I used to have a stigma about dead bodies. I didn’t look at them during funerals, in pictures, even on TV; I always turned away. The fear of what I’d see had me bound.
So, when Ana insisted on showing me Corito’s ashes, I didn’t know what to say. How do you politely tell a woman who’d been married 62 years that you’d really rather not gaze upon her dead husband’s remains? How do you say that to a friend? I just couldn’t, choosing instead I shut my mouth and brace for whatever horror awaited me. I’d never seen human ashes before, and prayed the graphic images flashing through my mind would cease.
Ana, on the other hand, seemed calm, peaceful, and I consciously slowed my breathing to match hers. As I began to relax, she lifted a surprisingly small container from her windowsill and sat back beside me on her bed … their bed. Corito had been her lifelong love, and she seemed almost eager to share a flood of memories with me. It wasn’t the first time she’d made me feel like family.
Ana and Corito became my downstairs neighbors nearly two years before. Rarely could I pass their door without her somehow sensing my approach and snatching me inside for food and conversation.
“Too thin,” she’d always say, grasping my torso and rattling my ribs.
Corito, wearing a smile despite weekly dialysis treatments and hearing loss, typically waved a shaky hand as he shuffled past in slippers. Often, the whistling of his hearing aid greeted me before he did, but he made sure to offer a kind “Hello” before settling somewhere under a comforter. That sweet, simple greeting was the only word Corito ever spoke to me; Ana was the one who’d learned conversational English. After living more than eight decades in Southeast Asia, Corito didn’t feel the need.
In spite of the language barrier, he had a manner, a flash in his eyes, that always welcomed me warmly into his home. He effectively filled the space with his spirit of hospitality and kindness. Ana must have been devastated to lose the man with whom she’d walked through three-quarters of her life. And this day, with a glistening look that offered strength, she wanted to share the depths of her loss … the depths of her heart … with me. Somewhere in my spirit, I heard words from I John 4:18 … perfect love casts out fear. In that instant, instead of being afraid, I felt honored to be invited to so intimate a setting, to share so intimate a moment.
Ana opened the box and we sat in silent for several seconds. The contents looked a lot like ordinary beach sand, but no beach had ever brought waves of sadness like those that suddenly washed over me. Slowly, she slid her hand onto mine and squeezed it as if to say, Here we are … together again. But we both knew, he had already gone, risen beyond body. While the remains in the box once belonged to Corito, they had become Ana’s ashes, a tangling of memories and emotions ground to dust.
“My husband always love ocean,” she smiled into the box. “You go with Ana … to say goodbye?”
I squeezed her hand in return. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
We sat together there for some time, Ana embracing her ashes as if they were still flesh and blood, and I pictured her scattering them to the ocean wind. I was proud to know this strong woman, and I could only imagine what blessings and heartaches the path of life had extended to her over the years. Despite losing her partner in love, Ana appeared in no rush to step off the path and into eternity. I found great peace in her certainty that, although Corito no longer walked with her, she never walked alone.
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