Saturday, July 17, 2010

Luto (or And Speaking of Death..)

Yesterday was a day of mourning in Puerto Cabezas. On Thursday night, a large truck carrying about 40 youth from the Central Miskito Moravian Church down the street took a turn too sharply and rolled over. They were on a mission trip to Waspam. Eight people died, including one of the pastors of the church, and dozens were injured. None of them were my students, although there was one Colegio del Nino Jesus student among the injured. It's the largest number of people who have died at one time in this region since the hurricane.

I accompanied two other teachers to the vigil in the Moravian church that had been going on non-stop since the night before. When people got word, they went to the church and waited all night for the bodies to start to arrive. When we got to the church, three of them were there; two boys in their late teens and one girl of about 8 or 10 years. There were crowds around the caskets, and several women weeping over the glass panels that opened on the faces of the young people. As best I understood him, the pastor was reminding people in Miskito to take their seats when they were done, to let the family and others have a chance to see the deceased, and to avoid crowding too much because it was very hot and people might faint. He also made announcements about when others were expected to arrive and when the wounded being treated in Waspam would be brought back, intermingled with words of reassurance about the power of God to deliver from death. One by one or in small groups, people came up to the microphone to offer a hymn. I was whisked into one of these groups by one of my companions, the music teacher.

I passed by several times later in the day. The number of caskets varied, as did the size of the crowds, but it was basically the same process all day and night. It reminded me of the tedious, even boring nature of grief as it simply lingers on, hour after hour.

The Canadian pastor of the Creole Moravian Church and her husband had described funerals in this city as more "organic," less sterilized than North American funerals. When I arrived I saw what they meant. The bodies of the dead are generally prepared by the families, not by professionals. I once heard Selmira half-joking with her sisters about which one would be painting her nails, and which would do her makeup after she died. While efforts are made to make the body diginified and presentable, they are nowhere near as extensive as in the US. Cotton had been put in the noses and, in one case, the mouth of the bodies to prevent leaking fluids. It just then occurred to me that they must do this in the US, but they take pains to make it not visible to the public. The same with the stitches that held together cheek of the little girl; there was no attempt to render them invisible. I remember, after my grandmother died, my mother reached out to touch her hand, and had to brush off her fingers a fine dusty paint that had been used to give my grandmother´s skin the appearance of life. The skin of these young people retained its pasty, ashen color of death. They were all dressed or shrouded in white, draped to conceal the worst of the head damage, but bloodstains had not all been diligently purged, a la Lady Macbeth.

All the while, I severely questioned my motives for looking upon those who had died. Was I motivated by a desire to accompany the living in their grief and the dead in their passing? Or at least an anthropological curiosity to see the burial preparations of the urban Miskito culture? Certainly these were both present. I couldn't help feeling my motivation also carried an element of a rubbernecker or a gawker, looking for shock and gore. Then I decided to look on this motive with compassion. I have generally only seen death when living people are made up to look dead or when dead people are made up to look living. How many times have I seen death just being death? I think of the times I came upon a dead squirrel in the yard of my house in Milwaukee, or the dead dogs in the streets of Managua. Every one of these moments jars me from my ilusion of life's security. I remember that I am like an infant who lacks object permanence, forgetting about that which is not in my line of sight. There is something compelling about looking upon the absence of life where it once had been. It is certainly a reminder of life's fragility, but I was more struck in the moment by life's power to transmit expression, color, dynamism, and love. It was as if lightning had struck the coffin, leaving a hole in the fabric of the living world, to be gradually be filled with more life. I was left wondering where all that energy had gone. It couldn't have just vanished. Just as I had forgotten death by its absence in my life, so had I been desensitized to soul, by its abundance. The absence of the soul was so conspicous as to leave no doubt in me that it had at once been present, and had since vacated the premises.

In the end, I find myself yet again realizing that I am not, nor will I be completely acclimated to life here, in this place of abundant life and abundant death.

1 comment:

  1. I think your curiosity is healthy--we have to look at death to better understand life. I remember being in the hospital visiting a friend who had just had an appendectomy and seeing an series of ambulances come in. I went downstairs to get a snack, but really I was curious. There was a stretcher in the hallway, and on it an older woman, very white and still, but alert. Blood was trickling out of her mouth. Our eyes met for a minute. We looked at each other seriously, and somehow I knew she was going to die. I felt guilty for looking--but now I don't know why. I think maybe it was good for her to know someone could look at her and acknowledge her situation. I hope it was affiring for her.