Living Close to Death

In Manatuto, East Timor

1 December 2003 -- Manatuto, East Timor

People live close to death here. Not only is there a high infant mortality rate, and a low life expectancy, but death is not roped off, excluded, hidden away, or relegated to a distinct spot.

Last Tuesday, I woke up with a strange feeling; the sounds coming from the family's houses were not what I was used to. People were speaking rapidly, a few calls, a scattering of people. Then the sobs started. It was before 7:00. I began to dress and heard Sra. Isabel coming up the stairs. She was carrying Bocita, and crying. I knew why. I didn't need to hear the words: "Desculpa, Sr. Miguel, Lina mate ona." I gave what little comfort a half-dressed white guy can give to an elderly Timorese woman carrying a baby, Lina's baby. Then I called Policarpo, one of Lina's younger brothers living in Dili, to give him the bad news (Sra. Isabel, asked me to speak to him as she was unable to stop crying).

Thus began my intimate experience of death with this family: I saw first-hand how people here live close to death. The process really began years ago, when Sra. Lina consulted a couple of Western doctors when she was pregnant with Bocita. These doctors told her she should have an abortion for she could not carry the child to term as she was terminally ill with internal cancer: there was nothing they could do, the cancer had spread to various organs and she would die within months (the description the family gives is that her insides are full of cancer: laran canker nokonu). It would come as no surprise to anyone who knows her well that she rejected this advice. This woman carried a rifle in the early days of the resistance to Indonesian occupation, led the clandestine movement for Manatuto, raised eight children, founded the women's organization, and ceaselessly worked to benefit women and children of the area. She'd lost one elderly brother to the resistance cause, and another during the '99 violence. No one could tell her to give up her ninth baby.

Taking local medicine, she completed her pregnancy and gave birth to a very healthy, fully developed baby girl, Bocita. The medicine was prepared each day by her husband who described the process to me. First, each man in the family tried his hand at making medicine, then would experiment with their medicine by giving it to each other. Whoever could take the medicine of the others and still see them, while they could no longer see him after taking his medicine, had the strongest medicine. Sra. Lina's husband, Domingas, had the strongest mixture. Each day he gathers leaves, bark and roots, his sons grind it up, make a tea out of it, and give this to Sra. Lina to drink.

They have done this for two years. Until a couple of months ago, after I arrived here, Sra. Lina had been working regularly, attending meetings, convincing diplomats to give more money and resources to women, children, orphans, and widows here. She stared down a parliament member, demanding that he deliver on his promise of money for the women's group, and she fought to make the government here listen to women. Because of her work, there is a functioning network of projects helping women here in Manatuto.

So, I called Sr. Policarpo, and he said he'd be on his way soon. We called him a few more times, helping arrange for a coffin and a blue dress for Sra. Lina.

For the remainder of the process, I was torn between wanting to give support to the family, to these kids I know pretty well and feel such an affection for, and wanting to stay out of their way, not to feel like an awkward malae in their midst. Within a few hours, Sra. Lina's body was dressed in blue and laid out on a table in the front room of their house. Visitors, mostly in black, began coming from all over the district, from all over the country. They brought flowers, rice, candles, envelopes with money. They filed into the front room, embracing Sr. Domingas, exchanging looks of sorrow with the kids, offering what they could. The immediate family sat for most of the day around the table Sra. Lina was laid out on.

From my house, I heard the rising and falling undulations of lamentation. Women would come from afar, and upon seeing Sra. Lina, burst into a wailing cry for the loss of their friend, their relative, their leader. The kids' emotions were raw. They often joined in with the wailing women. I went in the room twice, once with Mark, to offer a little, but felt rather useless.

Seeing Sra. Lina's body, laid peacefully on the table, her eyes open a little, her hands crossed on her chest, I felt so little connection. This was the body of the woman I'd joked with so recently. Just last week, she'd manage a smile every time our eyes met -- such positive energy, such will. This dead body on the table was not Sra. Lina, it was just a body, but nonetheless, it confirmed beyond any denial that she was dead.

