Amanda, 26, Atlanta
Living in another country for an extended period of time affords me the ability to pick and choose between cultures. One practice I would integrate into my American culture would be the Dominican practice of pesame and velorios. These practices allow family and community to stop, feel, and express the grief that comes with death of a loved one. Below is an account of my first pesame and experiencing the first of many velorios…
My host dad’s aunt died today.
I had just gone to feed my pups and walked over to my host mom playing cards under the mango tree. A wailing scream turned our heads up the street. Someone said, “I knew it”. Followed by an unanswered, “She died? Sylvia died?” Sylvia had been suffering from cancer for several years. They all slowly rose from the card table and began to walk towards the house.
I followed, but stopped at the corner, uncertain of my role in this. Then walked up towards the house, quieted my sister and her friends, and sat down in the galeria. I sat there for a good while. Nodding and whispering soft, solemn helloes to those whose eyes met mine. Through the window I watched my aunt and cousins shake and sob, fanning themselves. I rose to hug my project partner as she came in (Sylvia is her aunt as well).
Every few minutes my host brother comes out to ask me if I want to come in. I finally say yes and walk in with him. I peek around the corner to her room. Family and neighbors are crowded in, overflowing. There is even a group gathered outside her window. They are singing hymns with lines like “Jesus is with us” and “God is waiting in our heavenly home”.
Meanwhile, my host dad and other capable men begin to remove every piece of furniture from the house except the bed where Sylvia lie. A few minutes later they arrive in a pick up truck with 40 plastic chairs and begin dispersing them about the small house and in the street out front.
As soon as I catch sight of my host mom in the kitchen, I head back to stand with her. We stand around, occasionally changing positions in the small room. Frederick, my host brother, comes to report that Sylvia let out a big sigh. She has not died yet. But they are singing her to heaven.
A few minutes later we head to the house to collect the dry laundry. My host mom is getting the chores out of the way to free herself up for a night of brewing coffee, cooking, and crying. I head back to my room. Later I hear my host mom call out, “I’m headed back up. Sylvia died.” I say, “I’ll be right there.”
As I approach the house I see a crowd has gathered outside. I walk through the galeria and enter the front room. It is bordered by crying women. Some silently pat away tears, Bible in hand. Others rock and wail, holding hands.
I look to my right, see my neighbor and embrace her. Next to her is her daughter, my project partner. I give her a hug. I continue down the line of women, putting a firm hand on their shoulders. I reach my cousin and hug her. I bend down to my Aunt and she cries my name over and over, “Oh Amanda, Amanda, Amanda.” I say lo siento, which literally translates to “I feel it.” This offering, I will later learn, is my pesame, Pesame means condolence, but literally translates to “it weighs on me.” A common pesame is que dios te acompañe – “may God accompany you”
I walk back into the kitchen to stand with my host mother and remember Papa’s handkerchiefs Nana had given me to pack. I’m back in a minute to pass them out.
Back in the kitchen I look over as the crying gets louder and see two men bringing a coffin in. They can’t fit it in the bedroom so they set it a top two chairs in the front room. Five men carry the dead Sylvia into the room and lay her in the coffin.
Sylvia’s daughter cries out, “My mother, my mother, my mother. She has left me.” Next to her, the goddaughter is repeating, “Mi madrina”.
I step out to the landing outside the kitchen door. The breeze on my back is cool, fresh. And the air climbing out past me is hot and fevered, smelling of sweet coffee. My host mom sends me to make dinner with my host brother. She will stay and continue brewing coffee. They will feed the compassionate crowd around 1 AM. I will go to bed soon, as my head aches and I am going into Santiago in the morning.
I go back one last time after dinner. The coffin is now closed with flowers and an open Bible on top. The crowd has swelled and is a maze of people, plastic chairs, and motorcycles. There is no more crying, wailing. Just a steady hum of at least a hundred conversations, with the ever present Bachata in the background. These crowds will continue to gather every day for a week. And every year for the anniversary of the death.
I hear someone hovered over the newly arrived coffee maker say, “Well I don’t know English. How do I turn this thing on?” I turn my attention to them and explain how. Satisfied and tired, I get the key to the house from my brother and head home, praying to the God of life, death, and community that Sylvia may rest in peace and rise in glory.