoughtful discussion about different beliefs, realities and worlds.
We forged a close friendship right away. Perhaps because we both spoke French and had lived in Paris, or because we had the same sense of humour and laughed our heads off over everything – whatever the reasons, we spent a lot of time together, sharing meals, music, movies, and many late nights.
It was 1985. In Argentina the dictatorship reigned. Ñacuñán’s favourite cousin had been ‘disappeared’ by the junta. Anguished by her fate, he spoke of his wish to communicate with her spirit, to send her love and give her comfort. Thus we began, carefully, to share our thoughts about life after death. Ñacuñán’s Indian abuela – she who had given him his unpronounceable name – had told him death was nothing to fear, that there is another world after this one. Such was our talk.
One night I had a terrible dream: Ñacuñán is driving a car up to some kind of border crossing. A young soldier shoots him with an assault rifle through the car window. The car crashes through a white wooden barrier by a guard booth. I run to the dying Ñacu, reaching to him through the shot-out window. I am crying, but he gazes at me calmly, in utter peace. ‘Do not be afraid,’ he tells me. ‘It’s all right. Look where I am going!’ Beyond us, behind a range of rounded mountains, an extraordinary golden light fills the sky.
I woke in a sweat, shaken to the bone. The dream stayed with me. I did not plan to tell him, but he sensed my distress and the next night persuaded me to recount the dream. I told him that I recognised the light, from a near-death experience I had had the previous year, and how it was not only light, but an indescribable radiance of overwhelming benevolent love.
Ñacuñán was quiet, staring into the flames of the open fire. He finally said that if it were a true dream and he did end up dying that way, he would find comfort in knowing that it was clearly part of a greater plan. And then he said he had always had a feeling that he would die before turning 40. He was at that time 31 years old.
Seven years passed. I was living in London. One December morning I received a phone call from Massachusetts, telling me Ñacuñán was dead. A student on a rampage with a semiautomatic assault rifle shot him through the window of his car at the entrance to campus, and the car crashed through the white wooden barrier at the security booth, just as I had seen in my dream. They say he died instantly. It was 3 days before his 38th birthday.
That night Wayne Lo also killed a student, Galen Gibson, and wounded four other people. Then his rifle jammed, a miracle that no doubt saved many lives.
Galen’s father Gregory Gibson wrote a book about his struggle to come to terms with his son’s murder, and became an advocate for the prevention of gun violence. In 1999, Wayne Lo, serving life in prison, wrote to Gregory Gibson, asking for forgiveness. Gregory wrote back, out of a wish, as he said, to ‘put something into the situation other than hatred and rage‘, and they began a dialogue which has continued for twenty years. In 2017, they recorded a three-minute conversation on StoryCorps, touching on the themes of remorse, forgiveness, understanding and the ease of buying guns.
Twenty-seven years after his death, I still remember Ñacuñán. In my mind I carry on our conversations about the mysteries of life, death, destiny, and the light beyond light. So many enormous questions remain.
What can we do to prevent gun violence and school shootings? How can people learn to choose forgiveness over revenge? Can a murderer ever atone for his crimes? Why do innocent people die? Is our moment of death predetermined, and is it possible to recognise and even trust it when it comes? What is that extraordinary light so common in near-death experiences?
And how could the details of a death have been foreseen in a dream? This still haunts me. A physicist friend told me recently about retropsychokinesis, the idea that certain events might be so momentous that an imprint of them somehow ripples both forward and back through what we call linear time, causing prophetic visions or dreams like the one I had in 1986. I have heard of other cases. There is also a theory that people who have had near-death experiences (as I did, in 1984) ‘tend to manifest a variety of psychic abilities afterward that are an inherent part of their transformation’. (1)
I wish Ñacuñán were here so we could talk about all of this. He would surely have some profound insights to share, maybe a quote from Krishnamurti, and an irreverent joke to make us laugh at the great tragicomic mystery of existence.
Rest in peace, Ñacuñán. Fue una alegría tenerte.
(1) Heading Toward Omega: In Search of the Meaning of the Near-Death Experience, by Dr Kenneth Ring (1984), p 51.
On his website, Dr Kenneth Ring writes, ‘Based on the information of those who had reported [near-death experiences], the moment of death was often one of unparalleled beauty, peace and comfort – a feeling of total love and total acceptance. This was possible even for those involved in horrible accidents in which they suffered very serious injuries. Dr. Ring found there was a tremendous comfort potential in this information for people who were facing death.’ http://kenring.org
Gone Boy, A Walkabout: A father’s search for truth in his son’s murder, by Gregory Gibson (1999).
‘Man and His Son’s Slayer Unite to Ask Why’ https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/library/national/041200rampage-killers.html
Obituary for Ñacuñán Sáez: http://articles.courant.com/1992-12-19/news/0000108364_1_italian-spanish-teaching-assistant
Laura Shannon has been researching and teaching traditional women’s ritual dances since 1987, and is considered one of the ‘grandmothers’ of the worldwide Sacred / Circle Dance movement. She trained in Intercultural Studies (1986) and Dance Movement Therapy (1990), and is currently pursuing postgraduate studies in Myth, Cosmology, and the Sacred at Canterbury Christ Church University in England. Her primary research in Balkan and Greek villages seeks out songs, dances, rituals and textile patterns which descend from the Goddess cultures of Neolithic Old Europe, and which embody an ancient worldview of sustainability, community, and reverence for the earth. In 2018 Laura was chosen as an Honorary Lifetime Member of the Sacred Dance Guild in recognition of her ‘significant and lasting contribution to dance as a sacred art’. Her articles and essays on women’s ritual dances have appeared in numerous publications, including Re-Enchanting the Academy, Dancing on the Earth: Women’s Stories of Healing Through Dance, She Rises! Vol. 2, Inanna’s Ascent, Revisioning Medusa, and Spiritual Herstories – Call of the Soul in Dance Research. Laura is also Founding Director of the non-profit Athena Institute for Women’s Dance and Culture. She lives in Canterbury, Greece, and the Findhorn community in Scotland.