by: Katherine Binford ((Header art by Armella Leung.))
Learning how to persevere through the losses that accompany the journey that is Life…
“Papa, levántate Papi. Please levántate Papi. Please get up Daddy. Papi, porfa….”
Her pleading voice carried across the cemetery as I approached the tent over uneven ground, hitching up my skirt as I tried to avoid stepping on the grave markers of so many unknown dead.
“Papi, no puedo sola. Levántate. Vamos a visitar a mi abuelita como siempre. Nos vamos juntos. Papi please.”
A sudden, loud knocking rang out across the graveyard and I shifted my eyes toward the sound, glimpsing a young girl draped over a silver coffin. Her knuckles were banging hard against the freshly-polished lid.
“Daddy, I can’t do this alone. You can’t leave my Grandma. You’re her only son and I can’t take care of my little sister without you. I can’t do this without you, Papi, get up. Levántateee, Papiiii.”
Pain poured from the canvas tent covering the gravesite as the grieving family swirled around one another in blurs of black and white. I stopped at a respectful distance, standing off to the side with the others who had come to say goodbye to Omar.
“Cuidado, deja de empujar, lo vas a tumbar, se va a caer, cuidado.” Omar’s daughter, the young girl who had been banging on the coffin, had to be peeled off and led away lest she make a bigger scene.
Two dozen mourners were packed under the tent and I could make out a rather frail looking woman in head-to-toe black huddled on the ground beside the coffin, clutching at its side. As I watched, her body suddenly went limp, as if it had lost its life, and she pitched forward in a faint. Cemetery workers, scraggly and unkempt, rushed over to help offering up ancient-looking folding chairs, rusty metal legs poking out from the bright blue crushed velvet fabric that covered them. Several family members helped carry the unconscious woman to one of the chairs and a group of black-scarved, sunglass-wearing women surrounded her, hands and papers fanning her furiously back to consciousness. Waking up to the reality that Omar, her son, was still gone, the woman wailed loudly, her breath coming in great, heavy sobs. Her cries brought on more ear-piercing screams from her granddaughter, who was being comforted by her family in a corner of the tent, and the girl fought her way back to the side of the coffin, again begging him to get up, and pleading with him not to leave her.
The family under the tent moaned and cried as one, grief building upon grief. Their sorrow cut through me cruelly and I nearly turned away, feeling like a voyeur, like I didn’t deserve to be there unless my pain could prove to adequately match theirs. However, I stayed. I stayed out of love and respect for my friend Africa, Omar’s sister, who had texted me two days before: “Katherine, my brother died.” Omar had been riding his motorcycle not two miles from my house when he crashed in the early hours of the morning.
Nearly two hundred people had gathered around the tent, and after twenty minutes of being flayed by the deepest sorrow I have ever witnessed, the priest motioned for us to come closer. I had already used up my handful of tissues and plucked more from the box that was being passed around. We all stepped forward and waited. There was no program to tell us what to expect and no neatly typed agenda to guide us or distract us from the relentless grief we were privy to that day.
The dead in my family were mourned differently. There were no coffins or graves open to the sky. There were no piercing screams or faintings. Yet the grief I felt with each loss was just as intense. It gnawed at my heart, wrapped itself around me and sewed itself into my flesh.
The first time I remember losing someone I deeply cared for took place as I was holding my father-in-law’s hand. Except for the shallow movement of his chest, he had been immobile in his hospital bed for hours. On his last breath, he moved his hand, and mine with it, from his side to the center of his chest and then I felt his body relax. I slipped my fingers from his. He was there one second and gone the next. Fading away as if the body in the bed had never had anything to do with the man who just vacated it. Within seconds his color had changed and he reminded me of a statue as the moisture evaporates from its stony surface in the hard sun after a drenching rain.
My family and I expected my father-in-law’s passing. We had shed our tears at the decision he had made to stop his life support, but we understood. He had chosen his time and place to leave this existence surrounded by family and bathed in love. The memorial service took place weeks later, long after his body had been cremated. Some of his ashes were buried in a military cemetery with honors because he was a veteran, and the rest spread about in his favorite places on earth. The church where his memorial service took place was adorned with lilies and other bright flowers. Programs were printed with prayers and bible verses. My father-in-law’s sons spoke in remembrance of their father, quiet tears were shed, and then we came together and ate, remembering him and telling stories. It was not desperately sad. We would never see him again but his essence would linger on in countless family memories.
The next death that rattled my world was announced through a phone call. After responding to three simple words, “it’s for you,” I put the phone to my ear and a voice told me that my brother Bill was gone, that he had killed himself. I listened quietly, shaking my head. Finally, I responded. “No he didn’t,” I said firmly. “That isn’t true.” Then I hung up.
But he had. My big brother Bill had vanished from this world and I was shattered. Disbelief and denial descended on me for days, until the need to swing into action shielded me from some of the blinding grief. For a time.
As I went through Bill’s things, I remembered him in a million memories. There were things to do and his affairs to get in order which served to distract me from my grief and by the time I finally slowed down, the sharp, knife-edged pain had been dulled to manageable bouts of tears, questioning and talking it out, reasoning it through, trying to understand, and more talking.
