Since death is universal, it shouldn’t seem so foreign to bury the dead. However, when I found myself sharing the burdens of burial with recent immigrants it was like an expedition in confusion, cultural conundrums and compassion.
Matthew 25:13 says, “Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
The day was Friday, the hour 2 a.m. Ten immigrants riding home in a van were half way home from their job at a chicken processing center when death struck. Heading west up an eastbound exit ramp came another vehicle and with it a collision of devastation and death.
The 21-year old woman driving the van, swerved to the left to avoid impact. She wasn’t able to veer far enough fast enough, and her father, sitting on the passenger side was killed. The man behind her father was also killed. Five others are in critical condition.
For me, this seemed like one of those senseless tragedies that leave you questioning. Why, God? Why should these people who were simply trying to work and have a better life have to suffer such anguish? I had countless questions that began with why, but as usual I didn’t have any answers.
I wonder if God feels like we are the equivalent of curious toddlers, always questioning why– when no answer He gives (reasonable or not), will ever appease us. Many of life’s questions remain immaterial anyway. What matters now is not why this tragedy struck, but how to pick up the pieces of those left behind.
Indeed, there are a lot of pieces. I contacted a woman I know who works with these immigrants and told her I would be available to help with anything they need. She put me in contact with someone named Sara who had also emigrated from the same country. We finally spoke Sunday morning.
In short, Sara asked me what I would be able to do. It was kind of a humbling question to be asked because really, what could I do? I don’t have a lot of experience with death or tragedies. The last funeral I went to was over the summer and even though I never met the deceased, a friend’s stepfather, I was so moved during his service by the randomness of mortal life and time; seeing definitively the limits of both, I unwillingly abandoned composure. Mortified by my zealous mourning, I raced out of the parking lot, my car screeching above the sound of my sobs.
So really, I didn’t know that I was the best person to help someone grieving, but I adopted the “All things are possible with God” approach and faked it. I said I could cook (barely), or watch children (Admittedly I didn’t see how this would work since the kids speak another language. On the other hand my kids don’t always listen despite their capacity to do so and I still manage to keep them alive. Maybe the language thing isn’t that important). I also offered to help with transportation, sit with someone at the hospital or help with funeral services.
It was the funeral that she asked me to help coordinate. Sara put me in touch with another person from their country who knew the deceased’s family. He had a complicated name by American standards, but said I could call him Sonny. I appreciated him making the pronunciation of his name easy for me, and found him to be similarly kind.
While Sonny spoke English, it was difficult to understand him. I felt as if the more I tried to nail down facts the more elusive they became. Interpreting the conversation involved understanding both what he was saying and what he meant. When someone has limited access to vocabulary and a complicated context, conversation becomes very confusing.
At one point our telephone conversation was on hold — literally. There we both sat, me thinking he was getting an address and he thinking I was getting a pen. Five minutes passed before we realized that each of us was holding for the other and we laughed.
He explained to me that the Baptist church, where one of the deceased worshiped, would be handling the funeral arrangements for him. But he needed me to help with the burial of the other decedent, the driver’s father.
The accident did not happen in Jacksonville, therefore the body was sent to a different county’s medical examiner’s office. Sonny bounced around saying things like mutilated body, cardboard container and not intact. It was hard to follow, but I could see where it was going and it wasn’t pretty.
Sonny is Catholic. He said when he was in his native country that he always tried to help people who needed it. He never asked those he helped what religion they were. He told me the family I would be helping is Buddhist.
As far as the accident, he said, “I have seen many tragedies in my travels…, but I didn’t expect this to happen in America. It is heartbreaking.” Sonny said he had never heard of anyone driving in the wrong direction. Sadly, I thought he has much to learn about Americans. I think we are often going in the wrong direction.
He spoke of how hard these people worked and how they were not able to find employment here in Jacksonville which is why they drove an hour each way just to have a job. They carpooled to save gas.
Why, God? Why?
We agreed that I would take the mother and daughter of the deceased to the funeral home the next afternoon to help make the burial arrangements. He asked if I would like to meet the family beforehand and I thought that might make things more comfortable the following day. He said he could meet me at the family’s apartment when he got off work that evening.
I made arrangements for my children since no child should have to know about this kind of devastation, and my husband and I went together to the apartment. Sonny met us as promised. We followed him upstairs to the doorway that was littered with shoes. He took his off and I did the same before entering the apartment.
