By Dan Goldman
T here are only a few zero-cost outs from all professional deadlines, the easiest being “We’ve had a death in the family.” Far from needing a vacation — or even one more deadline-eating non-producing day away from my desk — I spoke the spell to my editor in New York that pushed my comic’s next chapter forward one week and quit Skype with a digital squelch. Behind me Lil was still in her bra, stepping into black leggings, and I realized didn’t own a black suit or even black slacks anymore; we’d jettisoned so much when we left New York, I was almost exclusively a shorts-and-tshirt motherfucker now. Lil waved it away: “that doesn’t really matter, just put on something nice, we don’t have much time.” Her parents were already out in Zona Leste [eastern zone of the city] with Oba-chan [grandma] and instructed us to take the Metrô out there so they could take us to the velorio [funeral body-viewing parlor] before the rest of “the community” began to show up and pay their respects. She seemed okay, a few tears right when we heard, but Lil’s a tough one, tougher than me most days.
The Metrô ride was quick, dropping into Vila Carrão in Zona Leste [east zone] of the city where the heart of the Okinawan community in São Paulo beats, along with most of Lil’s extended family. It’s… really quite ugly to me: mostly squat little houses with high iron gates covered in pixação of gangland code that reveals how many people live there and what route/time they come home for easy robbery. Vila Carrão isn’t the roughest part of Z.L. by a long shot, but the difference in culture and tone is Manhattan to Newark; I already stuck out like a gringo sore thumb in Liberdade, out here I was practically strobing “MUG ME MUG ME” to the passing motoboys [motorcycle couriers] and malandros [criminals]. But coming above ground, there was the Honda of the Parents waiting for us at the corner outside the station, dependable as ever. We got in and by rote I almost asked “tudo bem?” [Everything good?] before catching my tongue; my father-in-law’s dad was dead, tudo was certainly not bem today. We all solemnly shook hands and rode to the velorio in silence, parked the car in silence.
It was unnerving how much the velorio looked like my elementary school in Miami, two squat rows of rooms with a breezeway running down the middle, painted in flat colors, lit by low-cost fluorescent bulbs. There was nothing overly religious here, it felt more like a municipal building; any religious jimjams were put inside the rooms with the name of the deceased on the corkboard by the door. We found the one marked “Higa, Joshun” quickly, and he was in there already.
He looked asleep in the wooden coffin: it was open and he was sleeping in it under a see-through veil that seemed more a morbid Catholic thing than an Okinawan one. The room was full of family, tias [aunts] standing up and smoothing their skirts to kiss my cheek, but my eyes stayed on Oji-san [grandfather] maybe a little too long. I’d just sat next to him a few days before, watched him take bites out of sweet potatoes at the table with wild abandon like a disobediant toddler, shoyu [soy sauce] dotting the grey stubble on his chin that Otossan’s razor had missed. And here he was now, looking the same… but the thing that was him had gone out of it.
Lil’s elbow popped into my kidney and I turned to catch the incoming kisses on my cheek, my eyes not totally leaving Oji’s body. Lil’s older brother Tetsuo arrived with his wife soon after with several boxes of Japanese jasmine incense that he immediately set up in an urn in the corner next to the coffin, inviting everyone to light three sticks of their own.
This was my fourth funeral (two Jewish, one Southern Baptist) but my first uchinanchi one. The whole family came, the whole community came, many many faces I’d never seen before or since who regarded me with questioning who-the-fuck-is-this-gaijin-in-here eyes but politely shook my hand anyways, their faces softening when someone whispered that I was Lil’s marido de America [husband from America]. The faces kept coming. They’d stoop over the coffin and look at Oji’s peaceful face, touch his hand or cheek, quietly cry in a reserved and civilized manner. I watched Tetsuo keeping a constant vigil on the incense pot, never letting the smoke go out; when I asked him about it, he said in the ancient Ryukyu traditions they believed the incense to help anchor the spirit with the family while the body awaited its final resting place. Normally, they prefer prefer disposal by cremation, but today the crematorios were fully-booked so Oji’s body would have to interred for seven years in a crypt, after which point it will be exhumed and cremated. There were too many people around to get an explanation about this and I’d actually forgotten about it until just now. We sat there receiving community members until the sun began to set, the parking lot outside lit only by glowing orange streetlights, the night full of bird sounds, traffic sounds, creaking cicadas. By that time we’d lit the room full of candles, the guests stopped coming and it was just us family again.
All night we sat in the velorio with Oji, and with his body. I make this distinction on purpose; he wasn’t in his body anymore but he was very much there, around us, existing now inside us. I didn’t really know him but it’s something you could feel. Tetsuo and I kept the incense lit but mostly no one spoke. I got up and went for a walk at one point, remembering that there were nine other vigils, nine other families grieving over nine other dead bodies… and that this happened here every single day. Coats upon coats of psychic paint. I walked through the breezeway, peeking in on other peoples’ grief, as a white cat sat on a bench outside one of the other rooms, throwing me a dirty look before returning to licking the length of its back legs. The vibe in here was thick with spirits, worse than a hospital, worse than a funeral… the velorio was the bowl that caught the tears.
I went out the back and found a small cafeteria out front that I hadn’t noticed on the way in. I ordered a bitter café from the zombie behind the counter and sat on a creaky old stool, watched stray dogs wander into the velorio and back out into the street. The digital clock on the Brahma beer sign told me it was nearly 4am, and I craved a cigarette even though I’d quit years ago. Bird calls in the trees overhead got a little more hectic and the sky started to pinken at the horizon; I took a paper bag full of mini pães de queijo back to the fam who must’ve been starving. They nodded a quiet thanks and ate them in silence. Tetsuo tended the incense. Otossan and Okassan sat next to each other in the candlelight, staring at Oji’s body. Every family has their drama and I could feel history bleeding off my in-laws without knowing any of the context. It was enough. I took Lil’s hand and gave it a squeeze, she folded onto me like a sleepy child.
Sometime around ten, community members started arriving again, this time with more flowers and containers of food, talking in uchinaguchi I did not understand. Without anyone telling me a thing, the funeral just started happening. Oji’s body was picked up by pre-designated pallbearers, the giant wreath of flowers carried by someone else, and we left in a procession through the velorio breezeway with his body. Ahead of us, one of the other families carried their dead, that white cat following them behind them, making sure they did everything right.
The cemitério was a short walk uphill from there, a typical Brazilian graveyard full of family crypts that sat above ground in a miniature cement city of names and dates. We buried him in a short service that mostly in Japanese; it was efficient and I think Oji would’ve appreciated that, to the extent that I knew him or even about him. At the end, when the coffin had been placed inside the crypt and the cement door slid back into place, Tetsuo dumped out the remaining two boxes of unlit incense in front of the sealed crypt and set the whole pile of it aflame, making much smoke. On the top of the crypt, I spied a giant red army ant who’d had perched itself there throughout the whole service as though listening. When the burning incense became a jasmine-smoking blaze, it reared its red body up on its back four legs and wagged its antennae back at the family, maybe in pride, maybe in gratitude.
Next time: ”PDSD: A Diagnosis”
Previously in TOUCANNUÍ:
Part 00: Intro: Dead Yorkie, a dead dog and mission statement of sorts
Part 01: A Month by the Sea, in which the journey begins in a red minivan
Part 02: Bem-Vindo, mostly airplane and airport
Part 03: Tanta Chuva, about a rainy first day in-country
Part 04: The View from São Joaquim, meet the new joint
Part 05: The Fruits of Feirinha, a greenmarket odyssey
Part 06: Ser Estrangeiro, on being a foreigner
Part 07: Nova Express, the brain’s first language level-up
Part 08: Bonito, Part I, the family Christmas trip to the wild begins
Part 09: Bonito, Part II, bacon-flavored fish & piranha soup
Part 10: Bonito, Part III [fim], river magic and bye-bye
Part 11: This Will Be Our Year, a new year, a clean slate, grandparents