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In Lolo's Wake -- creative nonfiction by Jeffrey Kunzweiler

The first burial I ever went to was that of my lolo. It was January, but it was still relatively warm, the way it had been all winter. Forty degrees, clear sky, bleak air, no frost on the grass yet just as brittle––from my vantage point in the second row of my dad’s truck, it was truly a day fit for a funeral.

Funeral processions are grander in movies. The road from the parking lot to the crypts was short and the chain of cars was nowhere near the scale of, say, Michael Jackson’s funeral. Not that I expected anything like that. I spent the short ride messing with my tie, which was pinching my neck a little too tightly, and looking out at the cemetery. The gravestones tracked me with eyes that did not exist like curious meerkats as we approached the mausoleum. I wondered why Lolo wanted to be kept indoors rather than in the ground. I wondered if he was the one who had made that decision.

The mausoleum possessed a sort of gravity I had never experienced in my life. The crypts were not visible when I walked through the front door, but their aura materialized in the goosebumps running up my neck. Never before had I been around so much death in one place––not the tragic kind, but the melancholic kind, somber mourning that hung in the air in a thick fog. A marble white altar sat in front of the crucifix mounted on the back wall. There was nothing between us and the ceiling. I found my eyes shifting upwards at the skylight or down at the gray carpet tiles without realizing it.

It was quiet other than one person: my Tita Fe, who, the last time I saw her, was a kind old woman who showered me with kisses when I was young and food when I got older, and always looked great for her age. She could be considered my grandmother, but I wasn’t related to her––Lolo’s family tree was more complicated than that. I caught a glimpse of her as she exited someone’s car in front of the mausoleum. She had lost a lot of her hair, and what was left was much grayer than I remembered. She also needed a walker now, and her back was hunched, her fingers bony, legs trembling, eyes stricken with grief. Echoing in the empty church were her wails, acidic, rattling so terribly I felt it in my chest. This Tita Fe, I decided, was not the Tita Fe I saw every August 11th on Lolo’s birthday.

There was a middle aisle that divided two sections of chairs. Lolo’s coffin rested at the end of the walkway. It was shiny, black, with golden edges to the lid, exactly what I expected a coffin to look like. I’ve seen coffins before––on TV and in pictures––but there was something about knowing my grandfather’s body was right in front of me that made me brutally aware of the blood flowing through my neck. I ended up sitting directly in front of the coffin, on the corner seat next to the aisle.

I didn’t try to sit the closest, it was just the way everyone filed into the seats. It became painfully obvious to me that I was among the least deserving of an unobstructed view of Lolo. The person across the aisle, as close as I was, was Tita Fe. She wept and cried out in English and Tagalog, incoherent regardless. I kept my head down, hands folded on my lap, respectful, but little more than that. I was not in grief. I never spent any time with Lolo. I was not there when he had his first heart attack, I was not beside him on his deathbed, I never even told him goodbye. The people behind me loved him much more than I did––I grieved for their loss, not mine.

“Thank you for coming, everybody.” A mortician stood next to Lolo’s coffin. I stared at him––white, pudgy face, shaved beard, glasses, bald––and wondered why the hell he was thanking us for coming, as if he had known Lolo’s name for longer than a day. “If you would like, I invite you to touch the coffin, and bid your last farewells to Ricardo before we take him to his final resting place.”

The coffin was right there, but I didn’t want to get up, not first, at least. Tita Fe, with the help of her children, stood up. Her quiet sobbing quickly escalated to the same wails that burned holes in our hearts. She wrapped her arms around the coffin as far as she could and pressed her cheek into the coffin.

“Don’t leave me!” she cried. “Don’t leave me!”

Following Tita Fe were all of the adults, Lolo’s kids. They came up together and rested a hand on the coffin, their tears more discreet than Fe but still obvious. They hugged and cried together, their calm, collected faces vanishing like butter in the sun until their eyes melted down their cheeks. I watched and waited, biting my lip to keep my tears from coming. I hated seeing my mom cry. I wished I could join her, but fear stopped me––I didn’t want to be the first grandkid to stand.

It was my mom who invited us to come touch the coffin. She mouthed something I didn’t make out, but I knew what she meant. Everybody else had returned to their seats. The coffin was cold and metallic, slathered in oily handprints. I rested the back of my hand on the lid and pictured Lolo’s sleeping body. In my head, he was lying on his back with his arms folded atop his chest, his face sagging into a subtle frown. I wished I could open the coffin and see him for how he really was, but this desire was short-lived. A crew of five men took the coffin away as I returned to my seat. We were left staring at the spot where our one common relative had been a few seconds prior. Anyone would have felt the tension in the room, strung between stray glances and choked silence. We had come together because Lolo was here, after all, and now his absence was obvious. It was easier to think of us as two separate families when the bridge was gone.

The mortician thanked us for paying our respects and invited us to come upstairs to see his final resting place. Why he kept thanking us, like this somehow meant something to him, I didn’t know. How many of these had he done today?