Then, alone in bed at night, facing the fact that all the talking, reasoning, crying, explaining, and understanding wouldn’t do a thing to bring my brother back the loss hit me like a ton of bricks. I wanted Bill back so badly. I came to the realization that I didn’t listen to him well enough, and I often wondered that if I maybe had, he wouldn’t have killed himself. Guilt, death’s boon companion, riddles me to this day.
I helped write Bill’s obituary, chose a photo for the paper, and made our families’ travel arrangements. I put a picture collage together and soon after my family gathered in Eastern Oregon to mourn him. We cried, we talked, we remembered. We carried Bill’s ashes to the edge of the peak where we had placed Grandpa’s ashes over twenty years before, and where our Grandma wanted to be laid to rest some day. We poured my brother out with the rose petals that Grandma had dried for her own burial.
I often hear Bill’s voice in my head. In fact, I hear his laughter right now. He is gone, but he is somehow always with me. I get up every day and love my family, go to work, tend my garden, cook, read, and write. I live in spite of the fact that he is gone. We do that, we go on. We think we won’t, but we do.
Eight months later I was walking along a sunlit beach in Mexico with my daughter when a black bird swooped right over my head and poised itself as if it were going to land on me. I cried out and ducked, and as it flew off I turned to Becca and said, “Grandma GG sent that bird, something’s happened.”
“Sure, Mom,” she replied, with a look that implied I had spent too much time in the sun or had enjoyed one too many Piña Coladas. I reminded her of her great grandmother’s eerie ability to call birds, but we both ended up laughing off our encounter with the black bird as unimportant.
When I turned my phone on the next day there was a message from my dad that Grandma had died the day before. Becca and I are spooked about the entire affair to this very day, but I now believe that Grandma sent the Mexican blackbird to us. She was saying goodbye.
Grandma was one hundred and four when she died. To honor her I made a DVD that included video of her and photos of the family through the years. It was a labor of love and brought smiles and tears at her memorial service. Her’s was a life well and fully lived, and we peacefully poured her out mixed with the leftover dried roses at the same peak in Eastern Oregon. Grandma was as a mother to me, and we were lucky to have her for so long. I miss her, but it is a gentle absence filled with warmth and thankfulness.
Those three deaths all occurred within a twelve month period. I should have knocked on wood as I told a coworker that things come in threes and that this next year my family would be death free, because two days later my mother called to tell me about her diagnosis.
I flew across the country to see her and care for her as best I could, but my mother was a stranger to me, having left us when I was two years old. She was gone in just four months. Richard, my remaining brother, and I met frequently with the hospice counselors and the nursing home staff in Virginia. I have often wondered what all of these caring professionals made of us. Two tearless adults doing what needed to be done.
It was up to my brother and me to make arrangements at the funeral home.
“Do you want to see your mother?” the sweet mortician at the funeral home had asked.
“No, thank you,” we replied, both our heads indicating no.
“Oh. Well, do you want a lock of her hair?”
I looked at Richard, eyebrows raised and questioning. “No, thank you,” he replied.
“Uh, okay. Can I take a picture of her for you?”
I recall feeling sorry for this kind woman, and Richard must have been feeling the same. We nodded in unison. “Yes, please, a picture,” I said.
You simply can’t explain everything to everyone, and we had stopped trying. My mother’s ashes were shipped to Oregon where we made the drive to spread them close to where Grandpa’s and Bill’s and Grandma’s ashes had been spread. We thought it fitting that it wasn’t the same place. Only Richard and I were there to say goodbye to our mother. Her choices in life led her along a lonely road and her death brought regret rather than grief. Regret that things were never fully explained or worked out and that now it was too late. Yet, with the possibilities gone, there has been closure.
Four deaths in a short span of time. And then there was Omar.
The clouds in the sky over the cemetery were darkening as the priest gave a short homily about Omar and about life and about death. The Spanish Bible verses he read were familiar to me as I translated them in my head.
Africa stepped out from under the tent and invited us to pass by Omar’s coffin in a last farewell. I noticed several people holding shiny star-shaped white and blue helium balloons as we formed a part of the long line.
Africa was holding Omar’s youngest daughter and I hugged both of them. “Que lo siento,” I said to her. Nothing I could say would make inroads on the sorrow surrounding them, but we say what we must in such circumstances and hope some comfort will be taken.
Soon the cemetery workers cleared everybody away from beneath the tent. We were told to step back. The tent came down and the dirt of the open grave was exposed. An excavator-like machine on metal treads roared up with a rectangular box dangling from it’s pincers. Omar’s silver coffin was placed inside and his remains were lowered into the grave to the sound of machinery and warning signals. I closed my eyes against the sight of Omar’s daughter being restrained from throwing herself at the machine and the grave, her mouth open wide in screams I didn’t want to hear.
Once the offensive machine had departed, family and close friends surrounded the grave and its coarse mound of freshly dug soil with a shovel sticking out of it. The moaning and sobbing resonated as sorrowful backup vocals to the scraping of the shovel digging into the dirt, and the whomp as it landed on the coffin. Scrape, whomp, scrape, whomp.
Many took a turn with the shovel. Omar’s loved ones saw him through to the very end. The balloons I had seen before were passed around to those who circled the grave. A Spanish cheer, like a hip hip hurrah, was shouted defiantly into the air over and over, and at the end the balloons were released to the sky.
Did I mourn my dead with less passion, or just differently?
I can’t help but feel that the dead didn’t care, and the living just live on.