Winner, Crow Writing Contest, 2021
By Rhiannon Olivarez-Kidwell, University of Arizona
Rhiannon Olivarez-Kidwell is a junior at the University of Arizona double majoring in Molecular and Cellular Biology and Neuroscience with minors in Spanish and Biochemistry. She loves to dance and is a member of a UofA’s folklórico group, Grupo Folklórico Miztontli. Ms. Olivarez-Kidwell plans to attend medical school after graduation.
The white screen door creaks when it opens. Her face appears behind, lovingly wrinkled, and she smiles and gestures for us to come in. Here it smells of home and cooking and dust. The radio murmurs quietly and a vase of flowers on the table nods under the ghost of a breeze. Behind the table is a glass front cabinet full of the dead, brothers and fathers and sisters and mothers smiling from behind their frames. It is an altar to the departed. Generations stare back from beneath the dust, paper flowers disintegrating at their feet. The newest pictures are of my laughing grandmother, her head tilted toward the camera, and my Uncle Joe at his wedding, looking serious in a morning coat. They are jarringly past tense. In the year that has passed some part of my brain still refuses to acknowledge the truth. I turn away.
I think about the last visits here, when Uncle Joe was alive. He’d sit propped up in bed in front of the television. It had been awhile since I’d seen him and he’d been different from the Uncle Joe of my childhood, all jokes and smiles with his brothers. The last few visits he sat with clouded eyes, one half-closed from a failed surgery. He couldn’t hear well and didn’t realize we were there until we entered his field of vision.
“Joe, it’s Birdi and Rhiannon,” shouted my Tía. He nodded and waved us closer. We’ve always been close, as we were the only ones who insisted on greeting him and his wife and inviting them to family events. They are not part of the “in” crowd in the family, and neither are we. There’s a sort of camaraderie among the less popular relatives, and we make do.
“Hey, cat,” I said, loudly. He reached for my hand, smiling and I was reminded of the last time we saw him, when he gave us an orange bigger than a softball. He was always giving us things; sharing is an intrinsic part of our family’s identity. If you have something, you share.
It was a hot summer day and we were hopeful then. My grandma hadn’t yet become a line between two dates. Uncle Joe could still walk. My grandpa and I would still sing. We’d come to visit on a Sunday in August. The heat poured across the valley in a sweltering wave, the limbs of orange trees sinking under the weight of the miniature citrus suns. His trees had just been harvested and the backyard sat dusty and dry, five gallon buckets of oranges lined up against the shadow box fence. The smell of the orange harvest is something that cannot be described in a manner befitting its glory. It tells of fading sunlight and the promise of sweetness, floating through the air on the breeze of summer’s last kiss. It is something I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
He’d wanted to give us oranges, share the bounty, but we’d just bought a bag of Cuties at Costco and declined the offer politely. However, he insisted, so we relented and said we’d accept one, but just one. He disappeared around the side of the house and we waited with Tía Connie.
The orange trees whispered among themselves, wondering what would happen when their frail caretaker breathed his last. When he came back, he carried with him an air of mischief and the biggest orange I’ve ever seen. It was the size of a melon and, delighted, we’d taken pictures of him holding it. Looking back at the pictures now, he looks frail. It will be a while before I can look at them without my heart aching.
Our final visit, I looked at him reclining in bed. He was curled under his blanket, tired. I couldn’t tell if it was physical exhaustion from the process of dying or the kind of exhaustion that comes from suffering one too many losses. One son in a coma and another dead; there’s only so much pain the heart can take. I looked at the man propped in bed before me and saw a lifetime reflected in his eyes. I saw fishing trips with the brothers and a childhood at Stribling’s ranch. I saw the birth of his sons and the barbershop opening. I held his hand, telling stories from when we were little and he’d bring us oranges and hugs with his usual greeting of Hey, cat! until he fell asleep, fingers locked around mine.
I sat with him for a long time while my mother and my Tía spoke in hushed voices. When it was time to leave, I tried to move my hand without waking him but his eyes opened slightly.
He squeezed my fingers and his lips moved as he spoke, scarcely above a whisper. I moved closer, turned my ear toward him.
“Good luck, mija,” he said softly. The room swam before me and I held onto his hand. “Thank you,” I whispered, afraid of the finality.
“I love you,” he said and closed his eyes, heading back to sleep.