The staircase was tight. The carpet was old and yellow, clinging to lint dropped from the clothes of the families that came before us. It muffled the clop, clop of dress shoes and heels, catching each step in its cushion. There was no conversation, either; the dead would not be disturbed in their sleep. The second floor was the origin of the mausoleum’s aura. Stacked up twenty feet in each wall were square marble crypts with names inscribed in gold, behind each the remains of a stranger. Tendrils of goosebumps wrapped around my arms. Lolo’s crypt was in the corner, around eye level. The door was open so we could see the coffin inside. Tita Fe burst into tears and anguished moans. I clamped my hands together a little harder.

Lolo’s crypt was adjacent to three others. Above him was the Sarno family, to his right were the Ianettis, and below him were the Guitos. Strangers in life yet neighbors in death, to spend the rest of their existence together until this mausoleum gets caught in the crossfire of some war or a terrible accident happens. I wondered if they would have gotten along if they had known each other in life. Each one contained more than one body and more than one name. Maybe somebody will join Lolo here, in a few years. Maybe I will walk up those ghostly stairs again for someone else.

Tito Wes, during the silent mourning, walked into the middle of the arch we formed around Lolo’s crypt. He was the eldest son of him and Fe or any of his children, and the only one who was there at Lolo’s time of death.

“I know we are all in grief right now,” he started. His tears were gone, giving his face an almost happy impression. I knew that wasn’t true. The crevices in his face were deep, carving out lines that made him ten years older, age that comes only as a result of stress and turmoil. “But I think that Dad would be happy right now, seeing us all here. He would say, ‘now this is what I lived for!’”

He gestured around with his hands and a genuine smile. I followed his wistful gaze at every person gathered around him. I know that Lolo’s death did not bring this family together as some of us hoped it would. There were fights and tears and angry phone calls and spitefully ignored ones that I saw only because it was written on everyone’s faces. Tito Wes probably knew because he was on the other line.

“That used to be Dad’s walker, too.” He stepped over to Tita Fe. Two people came over to help her up, as if it were prepared, though I doubted it. “Do you mind if I borrow it?”

Tita Fe’s smile was distant, involuntary. “Oh, yes, here, have it.”

“When Dad could no longer walk unassisted, he didn’t want to use the walker.” Wes rolled the walker to the center. “I said, ‘Dad, please use the walker.’ And he said, ‘You want me to use it? Ok, fine.’ Here’s what he would do.”

He flipped the walker backwards and flamboyantly sat on the seat below the handles. A chuckle radiated from our general direction. “He’d say, ‘push me.’ He was so stubborn. I could never get him to use it properly.”

Tita Fe laughed. She sounded the way she used to. Tito Wes rolled the walker back to her, still backwards, and motioned to the seat with her hands. “Here, now you try.” He eased her into the seat, laughing because her feet didn’t reach the ground.

That’s how Tita Fe left Lolo––on the back of his old red walker, pushed by Tito Wes the same way he used to be.

I left Lolo by paying a final glance at the foot of his coffin and walking back down the stairs.

We all went to our favorite restaurant afterwards. I didn’t exactly remember the last time I saw Lolo, but it was most likely here. Being a successful doctor, he used to give all his grandchildren one hundred dollars every time he saw us. I was reflecting on the fact I would never receive his gifts ever again when Tita Fe stood up, unassisted, during dinner.

“Rick would always give the grandkids one hundred dollars,” she said. Her voice wobbled but did not break. “So I have it right here. This is not from me, this is from Lolo.”

She turned to us holding a white envelope, thick with money. I caught her eye as she looked us over. It sparkled. The grandkids, including me, glanced at each other, as though afraid to be the first one to claim the gift.

While she waited, she addressed everybody again. “This is tradition. We will make this tradition. We will do this every time I see you, just like Lolo.” Everybody, stretched over three different tables, clapped with beaming smiles. “This is tradition!” she said again, emphasizing each word with a wave of her arm. The clapping continued. Written all over her face was grief, but some life had returned to her demeanor, a sort of conviction that lit up her eyes. I take it back. Tita Fe, I decided, was the same as always.

It was a miracle, really––my entire extended family together in one room for Lolo. Lolo, the man with two wives. Lolo, the man with two families. Lolo, whose very name stirs up mixed feelings among everybody in this room, yet it’s apparent we all love him enough to at least be here. Maybe his death wasn’t as divisive as I first thought. The bridge was gone, but didn’t mean he was never here in the first place.

I stood up to claim my one hundred dollars and looked out among the three tables we filled. I couldn’t remember the last time we were all together, the whole family. His family, my family, it’s one and the same.


Jeffrey Kunzweiler is a 16 year old student in New Jersey who hopes to write a book

someday. When he isn’t writing, he’s probably doing something else, like playing soccer, or sleeping. His work can be found in Teen Ink and Prisms.

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