Most people have a family member who they consider to be ‘special’. Usually, these folks are people who have a spark of greatness or compassion that stands out as a major part of their character. Strangely, that spark, either because of their humility, or others’ lack of perception, is often missed. But sometimes, a close friend or family member will recognise that greatness or compassion or love in them and drawn attention to it. Indeed, I have been fortunate enough to know such a person - one with amazing character. A person with that spark.

In my Mexican hometown of Zacualpan de Amilpas, there is a woman known as Paja. Some call her Pajita. She is what we call a “Mujer Poderosa” or “powerful woman”. Paja has a physical disability that causes her to struggle with her day-to-day life. But, through all of her struggling and suffering, she finds the time and energy to offer advice and inspiration to anyone in need. She has an unshakable faith in God, a faith that is contagious to all who know her, and she is always willing to share her knowledge with anyone who will listen. I have never known someone with such strength and passion. She is a beacon. She is my inspiration to be a better human being. She is my Aunt Aurelia “Paja” Ramirez.

As a young boy living in Mexico, I remember the day my father asked if I wanted to attend boarding school. Oh, how he painted a beautiful mental picture of how wonderful it would be. He did such a great job that when I was five years old, I was more than ready to go off to a school where I would only come home on the weekends.

It was around that time that I remember meeting my Aunt Paja for the first time. It is a memory that has firmly adhered itself to my mind. I remember seeing her in her wheelchair, not knowing what to think, not knowing how to behave around her. I remember my mother insisting that I not disobey my Aunt, so that I do not end up getting myself hurt in the same way.

As a child, I recognised the universal injustice in my Aunt’s situation.

Paja told me the story of her accident - how she had graduated from college and had gone out to a party with her friends without permission and had been in a terrible car accident. The accident left her crippled and forever took away her ability to walk. I remember feeling helpless watching her lie down on the bed, sitting in a chair and being unable to move on her own. As a child, I recognised the universal injustice in my Aunt’s situation. But, beyond the sorrow and sadness, I saw a person who persevered and who inspired me to see the joys and wonders of life.

Friends, neighbours and family members travel from around the world to visit with her, seek her advice and ask her for answers to life’s tough questions.

Her stories captivated me as a young boy. Stories of her uncle who studied to become a helicopter pilot and would land choppers in my grandparents’ back yard... Those stories were more than just entertainment. The way she was able to inspire me so completely made me always want to make her proud, a responsibility I still feel today. Speaking with her allows me to see things from different perspectives, to challenge the status quo and the rules by which we live. Perhaps the best word to describe the way she makes me feel is “enlightened”. I know that it is not only me who sees this spark in her. Friends, neighbours and family members travel from around the world to visit with her, seek her advice and ask her for answers to life’s tough questions.

After boarding school, I went to the United States and didn’t see my Aunt Paja for over 10 years. I would talk to her on the phone, sometimes for hours. I would confess to her my feelings of being so alone. She would comfort me by telling me that the entire family was cheering me on and were behind me in spirit. She made me feel as if they were with me everywhere I went. Even in times when I felt most alone, she made me feel loved and cared for.

I now see the pain her body causes her when I look into her eyes. Her face betrays her attempts at being strong. I see the pain in her eyes.

Now that I am able to travel to Mexico, I see her as often as I can. While the spirit of this magnificent woman still burns as brightly as always through the lives that she touches, I now see the pain her body causes her when I look into her eyes. Her face betrays her attempts at being strong. I see the pain in her eyes. Yet even when she is in agony, pain and depression, her dedication to God and helping others is as strong as ever. Though she cannot talk much anymore - she is losing her voice as a result of her afflictions - she still attends long church services where people join with in song, prayer and fellowship.

Does my Aunt Paja suffer so that others can understand the importance of gratitude, compassion, consequences and love?

Why is it that the most inspirational people tend to be those who remain strong despite having endured their own personal hell? Does my Aunt Paja suffer so that others can understand the importance of gratitude, compassion, consequences and love? Each day there are thousands of people battling disease, hunger, poverty and loss. Many times, these people suffer silently, not wanting to burden others with their ailments. I am so grateful to have my Aunt Paja in my life as a role model, as a beacon. How this woman managed to help forge me into a complete, rounded person is nothing short of a miracle. When I look back at my accomplishments, at my successes, I am full of gratitude for the Grace of God that has allowed me to achieve these things, and I am grateful for my lifelong inspiration, my Aunt Paja.

Sadly, since this piece was written, Aunt Paja has passed away.

Words: Luis Ramirez

Image source: Five Day Forecast, 1991 by Lorna Simpson