Sonny introduced us to the wife of the deceased, and I gave the tiny woman the cake I baked. I met the daughter who was driving the van when it was hit head on, she was bruised and swollen. There were several children and they looked at us curiously and then scattered elsewhere in the apartment.
It was bizarre to me how composed everyone was despite their unspeakable misfortune. There were no tears – nobody was screaming why. The kids seemed calm, the wife stoic and the eldest daughter in shock. Every now and then I thought the daughter was on the verge of tears, but she kept them contained. I didn’t know if it was sadder watching people grieve or watching them hold themselves together despite the fact that their hearts had to be in a million pieces.
After being invited, my husband and I sat on the couch. The others congregated on the floor in front of us. Sonny tells them to get their father’s picture and show us. I am handed a large photograph. I am not sure what to say — the picture is blurry and out of focus. I couldn’t make out the details of his face. I simply smiled and nodded.
Sonny went back and forth between talking to them in their language to talking to us in ours. When it wasn’t our turn to listen, I let myself take in the surroundings: the smell of an apartment once occupied by smokers, the worn carpet that looked freshly vacuumed, the large area rugs on top of the carpet, the vases filled with various bouquets of artificial flowers, posters placed at the very top of the wall, the same poster over and over. It looked like it came from an ethnic store. The room was modest but tidy.
While my eyes wandered, I realized there were several small roaches wandering as well –up the wall, across the carpet and around the baseboard. Already on the edge of the couch, I had nowhere to go. I badly wanted to be suspended in air and began to lament my bare feet. These people were not unclean but clearly the apartment they rented needed exterminating.
Alas, it was my time to listen again. Sonny said the family wanted the body cremated. He asked me if the funeral home would let the family have the ashes. This seemed to be a big concern. While I have never planned a funeral before, it only makes sense that they would let you keep the ashes. Even the obvious seemed confusing in this situation.
After a few more conversations in foreign tongue, Sonny informed me that the family does not want the ashes. He said they want to see his face, say goodbye and have him cremated. I needed to find out what the funeral home would do with the unwanted ashes. It made me think about how we all return to dust and no one wants dust. Although the living usually cling to the material even when all they have to cling to is ash. Perhaps this was a cultural difference.
I didn’t know what to think of them abandoning the ashes, but figured it doesn’t matter what I think. My mom taught me when you offer to help someone you have to do what they want, not what you want. I figure Jesus would agree.
So besides inquiring about what to do with unwanted ash, I needed to find out if the body was viewable. These were my charges. I would pick them up the following day at 1 p.m. and take them to the funeral home. Sonny would not be going with me. I would be on my own.
We had several other conversations with Sonny about who would pay for the cremation. None of it made clear enough sense to do more with other than speculate. My husband and I both agreed we had never before tried to listen so hard to anything in our lives.
I guess Sonny was having a similar challenge. Apparently the family speaks a different dialect than him. At one point after he was talking with the family, he turned to us shaking his head in the negative direction, and said, “I have no idea what they are saying…”
Mercy is the word that came to mind at that moment. These refugees experiencing the profound loss of their patriarch, their livelihood, their love and their life as they know it, are at our mercy in what surely has to be one of their darkest hours. The language barrier makes them vulnerable, their loss makes them vulnerable and the magnitude of all of it feels enormous to me. And this is only one of nine families affected by this tragedy.
Why, God? Why?
Thankfully, the children came back into the living room, a distraction I welcomed. I learned the ages of the other children and found them easier to communicate with the younger they were — there are three girls 21, 17 and 10, and an 8-year-old boy. To be honest there might be one more child, a boy who looks about 14.
I probably sound like a nitwit that I can’t even tell you the definitive number of children, but the introductions were both overwhelming and incomplete.
The confusion was further compounded by various other people anonymously wandering into the apartment and sitting on the floor in ,front of me and my husband as the evening went on. It reminded me of all the story times at the library I had shared with my boys when they were younger, all of us clustered around the librarian anticipating the moment when the book comes to life. Obviously I couldn’t bring anything to life, and this was not a story with a happy ending.
When we went to leave, the 8-year-old boy, who seemed lively and playful, followed us out. He asked Sonny, “Hey are you going to see my dad now?” Sonny blew him off and said “nah,” nodding his head negative once again and shutting the door, leaving the boy on the other side.
It occurred to me then that the child didn’t know the cruel fate of his father. I asked Sonny if he knew. My heart fell as he told me that the boy thinks his dad is in the hospital.
He doesn’t know…he doesn’t know. The statement sounded like another question as it resonated in my mind.