A beloved kin has recently passed on.
It was a quiet death made quieter by our own family’s sense of privacy. There was also the pandemic, which kept the events following dying even more circumspect and exclusive.
Two of her children were beside her. The youngest of my niece called me up in the morning of the 25th of November: mayo na po si Mama (Mama is gone). It is a grace when language serves us in the bleakest of moments. And greater is the grace that comes from that acceptance.
A daughter who was to go back to the United States that morning experienced a freak cancellation of her flight. They were already inside the plane when a vehicle towing it hit the nose of the said plane. They were requested to leave the plane, and brought to a hotel. The next day, the substitute flight also got cancelled. That made her change her mind; she decided to travel back to Naga. The mother was told of this news. She died after that peacefully.
The world for us came to a standstill.
It was time to choose the casket. Someone had to decide on the kind of casket for the dear departed. In our case, I was with the nephew and niece when we entered that place where coffins were on display.
Death was with us that morning, but Life was also our guardian in the afternoon as we inspected the colors of the wood and the metal, the final container of the mortal body.
That evening, we began the vigil. That evening we had to understand the health protocols. First, there was one fact: if your kin was allowed to be waked in a chapel, it meant he or she did not die of any Covid19-related afflictions. That much could be understood of death in this age of social distancing.
The chapel assigned to us could allow in twenty visitors; we opted to limit the number to fifteen. There is a Filipino logic to this- some guests may insist to come in despite the limitation. One of two more could satisfy carrying capacity of the room.
We knew the days were not normal. When was it that our hearts were gladdened when people crowded inside the chapel to mourn with us, console us? Presently, less is reassuringly more.
We were quite successful in maintaining the right number of people in the chapel. It was an exercise in crowd control. Constantly, we were observing how the perfect number could be maintained. We thought our decision not to issue a general online announcement of the demise helped. We also did not replace our respective profiles with the candle against the dreary darkness. That image had become a shorthand for death and it was sure to trigger attention. We chose to tell close friends who, in turn, relayed the sad news to other friends.
There was one matter though that some of the staff in the funeral parlor did not understand – our aversion to tarpaulin displaying in full color the face of the deceased. There was no problem with the cut letters in white tucked against the black wood to identify the one we were there for.
We were on the ground floor. Thinking of the aged and the disabled, the location of the chapel would pose no difficulty for them. But no aged friend came to visit us. Either because we told the older kin not to come any more or that they themselves were anxious being in public with their co-morbidities and morbid thoughts.
The absence of older people, however, had an impact on how we conducted ourselves in those three days of mourning. We had no one telling us of the taboos surrounding death. First of all, the taboo against cleaning the surroundings could not apply to the place. We insisted on the janitors to clean the chapel regularly and at night (the time of avoidance) when very few people were around. Until a parent of the husband of a niece took note of it, we kept rearranging the flowers and wreaths on the dais. It was not “good,” we were advised, for close relatives to be touching these offerings of sympathies.
On the last day, in the memorial park, we took note of another personality, the funeral host, a presence that is obnoxiously unnecessary. She was there under the tent seated when we arrived. Instead of ushering us, she was looking at us, without introducing her. I looked to a cousin and asked her if she knew this lady. Using the karaoke mic given to feedbacks, she began to speak. She led the prayer. Why would I need a stranger to lead a prayer for the person I loved and now lost? She continued and even announced the “last viewing.” With all the children looking at their mother, a beeping sound ensued from the host’s corner, and a familiar introduction to a Groban song started to rise. But I heard my nephew’s voice rose: Stop that music!
It was good to be in command of death in life…until that point.
When the burial was about to be over, the voice of the host wafted again: On the count of three, let us release the balloons.
I looked up to the sky and wondered if God ever approved of balloons to replace tears and prayers. There was no answer. Just these hapless balloons being carried to the clouds, to lose their air and flight, the only reasons for their existence.