by Kleaver Cruz
About a week before my 25 birthday, my uncle, Ali passed away from an asthma attack at 37 years old. It is something he suffered from most of his life and robbed him, and everyone who loved him of his life. I did not have the strongest relationship with him as an adult, but it wasn’t weak. Ali was my first mirror of being a Black boy in the world. He loved me and my twin brother, Walter, beyond words. He was the person I wrote most of my Father’s Day cards to when we made them in elementary school at C.E.S. 70.
The day before my 25th birthday I was in a cab with Walter, my mom and maternal grandma, Luisa. I dreaded sitting in that black car as we headed towards the Ortiz Funeral Home on the Grand Concourse in The Bronx. The briskness of winter made it that much harder. Earlier that week as I sat next to my mother being asked a million questions by the Funeral Director, I felt this detachment from reality. I felt I needed to be strong for her, the one who is always the backbone for difficult moments.
I was at peace. The last time I saw my uncle, a couple days before his passing, he was smiling. I remember feeling this type of peace in my heart for him that I’d never felt before. It felt good and reassuring. Perhaps his spirit was giving me a heads up of what was to come.
As I stood over his body at the front of the parlor, I knew I had to touch him. Some years before, my grandma told me that we have to touch the deceased to accept the reality of the loss. They say that death has a cold touch and his skin was frigid. This was not Ali. This was the vessel his spirit resided in for as long as it did. It was the temple that he so often reminded us it was. I never invited my uncle into the reality that I wasn’t going to ever have a girlfriend like Walter. Something tells me he was clear on that anyway.
His skin was cold to the touch and I accepted that his physical death was real with the understanding that so long as I have the ability to think, to dream, to imagine and to write, he will always live.
In How Long Has the Train Been Gone, James Baldwin showed me that love forces us to be with ourselves. The scariest part of love is having to be fully present to who you are and what that means. I think death has a similar effect. It forces you to reckon with how you showed up for that person in their life, what your relationship was like with them and the reality that you will no longer be able to connect physically. That forced reckoning is what causes breaks in families and in one self. The in-between space that mourning so often is and that many don’t ever fully get out of.
In my family we honor the tradition of the “Novena” where we have intentional prayers in mourning for 9 days to usher the spirit of the deceased peacefully into the next life. It’s a time where we don’t listen to music too loudly. We don’t party or heavily celebrate. It’s a mellow time for grieving, reflection and mourning. That’s the way my small branch of the Cruzes has practiced it anyway.
For Ali, we also honored the practice of attending mass on the 1-year anniversary of his passing to have the priest of the church offer a prayer in his name. That mass didn’t come before hosting a prayer hour (that lasted at least 2 hours) to let my uncle’s spirit know we are here and holding space for his journey to the next life.
When I was little, I decided that I was going to keep pleasant thoughts for the people that die in my life. I decided that I was going to make their last memory in my head of them smiling, laughing or having a good time.
I still feel that way and do so with the understanding that this means we have to do our best to ensure that those lasting memories are not so far removed from the moment of a loved one’s death. That is, we must do our best to ensure that we connect in a way that makes us present to the love we have for them. This is hard work to do and I have not made as much progress making this a regular practice as I’d like. I understand, however, that to be at peace at the moment of the death of someone you love (broadly defined) far outweighs having a heavy heart.
I touched my uncle Ali that day to confirm that he was gone in this physical realm and that now he’d permanently live on in my thoughts and memories and in words like the ones I have written here. I’ll always remember his warm smile and the fact that he was a complicated being. We did not agree on many things, but we did love each other. I touched him to say see you later and not goodbye.
Rest in power Ali. Te extreñamos.
This month’s Feel It theme is TRADITION. Each month, various writers will contribute their perspective on a chosen topic with the aim to help deepen our connection to each other and this world. If you are interested in contributing to our theme of the month, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.