Death is something we don’t like to think about much, especially our own. I don’t believe it’s good to dwell on it too much, because there’s a lot of life to live. But that life really doesn’t mean much without death. Think of it as a deadline that you never know when it’s gonna come.
Many of us have met death early in life, in childhood, someone in the family passes away, or a pet dies–which, for a child, can be brutal (I wept this summer when we had to put down Tobias, my 17 year old dog. We never escape our childhood pains). We know what death is, but we’re also trained, at least in many cultures in the U.S., to ignore it, move on, don’t let it get in the way of living.
I was like that until Michelle and I moved to Central America. It was there that I saw the blood and bone of what social scientists call “the infant mortality rate” of a country. We lived in El Petén, the northern jungle of Guatemala, where disease and hunger were the norm. We buried a lot of babies, 14 I believe, in two years–and those were just the ones of families we knew.
But that number–14–no; it doesn’t get me there, doesn’t put me nose to nose with death. It was having to handle the bodies, putting a four-month-old, nameless baby in a box, wiping the worms that escaped through her nose, nailing the coffin. Nameless, because the Guatemalan poor didn’t give their children names until they made it to their first birthday, knowing that so many die before then.
Cholera had come through the area, and people were dying by the dozens. Cholera is a contagious bacterial infection caught by drinking contaminated water or food. But that’s not enough: Cholera is a seventeen year old boy on a hospital bed, his naked buttocks in the air; he groans and liquid shit blows out of him and hits the wall on the other side of the room. He’s dead within the hour.
But it was the girl on the concrete bench in front of the jungle hospital who did me in.
She was perhaps twelve, dressed in full Guatemalan Mayan clothes, a thousand colors woven and wrapped around her. She was about twenty minutes dead. They had to put her outside on the bench, under the hot sun, because there was no room for cadavers inside.
A friend, Francisco, and I, built the coffin. We sat it next to the bench. She looked asleep, though one hand drooped over the concrete. I was the one to pick her up and put her in the coffin. Twenty years later, I wrote the following, a snippet from a longer poem,
I dug one hand under her shoulderblades
and slipped the other underneath her thighs.
Her face fell on my shoulders. I had hoped
her palm would lift to press against my chest,
like silly boys hope. Her head dropped back,
her throat unkinked and she said aaaaaaaah to me.
I still feel that sigh upon this cheek
whenever someone living is so rude
to kiss the skin and wipe her breath from me.
So, here’s a moment when I took something horrible–a dead child, one of thousands of children who died that season from the epidemic–and worked on some lines about it. Why? Why take time from life to pull over, sit a while with such a horrible image that has haunted me for decades, and write a poem about it? To feel better? Not really; I don’t feel better when I read it. But I do feel like I’m at the bench again. And, for some reason, I think it’s important for me to be there, stay there a while, and look.