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. [. . .]
[. . .] 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.”
[. . .] 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. [. . .]
[Painting above: Didier William’s “Dancing, Pouring, Crackling and Mourning,” 2015.]
For full article, see https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2020/09/24/mourning-in-place/