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Mourning in Place

Dancing, Pouring, Crackling and Mourning; painting by Didier William
Didier William
Didier William: Dancing, Pouring, Crackling and Mourning, 2015

My neighbor died recently. I saw the ambulance arrive. The red and blue strobes bounced off every glass surface on both sides of our block. She was eighty years old, and ambulances had come for her before. There was that time she broke her arm in her backyard, and already accustomed to osteoporotic and arthritic pain, she treated herself until her movements led to other fractures. She ended up staying in the hospital for several days because her blood pressure wouldn’t go down, then she spent a few weeks at a rehab center.

She was among the first people we met when we moved to Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood eighteen years ago. We had an avocado tree in our yard, and one day we saw her standing outside the gate looking at it. The gate, locked only with a metal coat hanger, allowed easy access to the avocado tree. For years before we moved in, when the house was empty, everyone on our block could come into the yard to get avocados. Our buying the house changed that.

My husband gave her some avocados. She suggested a few other neighbors who had benefited from previous harvests. My husband gave them some too.

“See,” she told my husband. “I’ve made you popular on the block.”

It’s hard to figure out how to mourn during a pandemic. Our mourning rituals have all been disrupted or taken away: the home visits, the festive wakes, the funerals, and post-burial repasts. My husband walked to our neighbor’s front yard after we first saw the ambulance lights through our bedroom window. Usually I would have gone with him, but the city we live in, Miami, was an epicenter of the pandemic, so we took turns being exposed to the elements.

My two daughters, my mother-in-law, and I waited inside. My husband returned a few minutes after the ambulance pulled away. Our neighbor had no pulse, he said, but the emergency medical technician told our neighbor’s daughter, who lives with her, that they would work on her mother on the way to the hospital. The daughter was told she couldn’t ride in the ambulance, nor would it be a good idea for her to go to the hospital. It sounded to me like my neighbor was already dead. Maybe the EMT thought it was best not to pronounce her death yet, in front of her family.

My neighbor’s death was not, as far as I know, a Covid death. She’d had gallbladder surgery and was in the hospital for two weeks. When she came home she no longer had any appetite or thirst. I had visited her in the hospital during previous stays, but this time we were not even aware that she was sick. I suppose her daughter figured, Why tell? since no one, including family members, would be able to visit her.

When my mother died of ovarian cancer in our house, this neighbor came over to sit with us that same night. She came over to pray with us when my mother was near death. We attended the same small church and sometimes I gave her and her slightly younger sister a ride home. She loved to hand out cookies and hard candy to the kids at church. She cooed over both my daughters when they were just days old.

Some weeks before, for her eightieth birthday, her daughter had organized a “drive-by” celebration. Over a dozen cars—she was the matriarch of a large family—streamed by her house. Her friends and family members honked their horns while waving handwritten signs and banners that said “Happy Birthday” and blasting loud celebratory music. We all went outside (masked) to wish her a happy birthday, and watched as she swayed to the different types of music—hip-hop, Haitian konpa, gospel—that were played for her. She was wearing a beautiful pink suit and had a Miss America–type sash across her chest. She looked very happy.

The next day I called her to more formally wish her a happy birthday. She said her children had been planning a lavish party pre-Covid. They’d rented a banquet hall, and friends and family members were supposed to come from all over the world, including Haiti and the Bahamas, where she’d spent her youth.

I think back now to my neighbor’s description of her pre-Covid birthday party plans. Her party sounded like a dream my mother-in-law had described to me a week before our neighbor died. There was a lavish banquet at church. People were singing and dancing, rejoicing that they could finally be together again. That same day, my mother-in-law learned that two of her friends had died.

In dreams, a feast means death, my mother-in-law had explained. Might it be because death is a kind of celebration in some other realm, I was tempted to ask her. But lately there had been too much death in our realm, and too few opportunities to celebrate the lives the dead had lived.

Four of my parents’ friends died from Covid in New York. Their funerals were streamed on Zoom and Facebook. I watched one of the funerals, but couldn’t bear to watch the others. My parents’ octogenarian minister told me that thirty members of another Haitian church in Brooklyn had died, and in each case only ten people were allowed to attend the service in person. A historian friend told me that she thinks more Caribbean people have died of Covid-19 in New York than in the entire Caribbean so far.

“Since we can’t mourn in person now,” my parents’ minister said, “we’ll have a massive memorial when this is all over. Whenever that is.”

After our neighbor’s death was confirmed by another friend, my mother-in-law and I walked over to her front yard and knocked on the window of her living room, where a family meeting was taking place. Our neighbor’s daughter stood in the doorway and said, “My mother left us. She left us tonight.”

I remember having to announce my mother’s death over and over to family members, and friends. “She’s gone,” I would say, leading some to think that my mother had left Miami while she was sick and returned to New York, where she’d spent most of her life. (I recently had to do it again, six years later, telling an old friend I haven’t spoken to in some time.)

As my mother-in-law and I were standing in front of our neighbor’s house, a sprinkle of rain began falling, and it felt as though the God our neighbor loved so much was weeping for her. We could not touch or hug her daughter. We could not even shake her hand. We could not go inside and sit with her and her siblings, so we stood out in the rain for a few minutes, and while looking up at her daughter we kept muttering, “Kondoleyans. Sorry. We are so sorry. Very very sorry.”

