Monday, May 03, 2004

Of Deaths and Wakes

In Six Feet Under, that incredibly well-made show on cable, grief, loss and closure are regular staples. Story arcs are made revolving around the themes of not only death but also life. There are usually incredibly tense moments of bereavement, anger, frustration. The writers know their stuff, these scenes definitely make for good drama.

What the show usually doesn't portray are the looong and draaagging moments in between hot spurts of emotions on the boil. Yes, when someone in the family dies there are unresolved family squabbles come to fore, there are long-kept secrets revealed, there are potentially destructive, litigious money matters. All these make for good drama, and yes, confrontations, dramatic do-or-die lupasay scenes do happen in real life. But they are few and far between.

Let me tell what it's like when somebody in your family dies. I've become somewhat well-versed in these unfortunate occasions, losing my father and maternal grandmother in less than a year. In films, when monumental things happen, background music stops and you see the actors move in vacuum-like settings. No sound. In real life, when you learn of family's death, everything becomes eerily silent. Its as though a plug has been inserted in your ears and all ambient noise is muted. You walk around like a zombie for a while, your mind groggily trying to comprehend what has been said over the phone, or you rub your eyes looking twice, three times on your mobile reading and re-reading the text message delivering the bad news.

Then you start to cry. Tentative burst of tears. Depending on where you are, you usually want to go to the hospital and see the body. So this moment of grief is brief. A sense of urgency takes over and you rush over to the scene of the accident or hospital.

When one is my age, 23, young but not too young or too old, one is expected to be strong and brave for younger
and older folks. One cannot cry too much or too long. One must get her act together relatively quick to attend to the mundane details. At this moment, your mind is forced to become crystal clear. Settle hospital bills, sign death certificate, call the Six Feet Under people (your funeral service), choose the casket, choose the place for the wake, attend to police matters (should your father drive himself and his wife into a building driving his expensive car), cancel credit cards (should MMDA folks steal your parents' belongings while they lay helpless broken and bleeding), find certificates for your burial lot, notify the cemetery of the burial, buy flowers and of course, who can forget... the wake.

You see, wakes are a funny thing. It is only probably in this country where one may expect people to come visit your dead any time of day. So like a convenience store, you're open almost 24 hours, ready to cater to all and sundry who happen to come in through the door.

Then, it is also probably only here, that mourners are fed. Acquaintances stay for 20-30 minutes, friends, an hour max, and relatives usually stay longer. These people are offered refreshments and some snacks. You talk to them, and tell the story of how your loved one expired over and over and over again. Details may be added or subtracted depending on the sensibilities of the mourner. Immediate family of course cannot leave the wake. So we cook, eat, drink and sleep within the premises, occasionally leaving to go home to shower and do the groceries. And the cycle repeats again and again for however long your family decides to hold the viewing.

Wakes make ripe occasions for intrigue, scandal and high drama. Where there is a maximum number of mourners, usually around 6:00-10:00 pm, there is this electric atmosphere, highly charged, ready to explode should somebody do or say something to ignite it. Rarely though, does this explosion occur, usually out of respect for the departed. Or fear of being haunted. Or both.

So wakes are a noisy business. It is perhaps Filipino tradition to make it so. Like a fiesta, people eat, drink, chit-chat and play. It is a whirlwind of activities and never-ending chores and tasks, all of which must be accomplished within an incredibly short amount of time. What makes it doubly tricky is lack of sleep. Everything is more difficult when one has only had a few hours of shut-eye and long hours of moving about like a tornado.

After the dead has been buried, after the hustle and bustle of the wake, comes the quiet once more. Spent, one goes home to a house with one more less body and contemplates the events of the past few days, the present and the future. It is only at this time where one truly starts to grieve. Where the finality of death truly sinks in. Where one, sobbing and heaving in tears, finally realizes that the loved one is truly gone. That is a door firmly shut, never to be opened again, at least not in this lifetime.

In Six Feet Under, they usually end the show on a high note, because although the dead will never come back,
life must go on. So one must patch up that gaping hole in one's life pretty quick. Because lingering in pain is useless and denial is stupid.

No comments: