“What we have once enjoyed deeply we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes a part of us.” -Helen Keller
“La vida sigue andando y no espera a nadie.” Those were the words my father would always say to me when talking about life and death. He was completely right, life does go on and does not wait for anyone but in the midst of everything that was happening I forgot that there was life outside the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). During those days I had lost the notion of time and my life was the hospital, medical terms, and being there for my dad and my family. I was failing my classes at the University of Maryland I was on the brink of losing my scholarships. I was falling apart and somehow also keeping it together. I thought I had endured the hardest part of this process. Little did I know what was to come for my family and I.
I had no idea how to plan a funeral and all the processes in between. A part of me felt like the main character in Albert Camus’ The Stranger. I was going through everything feeling so numb and far removed from the situation. It was my coping mechanism in order to be able to function, but I also felt so wrong. How could I continue my life day to day when the only thing I could imagine was my dad in a body bag somewhere in the morgue. It was hard. I couldn’t go out because I felt guilty but when I stayed in I felt like I was going crazy.
We finally found a funeral home two days after my dad had passed. I knew of this funeral home because the community always chose them for their services when someone in the community passed. I was a little familiar with the owners. Here I was looking at catalogs for caskets, filling out the information for the death certificate, trying to see if I could find a venue for the wake. As if that was not enough I had to figure out the logistics of shipping my father’s cadaver to El Salvador.
Then came the part that hit me the hardest. Talking to Jorge- the mortician. After we settled the payment and established dates Jorge began to ask me how I would like to prepare my father’s body. I cannot even put into words all the emotions I felt: Confusion, denial, anger, grief, sadness, resentment that’s just to name a few. How the hell was I supposed to answer this… I had to explain to Jorge how I wanted my father’s hair styled, what kind of clothes I was planning on buying for him to wear if he was going to wear shoes. Oh, and most importantly that I did not want him to look like he was wearing makeup- because usually after the embalming of a corpse, the corpse looks like it has a lot of makeup.
The funeral home picked up my dads body from the hospital, now I had to buy his clothes so that they could prepare him. I had a week before the wake- but like I said the thought of my dad just being in a body bag did not sit well with me. I went to Macy’s and started looking for suits. I could not believe this. I was shopping for the last outfit I was going to see my old man in… I found the perfect grey suit and paired it with a light blue dress shirt. After all, blue was his favorite color. As I was walking to the register I was trying to process this… It was my turn to pay. “Oh! What an elegant choice,” began the cashier with an enthusiastic voice. I tried to smile. Please don’t continue the convo I thought. “What’s the special occasion?” she continued. Fuck. I felt the knot in my throat. Should I lie? No. Trying to hold back my tears and my hurt I replied, “It’s for a funeral…” the awkwardness that ensued was bleak. Her face was in shock and she did not know how to respond. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “it’s ok,” I said. It wasn’t ok. I wasn’t ok. But for the next couple of weeks, months even, this was the type of interactions I would be getting used to.
Next, I went to a small shop in DC I was looking for a burette. One of my dad’s defining features were his curls, and one side of his head was shaved because of the surgeries, so I had to find a burette to cover the bald spot and accentuate his curls. After all, he loved burettes. It was time to pay- another awkward interaction. Now I had everything ready for the mortician. All I had to do now was find a venue for the wake.
Latino wakes are very different than the traditional American wakes. So I knew that I had to find a church that would be willing to hold the wake all night. After searching day and night family and friends spoke to a Friar in charge of a church near my home. They conceded for the first time ever to allow holding the wake there. It was the most beautiful ceremony I had ever witnessed but then again I never really go to church. I found so much consolation in the words spoken. We were celebrating the life that my father lived- all of his accomplishments and all of the people who attended could attest to that- my dad had helped them at some point and they were paying their last respects to an amazing friend, brother, and for some a mentor.
At the end of the service, the father came up to my family and told us he had never seen that church so packed- not even on Christmas or Easter. The mass was full, the basement was full… people had come from Los Angeles, Texas, New Jersey, Virginia. Soon people started lining up to give my family and I their condolences, it was all a blur to me. People hugging me tight and telling me how sorry they were… and even though I was super thankful that they were all there, a part of me just wanted to be alone. I couldn’t even find it in me to cry. For whatever reason, I felt like I had to be strong and could not cry in front of all these people… I could not let them see how vulnerable and hurt I actually was because they would not know how to handle it and because I also did not want to be consoled.
Hours went by and the church started to clear out, just family and some of my dad’s closets friend remained. It was 7am… the hearse was on its way. The father said a few more words and then somehow I managed to get up and thank everyone for being there for us during these difficult times. The hearse was there, my dad’s closest friend helped carry the casket out as he cried and gave his final goodbye. I felt the knot in my throat and decided I could not watch. I made my way to the car, I had to be at the airport in 3 hours.