Saturday, April 09, 2011

The Sacrament of Grief: III

This is Part III. Read Part I and Part II.


Dies illa, dies iræ, calamitatis et miseriæ, dies magna et amara valde. [5]

I cannot stop looking at my watch, even though I know we’ll get there in plenty of time. It also seems that I have forgotten how to knot a necktie and must make a third attempt. This one doesn’t see much use, which is probably why I can’t get the length right, but it is the closest thing I have to plain black. The red paisleys are so tiny they look just like spots if you’re a few paces away. The telephone conversation of three or four days ago plays on a loop in my skull.

“I don’t know how to tell you this, Elder, but Marta’s husband, José, killed her and Tiago last night. We don’t know why. I’m sorry, Elder.” Pres. Lawson must have been speaking a foreign language, because I didn’t understand a word. While still trying to extract some meaning from those incomprehensible sounds, my autopilot whirred into action. I hung up and found the address and time for the funeral on the inside cover of my planner. It looked like my handwriting, but I couldn’t be sure.

I think it was a Tuesday, because Elder Latu drove us to the library to update the forms for that week’s correlation and Ward Council meetings. He went to work silently and completed everything, almost never asking for my input. He was good at reading people, and I was never more grateful for his instincts. I decided that a double homicide must be newsworthy, and so began to look up local newspapers online. Writing that sounds morbid, but the situation felt so unreal that I needed something solid, something like an anchor. It is tempting to think of this as a part of the “denial” stage in the grieving process, but it wasn’t that at all. It was just bewilderment. It felt similar to those moments while doing homework late at night, when a perfectly common word begins to look misspelled. You try to say the word aloud, thinking that will help the meaning and its symbols to coalesce, but they have become unstuck, and the idea, the sounds, and the little dark shapes on the page seem completely, disconcertingly unrelated.

Now, a few days later, the confusion has given way to numbness. Finally getting the tie length correct, I pull on the jacket of my borrowed suit. My father had it made on his mission in the Netherlands. It has worn remarkably well, but it seems strange that it should fit me. Dad is a couple inches taller than I am, but that really isn’t it. He is just so... big, somehow. It doesn’t matter how old I get, I think that I’ll always feel two feet tall in comparison. In this situation, he would know just what to do and say. He would exude, as he always does, a sense of solidity, sturdiness, shoulders squared to bear whatever burdens life presents. Though we disagree on occasion, sometimes profoundly, I have never been able to understand or sympathize when a peer has said, “My dad’s such an idiot,” or something similar. Don’t misunderstand––their dad may very well have been an idiot––I just don’t know what it feels like to think that. It is possible to be angry with my father, but dismissing him is inconceivable. And today, in many ways, I wish he were going to this funeral in my place. Years back, one of his seminary students killed himself; Dad gave the eulogy. An elderly woman in our stake later requested that he give hers as well, several years before she passed away. My funeral participation has been limited to singing, which is fine. I can believe there might be value in trying to infuse tragedy and suffering with a moment of beauty (though you cannot escape some degree of aloofness or artificiality in this; when a singer is moved to real tears, the result is maudlin at best, and an embarrassing, snot-streaked spectacle at worst). When it really works, the singer’s role is somewhat angelic––a brief moment of brightness, ephemeral but leaving hope in its wake. But no matter how nice the song, it cannot do what my dad can: remind us that there is still dirt under our feet, a sky over our heads, and a sun that will rise in the morning; make us feel safe. And in the aftershock of such incomprehensible brutality, that’s what they need to feel––God knows it’s what I need to feel.

Hours later, we make an odd little group, dark suits and nametags in a neat row, in a church with rather unfortunate 70’s styling. (Imagine the MTC with an A-frame roof, and semi-abstract stained glass.) They will have a Catholic funeral because of their extended family, but Marta and Tiago had been Mormon for years. Watching the caskets process toward the front of the church, I am glad that the service will be in Portuguese. I will be able to follow it generally, but there will be a slight language barrier, making everything (I hope) a bit misty, blurring the edges. The worst for me is noticing the surprisingly small dimensions of the second coffin. An eleven-year-old seems to take up much more space when alive. He is carried by some members of the deacon’s quorum he would have joined in a few weeks. It looks like nothing so much as a broken promise; I suppose the death of any child should look the same. Following Pres. Lawson’s lead, we stand and sit with the rest of the congregants, but eschew the kneelers. Sitting (sometimes kneeling) next to me is a man with rough hands in a t-shirt and ripped jeans. Somehow, he doesn’t look out of place––more importantly, he doesn’t look like he feels out of place. He reminds me a little of Sister Z from my first area, who wore slacks to church. The similarity, though, is not in their mild sartorial rebellion. I am sure that caring for her severely handicapped daughter was draining––imagine a young toddler in the body of a thirty-year-old––but when she would laugh and clap or blow bubbles, Sister Z’s face was suffused with a fierce joy, like she had bottled sunshine inside her. During the funeral mass, when it comes time to make the sign of peace, my rough-around-the-edges pew mate takes my hand and smiles in just the same way. It is bright.

I look away first.


[5] “That day, day of wrath, calamity, and misery, day of great and exceeding bitterness...” From the responsory of the Requiem Mass.

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