When Our Children Die

I don’t know if Martita is still alive. If so, she’s thirty. But I have my doubts. At the time, her hair, once Guatemalan-black, had turned a dry, dirty-straw color. It was starting to fall out. Her stomach, held in place by weakening muscles, had gotten more distended in the weeks following, crammed with worms, amoebas, or parasites, or all three.

We were in Guatemala. This was a time when Catholicism truly gave a damn about the poor and oppressed, and expected missioners such as ourselves to do more than just pray. We should get in the way of the unjust. Stand with the people, fight against the oppressors. Do more than just fling around a rosary and tell people God let their baby die so He could stock up on another angel.

Dead children. They have been a theme in my life, an important one. Through them, you can see how wrong we are, how we care, so little, for the poor. A child dies in Bel Aire, California, the entire city of Los Angeles knows about it. But a baby dead of cholera in a jungle is nothing new. Poor Guatemalans don’t name their child until its first birthday, in a desperate psychological attempt not to become too close.

It doesn’t work. Again, I remember a mother, eighteen, standing in front of her hut. Her parents are crying. Her husband has gone off looking for a cheap bottle of guaro. It’s hot, Guatemala-jungle hot. The neighbors come to console. But the mother has gone insane with mourning. The child has no name. She gives him one, right there, cries it out Juan Alfonso and collapses in two women’s arms.

I place the corpse in the coffin. That’s my job—that is, I’ve made it my job. I will do this many more times in the coming years. They let me; they want me to do it; for I represent something holy. I want to do it. But not because I’m holy.

I place the body on the pine wood floor of the homemade coffin, and tuck the blanket under his head to keep it upright. The boy’s head falls toward his tiny left shoulder, toward me. The mother looks up, just when the first gray worms, no longer than a pinky nail, crawl and fall out of the boy’s nose.

She howls. I pinch the worms between my thumb and forefinger, one at a time, drop them to the ground, and crush them with my boot.  A teenage boy brings the top of the coffin, nails and two hammers. I fuss with Juan Alfonso, put his head upright again, to the sky. He has just a wee bit of hair. I smooth it with my fingertips then sweep my fingers over both his cheeks. I pause; they must think I’m praying. I’m not praying. God’s the farthest thing from my mind. The uncle sets the lid true. We nail. Each hammer blow pierces the mother’s heart. They can hear her all through the barrio. In my heart, a necessary hatred has begun.

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