When Someone Dies, Life Stops

My morning started more or less like normal. It was rainy and cold, so I didn’t want to get out of bed. I managed to, however, and made myself some oatmeal and coffee, then sat around like a zombie until I mustered the motivation to plan my day. I decided to mount the screens for my windows (to keep out bugs), then box up the owners books and put mine on the shelf in their place.

My neighbors helped me with the screen for the windows. It started off with 15-year-old and I, but her mother (my friend) joined us soon afterward. I had wanted it to be a girls-only affair, but my friend insisted on getting her husband to help us, which meant that they spoke a lot of Guaraní and did everything while I only got to hand out nails. It took a few trips to the carpenter to get the measurements right (all of the windows are not the same size) and we were nailing, hammering, and finishing in no time.

During the process, the daughter asked if I heard what happened to our neighbor’s son. He had died in a motorcycle accident. My neighbor is an elementary school teacher. I have tereré with her three times a week, and her daughter is in my dance class. I didn’t think either connection made us close enough for me to go to the rezo (on average, a 9 day funeral event). I had continued working without a second thought. When my friend arrived a bit later, she asked me the same question. “Yes, [your daughter] told me what happened.” “Hmm,” she responded.

They invited me to lunch in their home. As we sat around digesting, my friend asked if I went to the church yesterday to visit my neighbor and her family. I replied, “No, I wasn’t invited.” “Hmm,” she responded. The subject changed to airplane rides and her daughter’s “feo” boyfriend before returning to my neighbor. “You should come to the church with us. We are leaving at three,” my friend suggested. “Do I need to be invited?” I asked. She shook her head. “Just come.”

We didn’t go straight to the church. We went first to my neighbor’s house, where at least 100 people were gathered. Earlier in the day as we irreverently hammered at my windows, I hadn’t noticed that there was anything different. My neighbors always have people over, milling in and out of the house, pounding music until the rafters shutter. The only difference today was that it was quiet. There was no music. Everything had stopped. Everyone just stood around. I should have known something was wrong. There was no music…

My friend ushered me into the house and asked of Sonia’s whereabouts. I was surprise to hear that she might be in the kitchen cooking. Then I wasn’t so surprised. She likely needed the distraction. Blanca was going to take me back to the kitchen when I insisted that we wait; if Sonia needed some time alone, I wasn’t going to interrupt her solace in the only room of the house without a million people standing around. We waited.

The atmosphere was difficult to read. Everyone dressed differently, from jeans and tennis shoes to what I considered proper funeral attire. Some people were laughing and chatting just one room away from those whom were mourning in abrupt bursts. Sometimes people changed simply by walking through a doorway: one neighbor was bawling in one room, crossed the threshold of another room and greeted a friend with a smile. She burst into tears again soon after and I wasn’t sure what to do or think. Were the smiles an attempt to lighten the mood or were there mourners in Paraguayan funerals like those in ancient Israel?

I greeted other professors with a half smile and the expected kisses. Then I stood around with my friend and waited. Vehicles had arrived to carry the casket to the church. The rest of us would walk. Much time passed between the arrival of the vehicle and our departure, in which everyone waited and watched more that I thought appropriate. At one point, the deceased’s sister/my dance student erupted into a fit of tears that even made me cry. She collapsed into a chair and was instantly surrounded by her friends who petted her hair, dried her tears, and hugged her. Their response made my heart melt—then it froze. I noticed that everyone else in the room was just staring at the sobbing girl with the most detached expressions on their faces. No one downcast their eyes. No one cried with her. They just stared.

A fellow volunteer once warned me about the seemingly cold way that many view death here. They literally view death, straight in the eyes, without a blink. In American culture, staring is rude. I think it is even ruder at a time like a funeral. I didn’t know the deceased’s sister as well as anyone else in that room, and yet I was bawling and wanting to scoop her up into the biggest embrace possible. How could they sit and gawk at her like that?

The iciness in my heart subsided when we all began to walk to the church. The crowd grew as we passed through town. People slipped in and out of doorways like ghosts, kissing my neighbor’s cheeks and returning into the darkness. Others joined the procession in silence. By the time we reached the church I would estimate that ¾ of the town was with us, standing outside, inside, waiting, watching.

I cried uncontrollably during the church service. The deceased was a 22-year-old cowboy. Fellow cowboys placed his riding jacket over his casket. Little details like that make me weak. All of the youth sat in one area of the church and sang for him. In addition to the traditional hymns, they learned two songs that they sang at the end of the service. The entire congregation cried then. I don’t know if they wrote the songs or if they were covers, but the youth sang with such sincerity that it didn’t matter. At one point, my English-speaking friend(who until then had been buzzing around trying to ensure that every aspect of the service was in order) silently began to cry amidst her yawns. She likely hadn’t slept much with so much planning to do. I put my arm around her and she rested her head on my shoulder for a moment. I felt like I needed to be there, maybe even that I was there just to hold her for those few moments when no one else would. I didn’t feel so much like an outsider looking in.

That sentiment gripped me more as we walked from the church to the cemetery. I was intentionally lagging behind when my friend wrapped her arm in mine. “Walk with us,” she said. “Us” included the deceased’s mother, my friend, and three other teachers. They wanted me to walk with them. I was a teacher, too. I was a friend. They wanted me to walk with them to the cemetery. I hadn’t realized that I was intentionally being included. To them, sharing tereré three times a week and teaching their children meant that I was part of the community. I wasn’t just the outsider. I was a teacher, supporting another teacher in one of her darkest hours.

I felt the gravity of every step. We walked in silence, our eyes on the ground, our arms interlinked. Hundreds of others walked with us, trudging through the mud, silently praying to fend off the rain. My friend broke the silence, whispering, “It’s hard to walk one of our own to the cemetery and leave him there.” I started to cry again. It really was his final resting place; I hadn’t thought much about that expression until then. The entire community marched on.

At the cemetery, all of the youth and family members had one last chance to say their goodbyes. When they lowered the casket into the ground, the emotions erupted again, and then everything was quiet. Everything stopped again, but only for a moment. Slowly, people made the journey back to their homes. No one talked much. The hum of motorcycles made the most noise.

I now know why my mother doesn’t like funerals. They’re emotionally draining whether you’re close to the deceased or not. Maybe she and I are just too empathetic. Either way, I returned home exhausted. I knew that I had to write what I was experiencing in order to release it. I didn’t feel much better afterward, but at least I felt that my head was back on my shoulders. I also had some positive points to meditate on: I had been included, taken into a community as someone else left it. I want nothing more now than to give back a fraction of what has been given to me.

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