Sr. Domingas was strong, crying, but able to embrace people, accept their gifts, accept their condolences. The kids held up, red-eyed and crying, but they remained composed for the most part. Their mother was on the table before them. When the emotion was too much for one of the children, they would get up and go to another room and cry their sorrows. Women would go and comfort them.

This went on for over 24 hours, all through the night. Occasionally, I questioned the sincerity of the wails of sorrow, such as when Sr. Domingas' family gathered in the driveway, chatting and composing themselves, and just when starting forward, the family matriarch let out a singsong wail crying Lina's name. But other times, when I would look into the eyes of these crying women who I'd never seen before, I couldn't help but feel their pain was real. May be they personally didn't feel such tremendous sorrow, but it was an expression of the sorrow felt by all the family, all the friends, all the relations. The men were generally reserved. The occasional woman who would cry out a wail of grief was a trigger, allowing others to join her, to vocalize the pain they felt.

The next day, Wednesday, Sra. Lina's body was in a wooden coffin. People still filed through the room, giving condolences, expressing grief. The emotions of the family were raw; they were tired, they'd received hundreds of visitors, perhaps over a thousand, in less than 24 hours.

I'd read an idea recently, in Terziano's book, A Fortune Teller Told Me, that death is accompanied by complicated rites to give people something to do, to distract from the otherwise overwhelming grief. There was certainly tremendous activity here. Within two hours of her death, the village had come together, erected tents for a reception area, collected a truck-full of firewood, brought rice, pigs, two cows, and vegetables. A few men slaughtered a pig and a cow. Women from all over the neighborhood were cooking rice and vegetables, chopping meat and preparing cakes. They cooked more food than I've seen even at the biggest party I've been to. They fed the hundreds of grievers. The family spent nothing -- death is a time when the family receives money, cows, goat, rice, and other things.

But the women and men busy with the preparations were not the immediate family: they were freed from all this, to concentrate on their grief, to spend the last few hours with their mother. They would bury her within 36 hours of her death.

When it was time to move the body to the church for prayers and a service, the wails and cries took on a higher, frenzied pitch, almost of desperation. Standing to the side, I watched the men carry the casket out of the room. I'd been listening to the cries, not knowing who was wailing intensely when they closed the casket. After them men carrying the casket came the women and children. Suzanna, a niece, was beside herself, possessed by grief -- hers and others' -- and wailing out of control. Her cousin held her, kept her from rushing to and upsetting the coffin. Mikaela, who I call hamnassador for she smiles and laughs all the time, was beside Suzanna, in a frenzy of wails equally intense. Her face was an expression of grief and desperation I'd not seen before. Her older brother helped her move along. Sr. Domingas' back was to me, but clinging to him, his face to me, was Azeh, the five-year-old who I call Nakar for he is often causing troubles; his face was stretched wide with grief and tears poured from his eyes.

I ran to get a rose from upstairs and followed the crowd down the street. They carried the coffin the mile or so through town to the church. A crowd of people, mostly dressed in black, silently followed. It was humid, stifling. Thunderclouds were overhead, packing the heat down upon us. I sat in the church, listening to the family's sung prayers for their mother. For half an hour, the community prayed and sung hymns of loss. Then they sat and waited for the priest. More than an hour passed. Some children went outside, then some adults. We waited. A breeze picked up, wiping away the oppressive air. Sra. Lina's children went outside. I followed. The priest had been asked for the service they day before, and he'd set the time of 3:00. Why would he make everyone wait like this? Usually, services start right on time. Would he come? Was he making a point? Was he punishing the family for Lina's having children with another man? No one spoke of the wait; no one seemed to mind.