When I reflect on this moment, I knew I wouldn’t see him again. I knew it was the last time the house would be Uncle Joe’s and Tía Connie’s. Yet the phone call three days later still pulled every breath of air from my lungs, choking the tears from me before I could process what it meant.
When we arrived at Tía Connie’s house that night there were already five or six cars parked outside; the rest of the family coming to sit a vigil for Uncle Joe. It is an unspoken tradition, a routine, that happens every time there is a death in the family. Like any other tradition, there is an etiquette to how it occurs.
Tía Jenny must be notified first, as she is the family’s news source, known affectionately, depending on who’s speaking, as Tele-Jenny. She notifies the siblings of the deceased; they will be the first to arrive. They come to pay their respects to the body and sit with the spouse. The children of the deceased are the next to be called and they will be the second to arrive. They go to the body and sit with it, holding its hands, rearranging blankets, providing a last caring touch. Then they sit with their remaining parent.
The cousins are the third group to know. Phone calls are made by the brothers and sisters to respective grandchildren or by the spouse to select cousins. They will begin arriving about 15 minutes later, all bearing food, and will come in waves throughout the day. Homemade salsa is a given and multiple servings of it, stored in everything from old olive jars to Tupperware, appear in the fridge. The brothers and sisters receive an unspoken invitation to stay at the home. For the cousins it is different; you are either intentionally asked to stay or you clear out, leaving your dish behind.
Upon arrival at the home, you greet the bereaved first, then the deceased, then the brothers and sisters, then the cousins. It is always in this order. Any deviations from the routine are noted by older family members and will be the sources of whisperings in the months to come. It is a macabre dance whose intricacies I have just recently learned, as exceptions are made for the younger children and only of late has my life been stained by loss.
As the hours ticked by, the cousins faded. Soon the only remaining vigil keepers were the brothers and sisters and the children. And the orange trees of course. The silent citrus sentinels stood guard over the family home, the sultry wind ruffling their grieving leaves. The last bucket of oranges stood by the door, puckered and browning in their untouchable finality.
It occurs to me that this home provides a gathering place, his death a reason to unite. The loss brings the family together, the person-shaped hole filled by food and human presence. In the coming year, the entire family will rotate through the home, caring for the bereaved. Food will be dropped off at least twice a week, if not more frequently. The house will be cleaned by teenagers bribed with their parents’ keys. The car will be serviced by older cousins with a mechanic shop. The garden will be trimmed. This home will become a point of contact, a meeting place. The place of death will be reborn as the beating heart of the family for a year, if not longer. People will meet there to bring food, to share stories, to reconnect over the shared loss. And the house will remain an epicenter of the family’s love for a long time following the death, the power of the missing person there a reminder to care for one another. Granted, the house will never be what it used to be. It will never again be Uncle Joe’s and Tía Connie’s, just Tía Connie’s, but some sense of normalcy returns when we’re able to talk about him without our hearts hurting.
Today marks a year since he died and the anniversary is what brings us to her house. I come bearing flowers and food. My mom carries the wine. We bustle around the kitchen, readying paper plates and glasses. Another tradition exposes itself, written into our movements: if you come bearing consolation food, you do the preparation.
The night passes slowly, conversation drifting from grief and loss to school and work, and finally to wine-warmed, orange-scented memories. We are regaled with stories of my grandmother when she was a teenager filled with youth’s unflappable confidence, flirting with the park ranger while oblivious to the toothpaste smear she had on her lip, and tales about Uncle Joe and that miraculous harvest that produced the biggest orange any of us have ever seen. I ask about the harvest this year and she says that his trees haven’t had a single flower or fruit. It seems the orange trees are mourning as well, their grief appearing in a season of nothing but leaves.
The conversation turns to the white peaches we brought and how best to serve them with the wine. I am sent to get the chips and salsa brought yesterday by Tía Isabel. For another hour we laugh, we cry, we burn our mouths with salsa under the watchful eyes of the dead in the cabinet and the gentle whisper of the weeping orange trees, until the clock chimes ten and we say our goodbyes.
I realize that this is what family is. This is our purpose here; this ritual of looking after one another, caring for the bereaved, ensuring the safety of the family. It started with the strongest in the pack circling the injured while they rested, then moved to the circling of the wagons in anticipation of danger, and now shows itself in the way we surround the homes of the hurting and protect them while they heal. Tonight we have breathed life into this house. We have kept the dead alive with our words and our family safe with our love.
Copyright © 2021 Rhiannon Olivarez-Kidwell. Published with permission.