This last Wednesday I was in my room getting ready for bed and Don David, the guy I’m living with, and his family had not yet gotten back from their Wednesday church service. If you read what I wrote about going to this service, then you know it wasn’t much of a surprise. Just as I was about to go to bed he called me to tell me that his niece had gotten sick and died and he and the family were staying the night at his brother-in-law’s house with the family. Until the next day when I talked to his dad, Don Juan, that was all I knew. Don Juan told me that she was only 19 years old, got sick and died Wednesday afternoon. No one I asked knew what she had, they just said she got sick. I guess they didn’t think it was that serious.
On Thursday I was invited to go to the service, which I felt a little uncomfortable about but figured if they invited me then it was OK and that I probably should go if invited. It was in the house of the family and about half the town, it seemed, packed themselves in for the approximately three hours. The casket laid in the middle of a small adobe room with the family, church leaders, neighbors, and close friends all crowded in. I was outside with Don Juan looking in and throughout the service he would lean over and ask me a question about the funeral ceremonies in the States, like if we use caskets and bury the dead as well, if there is a song that they play at every funeral, or if the family stays with the body all night between the funeral and the burial the next day, as is the custom here.
After it ended Don Juan asked me if I wanted to go into the room with him and sit there for a while. I felt even more uncomfortable about this but nonetheless obliged. The casket had a half door with glass window underneath and inside was the body covered in full length by a sheet. We sat for a while greeted some people and then left. The two of us walked home that night in the dark (which no one does here) and Don Juan started telling me about when his dad died and how he had to take care of his younger siblings and how he remembers feeling like the dad of the girl that we saw crying over the casket that night.
On Friday, Don Juan, who I work with a lot and visit the communities with most days, and I needed to go visit the women’s group that is the furthest away and the pickups only run on some days. Friday is not one of them. We woke up early and left at six for what would be a two-hour walk one way. Along the way we chatted some more about the differences between funerals in America and funerals in Guatemala and I explained to the idea of cremation to him. I think it settled better with him than it did with his son the next day who looked absolutely disgusted when I explained how some people have their dead bodies burned and then the families can either keep them in a jug in their houses (I didn’t know the word for urn in Spanish if there was one, however, just looked it up: “urna”). I also asked Don Juan along the way if he thinks I am the first white person to ever walk this trail between Xebe and Chuacorral II. He thought about it and said yes. I felt pretty good about that.
When we got there we hung out for a while and waited for the group to get there. I originally thought we were going to do something with them but it turns out all we needed was a signature from the woman in charge of the group and then we were ready to head back. Having plenty of time, we decided to take it slow on the way back. We got to a point where the road forks with the trail that we take to get back and Don Juan started telling me about how every time he gets to this spot he thinks about the day his dad died. He had briefly told me about it the night before, but he started telling me all about how he was 23 years old and working in Chuacorral II and asked permission to leave early to visit his dad on his deathbed. The whole way back all he was thinking about was his dad and how he needed to get back to see him before he died and hoping that his siblings were already there. He was so preoccupied with getting home that it didn’t register with him until later that he seen two perfectly white cows grazing at the fork in the road. It later occurred to him that he had seen them, but never had there ever been cows there before and never again after (and having been there I can say, no one has cows there, it isn’t exactly grazing terrain). He got back in time but none of his brothers or sisters made it. He sat at his dad’s side and talked to him until he passed away. He believed the cows to be some sort of image or message from God and said he truly believed that they were there. It was a very profound story that I really had no response to. He then started telling me the story of his mother’s death, which was a couple years before his father’s and then about how he too had a daughter that got sick and died when she was only five and sometimes he thinks about if she were still alive and seeing the father cry over his daughter's casket the night before was something he related to all to well. Once again, I was at a loss for words but I could tell he wasn’t expecting me to say much or anything at all. We then got to the little creek at the bottom of the valley that means we had gone all the way down and now needed to cross it and climb back up the other side. Don Juan brought a small packet of soap with him and we rested on the bank and washed our hair in the creek. We climbed back up towards Xebe in time to get to the lunch and then burial of the girl. They put the casket in the back of a pickup with the family and the rest of us crammed into one of the 10 pickups following behind and left Xebe and headed to the cemetery in Santa Maria.
Having thought enough about death in the past couple days to last me a year or two, I then talked with my parents on Saturday and they told me that Evie Masterson, better known simply as “Nanny,” had passed away on Friday. Anyone that knows me even a little knows how much 10th Avenue means to me and everyone that has been a part of it, and Nanny was a big part of that. She was the Grandma of 10th, and always will be. After personally seeing a Guatemalan funeral and burial, answering so many questions about what those ceremonies are like in America, I’ve had plenty of time to think about all of the different shapes that death takes: whether it be a 19 year old Guatemalan girl who was healthy just a couple days ago, the five year old daughter of Don Juan or his dad who almost died alone, or an 89 year-old Irish woman in Portland, Oregon. Of course, the not so profound and inevitable conclusion that I came to after my week of thinking about this stuff and that anyone who thinks about death will usually comes to, was not to think about the shapes that death takes but the shapes that life take. This is, I assume, how Don Juan could talk so openly with me about his parents and daughter, as sad and crushing as their deaths were, their lives mattered more. I know this is nothing new, but maybe sometimes it feels like it is.
Although I didn’t have a strange vision or a profound story to tell about Nanny’s passing and unfortunately will not be at her funeral, there are many things I do have. I will never forget going over to Nanny and Papa’s house and hearing the word “lad” used more times in one sentence then I ever thought was possible. I will always remember throwing back Tic-Tacs with Nanny and pretending they were prescription medicine so we could get “silly” together. Or the JFK picture that hung on her wall, or the talking pet monkeys she bought off the infomercial that secretly creeped most everyone out, or coming home from college for Christmas break and going to the Lebwhol’s finding Nanny in her chair already having a Christmas present for me. It is these things that will make her absence that much harder, but all of these things that made her presence so important. You will be missed Nanny.