Someone spotted the priest, and we all hurried back into the church, taking our places. The service was ordinary. Sra. Lina's niece and nephew gave readings. The priest blessed the coffin with holy water. Men began to carry the casket down the isle to leave the church. Thunder struck and a downpour commenced. They carried her to the pick-up truck right outside the door, and spread a tarp over the casket. The rain let up, and we all followed the truck with the family in it to the cemetery. No one spoke; we walked slowly. I felt the lightness of the air freshly cleansed by the rain, and listened to the soft scraping sound of many flip-flops on wet pavement. We walked along the blue sea, by the white ruins of bombed-out buildings, and under the shadow of dark gray clouds. A few of the candle trees, all knobby branches with freshly sprouting green leaves, bloomed a brilliant red. We passed the Chinese cemetery full of erect grave markers for ancestor worship, passed the empty Muslim cemetery of the Indonesian occupiers, and entered the quiet of the crowded Catholic cemetery.

Leaving the car for the prepared grave, most of the family walked quietly. Suzanna, who had lost her father to the violence of '99 and taken a-hold of by her grief, wailed out that she didn't want to go, they couldn't take her. She followed, though, with only gently prodding from her cousin. Sra. Lina had looked all over the island for Suzanna's father in the wake of the militia-enacted violence, with no results. They heard a report that he'd been shot on a dock on Dili, and his body had been thrown to sharks.

We walked to the grave toward the back left of the cemetery. I noticed the grandfather's grave (Sra. Lina's father) nearby. The priest had come, and he said a few words. A few men wrapped stout rope around the casket. All the kids were crying at this point. I'll never forget the picture of the three sisters, Mikaela, Zhovania, and Dercia, together with their cousin, Suzanna, crying out their grief, watching their mother lowered into the waiting hole in the ground. I looked at all the faces of the family, and for the first time, saw all nine of Lina's children together, recognized the family resemblance, strongest between all the boys, children of Sr. Domingas, and then amongst the girls, children of another man, and saw the bond between them and this whole extended family. There was no line between the direct family and the extended family, it was all one, and they all felt the loss together. The casket tipped precariously, the men struggled but righted it. As soon as it was down, a few men threw symbolic hand-fulls of dirt, and then two men with shovels began filling in the grave.

Mikaela's older brother, Sandru, held her close as she cried, giving her strength to stand. Suzanna, at some point, her body overwhelmed by grief, and tired from the long hours of emotional expression, feinted and was carried away.

Filling in the grave took a long time -- it was a full six feet down. Men took turns, two at a time, shoveling the dirt back in. The crowed stayed, mostly, watching in silence, or with silent tears. The girls sobbed throughout. Sr. Domingas held a brave face, and held Azeh for most of the time. One man scratched a cris-crossed rectangle on a triangular stone, and placed it firmly, point down, on the center of the grave. Then many hands quickly covered the entire site with more stones, and placed one long one for a head stone. The priest, who'd stood a distance away during the dusty filling in, came back silently placed a wreath of flowers on the grave. Everyone placed flowers, or lighted candles. I threw my single white rose on the thick pile of colorful, beautifully prepared arrangements. People slowly drifted toward the exit. Sandru, now free of the need to support Mikaela who'd left already, finally broke down and let out his grief. His high-pitched wails brought a lump to my throat, and later, Teresa remarked how impressive it was for him to have given support for all those hours before expressing his own emotions.

Watching the whole event, I was struck repeatedly by the impressive support system people have here. Family extended to hundreds of people, and these same hundreds of people extended any needed support. Any one individual was never over-burdened by the need to support others, for always, there were ten waiting hands to help out. Sra. Lina was one of ten children, and she had nine of her own. Uncles and Aunts, cousins, and second cousins, were little distinguished from direct family. Watching this family bury Sra. Lina, it was only my familiarity with the people that allowed me to know who was directly related and who distantly: everyone grieved and felt together.

I thought of my own father's funeral. I am close to my brother and sister, and we support each other unequivocally. But it was an entirely different experience for a hundred people than for a small nuclear family.

