Monday, July 15, 2013

Q&A with The Mistress of Death

The thing that intrigues me most about Elizabeth Vega is that she talks the way she writes. I'll never forget the many conversations we've had, whether sober or over drinks, during which Elizabeth has poured her heart out to me. Each word that comes from her lips or her fingers conveys the passion of 20 orgasms. The love she gives to people who are experiencing loss, joy, pain, life, and death fills their hearts during their most desperate and vulnerable moments. To call this woman friend is truly an honor. Meet Elizabeth Vega: The Mistress of Death.

Blue: Where are you from?

Elizabeth: I’m a brown skinned girl from New Mexico. My feet took their first steps in the borderland of Deming and Las Cruces. Surrounded by red rock, yucca and stony mountains, I was immersed in all the historical and cultural contradictions contained within that desert soil. Green Chile on Cheeseburgers, Michael Jackson blasted at quinceneras, pick-up trucks and low riders cruising down Main Street on a Friday night.

B: Tell us a little about your background.

E. I am pretty unconventional and have my own life rhythm. I have two grown sons and have called many places home – New Mexico, Virginia, Kentucky and Missouri. I have had many strange jobs including hot dog vendor and singing telegram performer. I have had an array of “careers.” I was in the Navy for four years, a fact that surprises most people who know me because I question authority OFTEN. However, my chief did tell me that I was the only person he met that went through the experience completely unaffected. To this day that is one of the nicest things anyone has ever said about me.

I was in the medical field for many years and even worked in a nursing home, an experience which often strips the humanity of everyone involved in that system, be it patient or caregiver. This experience shaped my opposition to what I call the medicalization of aging. I was an investigative reporter and covered the cops and crime beat in East St. Louis. I once had the cops following me around for an entire summer because I was doing an investigative story on police brutality. Speaking to the grieving families of crime victims taught me the strength that can be discovered in not just sharing our happy stories but our sorrowful ones as well. As a reporter I interviewed lots of people and learned so much about life from these exchanges. This process made me realize that the opportunity to share your life story should not just be for the celebrated or the notorious. Talking about our life to others connects us to our broader humanity without the surrender of our individuality.

In 2000 I left journalism and became a community artist focused on end-of-life work.

Utilizing all my journalism interviewing techniques I helped hospice patients write their life story or letters to their loved one saying goodbye. Along the way I discovered the power of last wishes through art shows, Ferris Wheel rides and a final ride on a horse. In trying to change systems I was met with resistance and told I need the “credential” of a college degree. Feeling like the universe was pointing me in that direction because there were questions I did not even know to ask or explore, I returned to school in 2008 at the ripe age of 41. I became a grandmother my sophomore year at Berea College and graduated with my bachelors in 2012. True to the way I move through life while it may appear that I am too early or too late for conventional timing, I believe I have traveled in sacred spiral for miles to get here and know everything in my past has prepared me for the work I was put on this planet to do.

B: How did you get the nickname “Mistress of Death”?

E: I speak about end-of-life in my everyday conversation. Once I was going through a drive through line with friends. I told them, “I have to make this quick because Robert is actively dying and I promised I would be there.” They looked at me like I had lost my mind. “How can you actively die?” they asked. I explained how often dying is like a meditation. When someone starts to actively die their body shuts down and begins the important work of letting go. This takes time and even some practice. Somewhere in between this explanation and getting our Popeye’s chicken they named me the Mistress of Death and it stuck.

B: What is your personal mission?

E: To change how we die in this country. I believe how we die and grieve is inextricably linked to how we live. When you sit at the bedside of someone who is dying, all the extraneous is stripped away in the presence of our most raw humanity. Death has a keen way of offering clarity on what is important about living. Honestly, the dreams we put off for the security of the cubicle job, the love we never expressed out of a fear of being vulnerable or the vacations we talked ourselves out of because there is always next year, take on a whole new meaning when we look in the eye of our fleeting mortality and hold this reality in the space with our commitment to truly live. Everything I have learned about living I have learned from my clients who were dying. I believe discussing life, death and living can create social change.

B: How do you plan to accomplish your mission?

E: Changing how we die in this country is no small task. I get this and recognize that grand ambitions are often built from intentional daily acts. To accomplish this mission, I am writing a book on how to live well even in the midst of dying. I write about the topic often in my blog and am constantly initiating community projects that further the discussion. In November, I created a Day of the Dead community altar in collaboration with BJC Hospice. In July, I am producing a short play on end-of-life with a talk back session and creation of a story wall to inspire end-of-life dialogue in communities of color. Believing, that youth are the energy and elders are the direction in which we place our life compass, I have initiated an intergenerational life review and community art program with De La Salle Middle School. Students will spend one semester interviewing an elder and writing their life story, and another creating a community art project that ties together the themes of the elders’ stories. Along the way I believe these young people will organically learn about living, dying and grieving well.

