On August 27th, María Angela, the mother of Blanca, passed away at the age of 86. She was a mother to many more people than just her six children, including to all the members of the Pastoral Team. Here is the story, seen through my own inadequate gringa eyes, as best as I can tell it.
You will be missed, María. Que descance en paz y resucite en gloria. Rest in Peace, rise in glory.
We are visiting a rural community, waiting for the mayor to arrive. They are swearing in the new Directiva today. This is a cause for celebration. Children run around in excitement. The air smells of freshly cooked corn and smoke. We sit with a community leader, laughing and talking. The mayor is an hour late. Cecilia and I contemplate leaving before he even gets here. There are more important things to do today than wait and wait and wait, even if they do have freshly cooked elotes here.
The call comes. Cecilia is on her feet, shaking Wifredo’s hand. She somehow walks to the car faster than any man or woman can run. What happened? I ask. But I already know.
“Mayita died just now,” she says. She cries.
There are only two things written about death that have ever made sense to me. Not in a theological or philosophical or logical way—in that sense, many stories that we tell, many things we say, make sense. The resurrection of Jesus makes sense. 1 Thessalonians 4 makes sense. 1 Corinthians 15 makes sense. There are many pieces that fit neatly in to the puzzle of Christian theology when death is a distant problem or an intellectual exercise, a problem to be solved or a question in a classroom.
But when death is closer, when we are staring at the starkness and chaos of it up close, when the puzzle falls apart in our attempt to use it for something other than display purposes, only two things make sense to me.
Yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
So it goes.
The first is an ancient sentence, one largely unpreserved in so many modern rites of death and burial. But it calls to me. We, as Christians, can sing over graves, even unto alleluias, because we know that the eternal song of life is not over for the person in the ground, and nor is it over for us. At the grave, we sing. Maybe in grief or anger or loss or sadness or disappointment or guilt. But we do sing. Alleluia.
The second is newer, but it says everything that needs to be said. This is how it is. This is simply what happens. To everyone, always, eventually. So it goes. And yet it doesn’t. It is darkly true in its simplicity.
The remarkable thing is that, though they seem to contradict one another, I actually believe that both of these things are true, and really True, at once. Even from the grave we make our song. So it goes.
The car crawls slowly uphill. I know Alejandro is driving as fast as he can, but the mountain is fighting our urgency. Not that rushing will change anything.
Cecilia alternates between talking on the phone, making plans, and crying. Talking, crying. Talking, crying. I offer her my water bottle.
“No, Katherine,” she says, in way-too-polite and distant tone. “I have my own water, thank you.”
Dark clouds start to gather, blocking out the sun. We hear thunder.
“It always rains when someone in our family dies,” Alejandro explains.
“Really?” I ask.
“So people in your family only pass away during the rainy season?”
“No,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what month it is. When someone dies, it rains.”
I come down for breakfast and find the women talking to the men about the grave. They are drinking coffee, like they do every morning.
“How are we supposed to know how big the hole is supposed to be if we haven’t purchased the coffin yet?”
“Aren’t they all about the same size?”
“Yes, but we don’t know what that size actually is. It’s not like we have the basic measurements memorized.”
The Salvadoran period of mourning is nine days long. It is traditional, both on the night before someone is buried and on the final day–the 9th–to stay up all night, singing and praying for the person who has died.
Cecilia and I arrive at Blanca’s house in the pickup truck as the sun is creeping low over the mountain. There is a giant tent outside, borrowed from the mayor’s office. I guess, correctly, that they are expecting lots of people.
I find Blanca and give her a hug. I tell her that I’m sorry. She nods and smiles. “Come and see the flowers,” she says.
The coffin is in the front of their living room, surrounded by long, tapered candles and dozens of flowers. Some people are already there, quietly chatting with one another. I find Blanca’s father and hug him, too.
“How are you?” I ask.
“Por aquí.” Here, he says. Here. What an accurate thing to say, now that his wife no longer is.
The music blasting from the amp and surprisingly beefed-up microphone and speakers struggles to compete with the sound of rain clobbering the metal roof. It’s flooding under the tent we rented from the mayor.
While you go through life
you are never alone
With you for the journey
Come with us walking;
Holy Mary, come.