After the funeral, we all went back to the house, some walking, some ridding in the pick-ups. The sun had set behind high, heavy clouds, but the sky was a beautiful shade of gray, and the air was fresh and light. People gathered in the front yard, under the tarp, talked quietly. There was more food, but people didn't linger too long. It was quiet soon.

The next day, Thursday, a fresh visitor would not know that the gathering had been for a funeral. In every shady corner, Sra. Lina's children mixed with their cousins and friends, avidly playing "poker," a strange game of cards, betting nickels and dimes. With the help of three of Lina's sons and her youngest brother, I built a chicken coup for the small rooster I'd been given by my old host family in Hera. I heard occasional sobs from the girls in the back rooms, but for the most part people were calm, relaxed, and somewhat playful.

I met the other volunteers in the 'safety' of Dili for the celebration of the original independence day, Friday. We had a great Thanksgiving day dinner thrown for us by our generous medical officer, and the next day I returned to Manatuto.

Apparently, the third day after Sra. Lina's death marked another ceremony, preparation of flowers to put on the grave and a trip to place them there. Sunday, the fifth day since Lina's death was another big day. I had noticed the table on which the family had laid Sra. Lina's body was still there, decorated only with a few flowers, candles, and two pictures of Sra. Lina. I soon learned that they would leave the table there for quite some time, either a month or eight days. Sra. Isabel said she didn't know which. However, she explained that on the fifth day, Sr. Domingas' family from Baucau would come to consult: Sra. Lina's family would return her husband to his family, giving him the option to stay with this family, continuing to raise his children, or to return to his own family in Baucau. If he chose the former, he could not take another wife, or if he did, he'd have to move out at that point. If he chose to go, this family would continue to raise Sra. Lina's nine children. I wondered whom it was that would assume primary responsibility for them? Sra. Isabel would most likely continue to provide financial support, but who would teach them, discipline them, comfort them, help them through difficult times, and celebrate achievements with them? I guess they'd get by just fine. Between their older brothers and uncles, there were enough men around. Between their grandmother and aunts, there were plenty of women around. It would be a family effort, centered on this house complex.

But I couldn't imagine Sr. Domingas choosing to leave his children behind. The image of him carrying Azeh when everyone was crying stuck in my mind.

The men sat on the side of the house, drinking, smoking, eating, while the women and children prayed and sang hymns. I sat in back of the praying women for a while and then joined the men. I couldn't help but feel bored, with nothing to do but catch every-other word of men talking about inane subjects. Teresa came over with her newly-affirmed friends at the women's group, and this relieved some of my boredom. I was honestly quite interested to hear what choice Sr. Domingas would make, but I didn't have the patience to sit through another evening of sitting around in a circle of men doing nothing. So I walked Teresa home, then went to bed around midnight. I could hear talking, with voices occasionally raised in laughter or sadness. I slept peacefully and late, missing early-morning trip to place more flowers on the grave. I was relieved to see Sr. Domingas out back, playing with Bocita.

Life continues. The girls' grieving is mostly done. We'll visit the grave a few more times -- on the eighth day, after one month, three months, eight months, and then, after a year, the family will hold the kore metan, and no one will wear black anymore.


Every night, the girls have prayed, sending up a peaceful, mournful hymn to their mother in heaven. The boys sit nearby and listen or play quiet games. Earlier tonight, over the din of my new housemate's Brazilian gospel music -- he's a missionary for the Assembly of God -- I listened contentedly to the girls singing their prayers. It is undoubtedly an outlet for them, a chance to focus their thoughts, and together express their grief. Afterwards, in the back of the house, the girls and I spoke a little. They all said they missed their mother, and asked if I did. I said yes, and that I also missed my father. We didn't say much, but it was remarkable that they could speak about their mother going to heaven with such clarity and simple acceptance. Even Bocita, when asked where her mother is, points to the clouds above, though sometimes she checks her mothers bed to see if she really is gone.


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