I am on quest to push end-of-life discussion beyond the hallways of hospitals and into the realm of community. I hope to do this through any means necessary including art, classroom instruction and public and private conversation.

B: What are your core values?

E: Embody compassion and love, and act with courage and integrity. I think that embracing these values covers every facet of a life. If I am compassionate and loving to others I will naturally create community and connection. If I value compassion and love then social justice and equity also are part of the conversation. Courage and integrity give me the strength to also be compassionate and loving to myself. This means I push beyond fear and expectations of others and engage in work experiences that feed my soul rather than extract energy.

B: What is the story behind Lalobalife?

E: I consider La Loba one of my archetypes. I believe in a life of stories, either my own or others. I think these stories are the links the reveal our shared humanity. Story telling is one of the founding principles of my programs and La Loba is the story of them all. Her hair white with wisdom and her face wrinkled with the history of many lives, La Loba walks the cracked expanse of the desert collecting bones of dead wolves. On the night of a full moon, La Loba carefully pieces the bones together on the desert floor. When the moon is at its highest point, she starts a fire and begins to sing. If the wind is blowing just right, you can hear the heavy sorrow of 10,000 mothers’ tears or the tinkling laughter of 100,000 happy children in her song. La Loba’s song has within it the vibrant music of life --- a song powerful enough to transform bones into living, breathing wolves that run and howl into the night. Legend has it that if you ever come face to face with a wolf in the desert and peer into its eyes, you will see La Loba dancing and singing by the fire. And if you ever happen to look into the eyes of La Loba, you will see the spirit of the wolves, running and howling in her.

The story of La Loba is rooted in the knowledge that a life/death/life cycle is as constant and steady as the earth spinning on its axis. This cycle helps us all live on through each other. Teaching the community the power of this cycle is the ultimate goal of La Loba Life. When we learn to understand the stories of those who have passed on, we learn the power of our memories. When we learn the power of memories we learn to grieve. When we learn to grieve, with openness and honesty we learn to live. When we learn to live we have a life full of stories.

B: You write in great detail about your experiences with love and life. Describe one of your most memorable experiences.
E: We often here people talk about dignity in dying. The term while beautiful is often hard to grasp and truly understand. It often has to be witnessed to be truly understood. In November of 2012, I had one of my most sacred moments. Hours before my abuelita died, I had the sweet honor of giving her a final bath with the help of her hospice aids. Because she wasn’t in a hospital bed, I had to climb onto the bed and hold her while the aids washed her back. It was the most loving act of tenderness I could possibly give to a woman who had given so much of herself to so many. Cradling her against my body, I told her how much I loved her and how much I was going to miss her. We put her favorite lotion on her body. We put her in her favorite pajamas. We made sure her hair was combed and that the little whiskers on her chin—the ones she truly hated were clipped. She couldn’t speak but she was still wholly herself. It was then I knew what dignity in dying looked like. It is the visible accumulation of small beautiful and meaningful acts that let a person sing even when they can’t speak for themselves.

B: What are you most proud of?

E: Raising two sons who grew into kind, compassionate men while still managing to do the kind of work I was called to do. There were times it wasn’t easy but it was always worthwhile. When I see my sons with his children and the tenderness he exhibits I smile because I know he took the best parts of what I gave him and improved upon the flaws of his childhood.

B: Do you have any regrets?

E: I don’t have regrets, only lessons I learned the hard way. Most significantly I learned that acting carelessly with others feelings has a way of impacting you long term. Selfish decisions I made in my twenties taught me that I never want to feel the shame of not being able to look someone in the eye because I acted without integrity.

B: If you could go back in time, what would you tell 22 year old Elizabeth?

E: Oh my god you are such a beautiful, chaotic mess but ultimately it will all be fine. Who you are now is only the outline of who you will become. You will find yourself in places too big to fit in your head. You will do things you never anticipated. You will be deeply carved out and filled up in equal measure. Someday you will stand on top of a Swiss mountain and feel the past 20 years in their entirety and you will smile sweetly while the tears flow knowing you have moved from survivor, to thriver, into the realm of great lover of life choosing to always live vibrantly.

B: What’s next for Elizabeth Vega, the Mistress of Death?

E: A completed book on living and last wishes in the midst of dying, graduate school for counseling and tons of community art projects including teaching writing at a women’s shelter, an intergenerational program to promote literacy and school story slam.

B: Where can we find or contact you?

E: I can be reached at or vega/62/41b/ab0. You can read my blog at

Listen to our interview with The Mistress of Death:

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