Tabuga has a weird energy right now. A 16 year old girl died three nights ago. She was a student of mine, a cousin of my Ecuadorian family and a close neighbor. She lived on the main road that I had to walk every afternoon to go to class. During my first year she was still in school so every afternoon her big smiling face would be in the window, greeting me with her cousin and a roar of giggles always followed. I remember a bad month where my favorite part of the day was walking by that house. I used to wonder if they’d ever get over seeing me walk by, if eventually they wouldn’t hover out the window waiting to say hello and burst into giggles after. About two weeks ago, Alex and I were commenting on just this. The two girl cousins, eagerly waiting for us to get within normal greeting distance. They said Buenos dias and they giggled. Now, over two and a half years later that won’t ever happen again and not because the joke is no longer funny.
On Friday night they had her wake. I have never been to a funeral in the countryside, only in Jama where the tradition is different. My host mom had explained that the girl was in her house and that the family, friends and neighbors would light candles and sit by her until the last family member arrived. I waited to go with my Ecuadorian family and Kara. The girl was my host-brother’s goddaughter. Tabuga was quiet all day and the electricity was out. At about 7pm we walked with flashlights up to the dark house. I cautiously followed my Ecua-mom inside holding Angel’s hand as we entered the candlelit room. The casket was to the right open. I kept my eyes down as we filtered into the room and sat in plastic chairs looking forward at the casket.
People whispered among themselves. The girl’s cousin and window partner was two chairs away from me. Her eyes were solemn but her mouth smiled as she talked to other cousins. Kara and I sat close absorbing in the scene. The candlelit bounced around as more people came into the room, each one breaking the silence with a buenos noches and placing a pack of candles in front of the casket. My pack of candles was still in my hands. I hadn’t had the courage to look at the girl and held the candles as a type of safety net from the death that was so blantantly displayed. The house shook slightly from the people on the other side of the walls. They were preparing food and comforting the immediate family. The mother was kept out of sight because she was having attacks, according to my host dad.
A few men brought over a generator and set up two light bulbs on either side of the room, illuminating the casket and leaving the sitters in the dark. The father of the girl came out and handed my host dad a bad of urea. He asked him to place it around the girl. My host brother and other men helped open the casket and move the body gently as my dad place handfuls of urea throughout the casket. My cousin to my left told me it was so the body wouldn’t smell. I watched in horror as the girls dead body got lifted and turned in front of an audience. Little kids looked on and the adults stood up to get closer to the scene. From my American mindset I saw a bizarre act of disrespect for the deceased and from my open-mind I saw a pragmatic act of care and attention to the reality of the situation. A dead body will smell if not treated properly and no one was sure when her brother would arrive. He was the last family member that remained to sit with his dead sister and light candles.
The scene returned to the solemn silence and more plastic chairs were crowded into the small room. I couldn’t help but take note of the gender differences in this tradition. The women would come in and sit with teary eyes as if they were waiting for something but knowing that sitting was what was expected. The men would poke their heads in, cross themselves, place a packet of candles near the casket and disappear again into the darkness. I wondered why women were left to mourn and bear the burden of death. The crowd of men outside seemed to be in normal conversation as their voices inaudibly floated into the house from outside.
Without warning the spooky silence was broken by the girl’s brother. I was directly across from the brother and his faced expressed the rawest emotion I had ever seen. He flew his bag to the ground and flung himself onto the casket. From the other side of the walls emerged more family and they screamed and cried with the brother. He had traveled for 7 hours by bus to make it to the wake from his military base. In the moment that he saw his sister there was nothing else in his face expect for genuine deep pain. I felt like an intruder in his life and wished to disappear into the darkness. In the States, raw emotion and true pain are saved for private spaces with close family and friends. The reality was heart-breaking.
Most everyone in the room was crying. I looked to the ground and tried not to sniffle too loudly. The window cousin’s smile turned into a fearful frown as she buried her face into a handkerchief. The brother disappeared again, but his sobs were clear. The mom greeted her now only child and then came the attack. The woman screamed, she called out to god, to her family and the house shook. The inaudible cries filled the night air and the audience continued to cry. I looked to Kara. She said she wanted to leave, we both felt like it was inappropriate for us to be just sitting there listening to this woman’s pain. When the woman calmed down I asked my cousin to the left if it was okay to leave. She said no, very simply, we hadn’t sat long enough.
The girl had been sick only a week. She had a fever and her bones hurt. She lived with her grand-father and by the time he took her to the nearest health clinic it was really late. They rushed her to Bahia and that’s where she died. The girl had had dengue. Dengue doesn’t have a cure but also has a really low death rate. There are two types, and the worse type leads to anemia. Still, anemia doesn’t kill in and of itself. The fever from dengue is most likely what ultimately killed the girl. This, and the fact that the girl was only 16 and in perfectly good health a week ago, was wearing on my mind. Tylenol for the fever and iron for the blood could have been simple solutions that literally would have saved this girl's life. This smiling, happy, good student’s life. In an exercise Kara did in class she asked the students to write out a dream they have for the future along with other questions. In the 9th grade class, none of the girls wrote they had a dream, except this girl. Often, after a death, the comforting thing to say is that there was nothing that could have been done. My mind knows the opposite is true.
A younger brother of one of my god sons, Diandri, came and sat on my lap. They are the girl’s first cousins and their mom was running around preparing food and trying to help where possible. Diandri fell asleep. I woke him and told him to tell his mom that he could stay at my house with his three brothers. He came back and Kara and I used the little 5 year old as our excuse to leave. After two hours of sitting, I finally placed my pack of candles in front of the casket and looked down at Alexandra, her mouth was stuffed with cotton and her eyes closed. I knew I had to look in the casket it to believe it and know that I won’t ever see her contagious smile giggling out the window again.