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.…

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