Recently, while sitting with my family on the sand, at dusk, on a beach near our home, I looked up at the sky and was in awe. Perhaps it was because I had been inside for weeks. It’s also possible that in quarantine, my eyes had grown unused to having unobstructed views of sunsets, but that afternoon on the beach, the sky looked the most luminous I had ever seen it. Swirls of cirrus, cumulus, and altostratus clouds appeared to have been set aflame. What I didn’t realize then was that I was looking at a Sahara dust sunset. The fact that a plume of dust from the Sahara Desert could be hovering over the sky in Miami the same week that I and many others were finally allowed to go to the beach reminded me that colors, like viruses, could mutate. That afternoon, it was as if the sky had become a colossal color-field painting, with layers upon layers of hues and shades, pigments and shapes, dipping into the horizon.

What were these flaming skies trying to tell us in the midst of our plague? I took it as a sign that the world is still very much alive. Aristotle thought that colors—which he linked to the four essential elements of earth, water, fire, and air—came to us directly from the heavens. Leonardo da Vinci observed that between shadows are other shadows, a phrase that reminds me of the Haitian proverb Dèyè mòn gen mòn (beyond mountains are more mountains), which is something I overheard my neighbor saying to her younger sister more than once when I gave them a ride home from church.

My husband calls from the car to tell me that a notary friend he spent a half hour with (both masked) in an office the day before—the same day that my neighbor died, the same day my husband was outside watching her body being taken away—has tested positive for Covid-19. The friend is routinely tested at his job and is asymptomatic. The friend’s results came back two weeks after he took the test. For two weeks, he had been at work. He had been in close contact with his family. He came to an office to meet with my husband, which he wouldn’t have done had his results come back sooner. This is where my mind immediately goes: I hope we don’t all get this thing now. I hope we’re not all about to die.

My husband’s test is negative, as were eventually his friend’s family members’. My husband paid $75 to get the results in forty-eight hours, rather than two weeks. My mind also goes to: How many people might have caught the virus and died because someone didn’t have $75 to pay for a quicker test? Though I’m glad my husband tested negative, I find it hard to fully trust the results. What if it’s a false negative? According to the local news, 15 percent of the test results are false negatives.

In the midst of all of this, a wire pops in my oldest daughter’s braces, cutting into the inside of her cheek. This requires an emergency run to the orthodontist. The terror I feel, imagining my daughter’s mouth being wide open while another person pokes inside it, makes my body shake.

Dental visits are a lot more complicated these days. You drop your child off at the front door after you’ve both been grilled about your recent travels and whether anyone in the family has had a fever, cough, or shortness of breath. The child’s temperature is taken before she’s escorted inside by a masked and shielded dental assistant. You wait, far away from other parents, on a bench outside, or in your car. Whenever I think of anyone in my family falling ill right now, this is all I think about: child or adult, they will have to face every horror alone, without anyone they know or love nearby.

While waiting for my daughter to come out of the dentist’s office, I keep thinking about my neighbor. Since she died there are always at least half a dozen cars parked in front of her house. My mother-in-law keeps insisting that we go pay our respects to the family properly. But I can’t imagine sitting in my neighbor’s living room, as I have done a few times before, and drinking her daughter’s tea right now.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks, via texts, that donations be made to a charity my neighbor supported in Haiti. They also send a Zoom link for the funeral. My husband and I debate whether to send some restaurant food over. When my mother died, our neighbors sent over enough food for us to eat for weeks, but now we fear that whoever delivers the large plates of hot Haitian food might be putting our neighbor’s family, or themselves, in danger. My husband delivers a box of Haitian patties and beverages to my neighbor’s house instead. On her front gate is a sign that says, “Please wear a mask for your safety.”

When I sit down at the end of the week to watch my neighbor’s funeral, the Zoom link does not work. I don’t want to text her daughter in the middle of her mother’s service to ask for the right code. Maybe we were not meant to watch, I think. Maybe my neighbor did not want us to.

That afternoon, while my neighbor is being buried, some new neighbors, who have moved to the neighborhood during the pandemic, blast loud rock and roll at the highest possible volume, just as they have nearly every weekend since they arrived. At first their booming music seemed defiant and necessary. Some of them are young and they cannot go out and party in one of the party capitals of the world.

I imagine that they decided to come to Miami when our governor was still bragging that, in spite of festivals and open bars and beaches, our infection and death rates were minimal. At that time, people with license plates from New York—the previous epicenter—were being stopped by state troopers at the Florida state line as though they were smugglers of the virus. My young neighbors might have been among those fleeing the virus elsewhere, only to find that it had followed them here, at an accelerated pace. The pandemic has further eliminated even thoughts of walking to a new neighbor’s door and introducing yourself, so we may never find out what brought them to Miami.

As our new neighbors’ loud music thumps throughout the whole block, its din the aural equivalent of strobe lights, my mother-in-law says, “Why would they not silence that music for this one day? A neighbor’s pain is the same as your own. They should be mourning too.”

I realize they may not know what has happened, or they could also be mourning. This might just be their way of doing it.

A few hours later, in the middle of the night, yet another ambulance siren startles me awake. In my groggy state, I beseech it to keep going past our house, past our block. Let us have no need for you to ever stop here again. I walk to my bedroom window and watch the ambulance turn, then stop a few blocks further down. Another neighbor, another friend.

—July 30, 2020