Come with us walking;
Holy Mary, come.
I should not have worn flip-flops, I realize. The footsteps of several hundred people, mixed with the moisture, have made the earth as slippery as an ice skating rink, and my sandals, though tough, have no traction in this thick, sloppy mud.
“Can you carry that?” seemed like a foolish question 30 seconds ago when Cecilia asked it. I thought that handing out chicken tamales and sweet bread to 20 people sounded relatively simple. Clearly, I was wrong.
I gingerly place my right foot ahead of me, trying to find a place where the mud isn’t quite as deep or as wet. I shift my weight slowly away from my left side, allowing my right foot to slide ahead of me several inches. The outside edge of my sandal is now coated in 1/2 inch of moist, wet earth. I think briefly that it looks like chocolate fudge frosting, sparking a sudden and inexplicable craving for the awfully fake but oh-so-good sweetness that comes out of those wee Betty Crocker tubs in the baking section of Pick-N-Save.
“Careful, amiga,” Cecilia says, clearly doubting my strategy.
My foot has stopped sliding. Quickly but carefully, I swing my left foot from behind me and place it in front of my right with a little hop. I can hear Cecilia’s relieved disapproval for my tactics as I enter the house, but I’m proud of myself anyway. “Tamale?” I ask, handing out plates of food.
Come with us walking;
Holy Mary, come.
Come with us walking;
Holy Mary, come.
It is 10pm, it is still pouring rain, and we are almost out of pan dulce. This is a serious problem.
“We need to go buy more bread,” Cecilia says.
“At least 150 people showed up. Surely they will understand if we are out of sweet bread?”
The look on Cecilia’s face is enough to tell me that I have crossed some invisible cultural line into unknown territory. Once, a church I attended had a potluck lunch and 70% of us brought a bag of potato chips. We all grumbled but tried every kind, and most of us went out to lunch afterwards. This is not that, I now realize.
“How are you going to get there? Will there be anything open at this hour?”
“We hope so. Someone’s bound to be baking for tomorrow.”
“Can I come?”
Cecilia gives me the kind of look only a mother could give. “It’s too dangerous in the dark, amiga.”
I watch them drive off into the rain in a very-rusty truck with a gentleman that they seem to know. I think of the creek at the bottom of their hill that becomes a rapids in a downpour, of the hill itself, which is slippery in most weather conditions and steep, always. I think about the risk they are taking in this country, at this hour, in this weather. I wonder if it is worth it.
Then, in a moment of both exhaustion and revelation, I realize:
Of course she is.
The clock ticks on past 3am. Many of us are still awake and still here, though many people left a few hours ago when the band did, clinging desperately to the back of their pickup truck in the still-pouring rain.
Blanca’s brother is telling a story about something. I cannot remember what. What I can remember is almost falling asleep standing up, my eyelids involuntarily shutting, my waning willpower prying them back open as I dizzily tried to orient myself.
One of Blanca’s sisters notices and offers me the hammock hanging in their corridor, suspended under the dryness of the roof but still very much outside. I try to decline both the hammock and the blanket she has brought me from one of their own beds, but I fail. Before I know it, I am lying down and she is tucking me in. I vaguely try to remember the last time someone tucked me into bed, but before I can remember, I am asleep.
I wake up an hour later, cozy under my blanket despite the tempest. The small channel of impacted dirt between the room that serves as the kitchen and the rest of the house, usually resistant even to this amount of moisture, has slickened into mud. I am vaguely aware of Blanca’s two brothers discussing how to fix this.
“We should get a few concrete blocks and put them in the channel between the kitchen and the house. The water can run through the holes in the blocks and keep everyone’s feet dry.”
“Or we could get a small concrete slab and make a little bridge. It wouldn’t shift around as much.”
“It wouldn’t break?”
“Maybe. Depends on who is walking on it. There are some bigger people in this house, I suppose.” They laugh.
They keep laughing and joking about solutions. Perhaps that was the best thing they can do at 4am two days after their mother’s death: fix something that’s actually fixable.
I wander into the living room, where Blanca, Balmore, and several people from Virginia are, including Elida, the former president. She is trying to talk them all into saying one more rosary before the sun comes up. They all agree, heads nodding in assent, fighting exhaustion.
