Two Sides of Death

Karyn Miller - Brazil


March 20, 2011

At the last GCY Brazil monthly meeting, we commenced as we always do: went around and told a high point and a low point of the last month in our homestays. Somewhat overly emotional, I couldn’t keep the tears from falling as I said that my high and low point were probably wrapped up in the same event: the death of my host mother’s grandmother.

Weeks earlier we had learned that she had stomach cancer, and that the family had decided to operate. But at 87 years, there were doubts that she would be able to recover. Then one Sunday morning at about 7am, after 4 hours of sleep, Seu Jaime, my host grandfather and son of the senhora, came to the house with the news. And so, they were off to Sao Sebastiao for the burial, because it needed to take place within 24hours of the death. Raquel turned to me, “Do you want to come?” I thought for a moment. “Yes. I knew her, even if it was brief. I want to go.”

When we arrived at the house I could still see her as she had been on Boxing Day, elderly but vivacious, seated on the orange sofa in the back courtyard, eating her plantains and adding the comments of a wise matriarch to our conversations.

This image was hard to retain when her casket arrived and Raquel and Seu Jaime, shoulders shaking with sobs, began to unscrew the lid. As her face, so peaceful but so morbid, appeared beneath the netting, my shoulders also began to shake.

Those tremors returned throughout the day as I watched this enormous family reunite and thought of my own, so far from me for such a long time. With every hug and smile, every introduction and explanation of who I was, I felt simultaneously horribly out of place and welcomed warmly. My American “I have no right to be here” was countered by the Brazilian, “come in, sit down, and let me introduce you to twenty of my cousins—the ones who I actually know.”

We marched to the cemetery, taking up two lanes of traffic, and I was humbled by the number of people this woman had touched. It was sober but very Brazilian—introductions taking place mid-pace—but as I slipped up to Raquel’s side and took her hand, she turned and smiled at me, and I finally felt like one of the family. We walked in silence, but we didn’t need words.

I returned to Nova Suica feeling a new acceptance with my host family, often so harsh and thick-skinned. There was an emotional connection that emerged from having experienced such a vulnerable time with them. I even felt close to members of the extended family now, and one random guy had sworn that he had seen my birth. I was the one who held the precious photo of the senhora, the sole reminder that Seu Jaime had wanted from the house, while we rode in the van.

But on the way back, I stopped at an internet café in Santo Amaro, in need of some emotional support in English, and found out that one of my high school classmates had recently died as well.

That was the third death in my life in the course of two months. Two months in the middle of a 7 month span away from home. Deaths that were before their time or vivid to experience. Through them, I’ve been reminded of forces beyond our control, and that random, senseless losses occur in life. But I was also reminded that our best sides emerge in times of suffering, and in the face of sadness you can discover peace and happiness.

Karyn Miller