Many family members came. There were many I had not seen for years, and some I didn’t even recognize. Childhood friends came to say farewell to a woman who had been a second mother to them. Fellow residents and colleagues from the residency program attended, and even the staff of the rehabilitation facility came to say goodbye to the patient they had cared for during these last three difficult years. They, along with her nurses’ aides, had developed a communication with Sylvia based on eye contact and smiles that allowed them to efficiently address any hint of discomfort on her face. Some of my sister’s friends from her job also came to provide her with emotional support while she sat with my aunt Ginette in the row reserved for the family of the deceased. It was a calm atmosphere overall, and people strayed from the body in the coffin to other areas in the room. The family was Catholic and very often someone would kneel in front of the coffin to offer a prayer – presumably on behalf of my mother.
Claude characteristically added some degree of sophistication to that emotionally trying night by bringing what I presumed to be some of my mother’s favorite classical audio discs. Classical music provided a soothing background for the emotions that flooded that room, a guiding rhythm for the pulsations of our breasts. I wore a black tie given to me by a close friend the night before the wake. That was one of an infinite number of acts of kindness by an endless array of people that kept me sane throughout this ordeal. Eventually, one woman who I presumed held a deacon position in the Church began to sing a religious song in French to which the congregation responded to as a choir. She sang in a clear, sad, melancholic manner that reminded me of the Gregorian chants that used to awaken me as a child in my mother’s house. The congregation answered her chants in unison with a harmonious melody of sadness and awe. It was sad and uplifting at the same time. I didn’t fully understand the words but I was moved.
After several long minutes of this, the congregation spontaneously stopped singing and a priest who I had never met before walked up to a podium that was placed in the front of the room to give a eulogy. He was a dark, handsome, middle-aged Haitian man who wore a traditional Catholic priest’s attire, consisting of a white collar under a black shirt and jacket. He spoke slowly and the microphone carried his voice magnificently. He spoke in French, English, and Creole to satisfy everyone who gathered there. He spoke very well of my mother, which surprised me considering I couldn’t remember ever meeting him. His face was not one that I could recall seeing in the hospital when my mother was sick. Nonetheless, he spoke of my mother almost as if he had regular contact with her. He spoke many good things about Sylvia and I paid attention to each word spoken. I reasoned that if he hadn’t known my mother personally he sure had done his research. I wondered who he must have spoken to in order to say the things he said. As I listened to him, it dawned on me that he knew about my mother but didn’t really know her.
After he spoke, he led us into a long prayer and told everyone when and where the funeral mass would be held. I saw people getting up to speak to one another once again and greet the immediate family before leaving. It bothered me that some in the audience didn’t know who she was as a person and were getting it second hand from someone who probably didn’t know her either. I had a strong desire to have people see Sylvia through my eyes, to know her as I knew her. As the conversations began to get louder, I got up from my seat, walked towards the podium, and took the microphone. With my heart beating a little faster than usual, I asked everyone to please sit down because I had something I wanted to say. I think everyone except my sister who knew me best was surprised. After all, the service was over and people were getting ready to go home. But they sat back in their seats and waited to hear what I had to say.
The room became even quieter than when the priest was speaking. They gave me their full attention. With my heart ready to burst out of my chest, I opened my mouth but found it difficult to speak. I hadn’t cried since hearing of my mother’s death and as far as I was concerned, I think I was holding up pretty well. I was greeting everyone with a smile and being a good host in helping people to find seats. I hadn’t even sat in the row reserved for the family of the deceased. I was wondering where my tears were and why I hadn’t yet cried. The last thing I wanted to do was to burst out uncontrollably in front of everyone, but that was my fear. That would have been natural I thought, but I didn’t want to start crying then.
I felt my eyes begin to moisten as I looked out into the audience. My knees began to feel weak and a lump found its way into my throat.I opened my mouth again and this time, thankfully, the words started coming out. I invited the audience to see Sylvia through the eyes of her son. I spoke of her passion and undying love for her children, her sacrifices, and her shortcomings. I spoke of her temper and how she was never perfect but did the best she could with what she knew. I spoke of my mother as a pioneer, as someone who went ahead to the United States and forged a path for many to follow. Everyone but my sister had his or her eyes on me. Carline sat in the front with her eyes lowered. I think we both knew that if we had made eye contact I would have fallen apart. With each word I spoke, I knew that it was God Himself who gave me the strength to speak as I did.