I join them, saying the parts I know and silently praying, “Lord, I second that,” during the parts I don’t. It’s a weird thing to pray, perhaps, as if Heaven were a congressional body and I need to announce: “The Presbyterian from Wisconsin seconds the motion from these Catholic Salvadorans.” But it seems both a respectful and an appropriately Presbyterian thing to do.
The very nice gentleman from the Yom Kippur Funeral Parlor shows up right at dawn. I vaguely wonder how a Salvadoran funeraria came to be named after the Jewish Day of Atonement, but I doubt that this loyal employee knows the answer to this question, so I don’t bother to ask.
I turn away to speak to one of Blanca’s nieces, a bright young woman in her early 20s. The conversation finds a pause and I suddenly hear a sound that is both ancient and new to me, something I know from its iterations in shop class and my father’s early Saturday morning construction projects, whose hammering and sawing often interrupted me and my sister’s cartoon watching. We would run to our laundry shoot, which ran from the first floor down into the basement/workshop, and shout “DAD PLEASE C’MON CARDCAPTORS IS ON,” or “DAD PLEASE WE CAN’T SEE DIGIMON BECASE THE SAW IS ON THE SAME FUSE AS THE TV.” Surprisingly, he sometimes did stop.
The sound is a large piece of metal hitting a smaller piece of metal, pounding it into wood. It is slower than the song I heard from the basement on Saturdays, a tune I know turned into a dirge.
The sound is nails being pounded into a coffin.
Blanca told everyone to come at 7am. They are all here, waiting.
The sound of huffing and puffing turns me around.
“This thing is heavy,” Balmore says. This means something significant coming from someone who can carry a 100lb. bag of corn on his back. It looks for a moment like they are going to drop it, but they successfully carry it from the living room to the hearse.
The hearse from the Yom Kippur funeraria is a pickup truck with a glass case mounted on the bed. With less effort than I was expecting, they lift the wood box and slide it gently inside the glass one. One of the funeral parlor employees climbs inside and begins strapping the coffin down. Belt buckles are snapped and pulled across it. One, two, three, another one through the handle, just there. The coffin looks like a patient in an ambulance. Or maybe an astronaut.
The man driving the truck starts the engine. Instantly, Christian music blasts at full volume, the air filled with a jarring electric piano and tenor sax.
Cecilia and Patti are crying. I wonder why at this moment, after a night of prayer, that the full force of everything is hitting them now. Then I realize that we all believe María Angela is leaving home for the last time, and going home for the first time, all at once.
I honestly believe that both of these things are true, and really True, at once.
Even from the grave, we make our song. So it goes.
And so it went, sounding like Kenny G. or the ending credits of Beauty and the Beast.
We walk, first steeply downhill and then uphill. The community follows. Some talk. Some laugh.
I foolishly and stupidly step into the creek at the bottom of the slippery hill, regretting for the 100th time my choice of footwear. The slimy, dirty leather slides against my foot, making it hard to walk uphill.
“Stop, stop,” Blanca says. “Let me get a tissue from my bag.”
“No, no.” I say, “I can make it.” I figure my shoes will dry out if I can make it up the hill.
“Why don’t you ride in the car?” she says, pointing to the pickup truck following us.
“I prefer to walk with all of you,” I say.
“Hold on,” she says, rooting through her purse.
“No really,” I say. She feels the need to take care of me. I feel the need to take care of her, to keep her from having to think of or worry about me, as if taking or refusing a tissue could help or hurt anything at this point.
She gives me a look that I cannot read and hands me the tissue. I take it and wipe my feet. Even on the day when her mother is being buried, I am still the helpless one.
We walk, walk, walk, all the way to Berlín.
The Mass is short and I cannot remember what Father Santos preaches. Something about repentance or conversion or salvation, I’m sure, which is what he preaches about whether someone has died or it’s Easter Sunday.
As he processes out, the people gather around to look into the coffin. Small children peer curiously but without much understanding. Adults weep.
Finally, slowly, the coffin is rolled out of the church and down the ramp. It goes back into the glass case and is strapped in again. The music is switched back on.
We walk down the hill again, cars and other traffic weaving dangerously around our slow procession. There must be at least 200 people with us, perhaps more.
