Nueve Dias

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I don’t know if I believe in god.

I don’t know if I believe in predetermination.

I don’t know if I believe in karma or entropy, god’s will or god’s plan.

I don’t know if we pay it forward, or pay it back, whether there’s heaven or hell, or even purgatory, though at times I feel that I am living there.

I don’t know if I believe in the Earth, or the Universe, reincarnation or divinity.

I just haven’t figured it all out yet.


And, at times like last Sunday, I wish I knew.


Saying it makes it real, writing it makes it permanent – Matilda died in my hand on Sunday night after sustaining injuries from me stepping on her. I stepped on Matilda, a 3-week old kitten I was caring for, and watched her take her last labored breaths of life as her tiny body convulsed in my hand.


Words are insufficient to describe what I felt in that moment – to describe the grief, the pain, the sorrow, guilt and shame. It was an accident they told me – and yet I felt suffocated by my guilt, reliving the horrific accident over and over, bursting into intermittent sobs until there was not a single tear left in my swollen eyes. The silence that filled my house for days after was a painful reminder of how, for a week, my house had been filled with the cries of two 3-week old kittens who missed their mother.


I wasn’t sure I was ready for pets. I had been mulling it over since I arrived here, unsure of the responsibility, of the risks, of the costs. But as it were, two tiny kittens were abandoned nearly on my doorstep, so I took the orphans in to care for them as best as I could. I was skeptical of the commitment and the task of nursing kittens so young – feeding them powdered cow milk by hand 5x daily with a balloon designed to clean earwax, massaging their rears to help them learn to go to the bathroom, wiping kitten poop of their legs and faces... But after a week, they grew on me, with their relentless crying and their constant nagging – the way they fell asleep on my feet, and would run to me from across the room. The way they always wanted to climb up my shirt to nuzzle in my neck… And though I spent the whole day worried that Molly was dying, as she suffered from severe diarrhea and was weakening by the hour, in the end, it was Matilda who left me.


Life can be so fragile.


I’ve labored over the decision to tell this story. I still feel shame and incredible guilt that the very life I was trying to save, tragically ended under my foot. The moment still haunts me, is she okay? Did I break her leg? She stumbled after I stepped on her, trying to regain her composure, and for a couple of minutes I thought her fine, until I saw how limp her body had become. I picked her up in my hand, sobbing, begging her to be okay, to pull through, that she couldn’t leave me. Her tiny body, fitting snuggly in the palm of my hand, delicately weighing less than a pound, began to shake and she tried to cry out, but no sound could be heard. And suddenly I knew, in an instant, she was no longer with me.


I ran from the house, mad by my grief, weighed down by enormous guilt that I had robbed this tiny creature, completely dependent on me for love and support, of her life. My neighbors buried her the next morning.


Molly, who I had begged to stay with me, that I would care for her and she could care for me, that it would be just the two of us now, cried out that night, looking for her sister. She whimpered as the night grew longer, and by morning it was clear she had lost all desire to live. I wrapped her in the washcloth I had used to care for them both, and stayed with her until she died that afternoon. She now lies next to her sister under a palm in my neighbors yard.


On Wednesday, I watched my best friend’s family suffer their own loss. I’s grandfather died late in the night on Tuesday, as my neighbor told me through my bedroom window at 7am on Wednesday morning. “Just so you know,” she said, “Andres died last night.” He had been in and out of the hospital with various problems since I came to Juana Díaz, but it still seemed so sudden…


At the funeral that afternoon, I stood in the cemetery, shaded by my black and white umbrella as the Caribe sun beat down on us, watching the parade of sadness, stunned into paralysis. The whole community was in the cemetery, watching, clutching, as they put the casket into the cement structure and began to cement him in. My friend’s mother was hysterical, sobbing and crying out. They told me afterwards that she was taken to the hospital because her hysteria had made her ill.


Someone who I saw everyday, sitting on his porch greeting me as I would pass, was there one day and gone the next. M had lost her father – and I, her grandfather. My heart ached for their sadness and yet I felt numb. I had buried my own mixed feelings about death and suffering with my two kittens on Monday to survive the week—to survive my own horrific loss. So, on Wednesday, when I’s loss weighed heavily on the community, I could only observe, as an outsider, as if watching some deeply sad and tragic movie. There was nothing anyone could do to alleviate their pain – so as they cried out, clinging on to one another, outwardly expressing their grief as I had never seen before, I stood transfixed in fascination, unable to express any more sorrow. Unable to express anything at all.


Today at one of the Nueve Dias prayer, held for 9 days after death, I saw the same simple numbness wiped across the face of I and her mother. They were still grieving, but it was apparent that a shift had occurred. As Catholics, they believe that God has a plan and that the deceased are ushered into either heaven or hell. They sleep soundly at night, knowing that Andres is now with god. He is up in the sky, with marshmallow clouds and eternal sunlight. But where does that leave me? –with all my confusions about faith and religion, what to believe about life after death… what to believe about life at all?


It leaves me dwelling on how fragile life is. It leaves me thinking about how magical life is—how something beautiful and remarkable lights us up from within. It leaves me thinking about how easily the light can be extinguished…


From the back of a pickup truck as we left the cemetery on Wednesday afternoon, someone told me, “You know, there’s places in this world where people cry not when people die, but when they are born. And those people smile when someone dies, not because someone died, but because someone lived—because life is beautiful.

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“Sunset at the Railroad” by PCV Nicholas Baylor Hall. Namibia, 2011.