When we reach the cemetery, I begin to pivot left with the throng that is entering the gates, but Blanca, Cecilia, and Idalia have disappeared. I find them outside the crowd, on the other side of the road, paying a woman I recognize but whose name I do not know for the contents of three giant cardboard boxes, joking and laughing. The look on my face must have asked the question, and Cecilia opens the box.
Sandwiches, hundreds of sandwiches. But Cecilia is already answering that, too.
“Well, it’s lunchtime. We can’t not feed all of these people!”
I wonder suddenly, heretically, if one of Jesus’ great miracles wasn’t actually a miracle at all, or at least not in the way we imagine it. I suddenly imagine myself on a hill in 1st century Roman-occupied Palestine, a young assistant to the army of women who kept Jesus and his followers fed. Jesus, seeing the throng of thousands and realizing they have only a bit of fish and bread, approaches us. He hands Cecilia a few coins and whispers to the three of them, “See what you can do with this.” Without hesitating, they run off in three separate but orderly directions. I give him a skeptical look.
“Well,” he says, “it’s lunchtime. We can’t not feed all of these people!”
The service at the grave is short. Balmore leads it—Salvadoran priests can rarely be bothered with this sort of thing. I stand near the back, on the top of another grave so that I can see.
It’s impossible not to stand on a grave in this cemetery. It is tiny, disorderly, overcrowded. Some crosses have broken in half and have been glued back together. Some headstones have dirty fake flowers tied to them, their immortality as plastic objects defeated by tropical rain and mud.
I oddly like the place. The straight and even rows of American cemeteries, in their understandable attempt to give it order and sense to something ultimately senseless (so it goes), sanitize the messiness of death and the chaos that surrounds it. This cemetery feels more real.
The women are not with me: they are figuring out how to feed everyone in an orderly way. Blanca, whose mother is being lowered into the ground with ropes (no fancy equipment here—just sheer muscle), walks over. I expect her to watch, to participate. But she simply whispers something in Balmore’s ear, hands him a sheet of paper, and then walks away. He nods and keeps singing.
Come with us walking;
Holy Mary, come.
Come with us walking;
Holy Mary, come.
“Bueno,” Balmore announces as the song ends, his tone echoing that of a flee-market announcer or flight attendant—calm and chipper regardless of the circumstances. “We will continue singing, but we will now ask you to proceed to the front gates to receive your lunch, community by community. The first community will be San Isidro, so if you are from San Isidro, please go to the front gate now. Thank you.”
We all have our ways of trying to order death, I suppose. Feeding hundreds of people is, perhaps, the healthiest kind of attempt we can make.
Manuel Muñoz, another Delegate of the Word, strikes up another song in his strong, deep voice. Balmore joins in, glancing at the current length of the line to receive lunch and at the next community on the list.
Even from the grave, we make our song.
Here, at the grave of their matriarch, how could I expect them to sing any other song than the one they always sing, the one made with busy hands and bags of juice tied neatly with the straws used to drink from them?
The flowers at the final vigil. All were donated by friends of the family. Amazing.
The nine days are over. Everyone from Blanca’s family has come and gone a second time. We stayed up all night on Saturday, the last day of the nine, feeding people hundreds more tamales, sweet bread, and hot coffee, dodging more raindrops and thunderstorms, admiring the hundreds of flowers people brought, shivering and saying rosaries in more cold. More singing, more prayers. Cecilia and I spent Sunday as little more than zombies, crawling into our respective offices and watching television, waiting until after dinner to sleep so that our internal clocks could return to normal.
It is now Monday morning. I find Cecilia in the kitchen, cooking breakfast as always, the sound of fresh egg hitting oil filling the space.
We sit down, not speaking much.
“It didn’t rain last night.”
“No, it didn’t.”
“I am so angry. It rained so hard on Saturday and last Friday.”
We sip more coffee.
“Someone told me that if it rains, it means that God is going to save that person’s soul?”
“Yes, supposedly. Supposedly, if it rains on the day they are buried, that’s true. It’s not true, though.”
I remember vaguely how hot and dry it was the day that María Angela was actually buried. It was us who had to fight with the rain, not her. So it goes. Another pause.
“Well, we have to work now,” she says.
“Yes, we do,” I say.
And so we do, as if we ever stopped.