My beloved father-in-law, Aurelio ("Lelo", or "Papi Lelo", as his friends called him), died on Sunday evening at the age of 53. I cannot describe the feeling of loss, but will try - a black hole that manifests itself in profound sadness and deep depression. He was one of my best friends. And I miss him like I've missed no other person in my life.
I awoke from a Sunday afternoon nap to screams about 200 meters up the road toward my sister-in-law's house - screams that give me a chill and goose bumps as I write. I leapt out of bed. My niece (who lives with us) was studying downstairs for exams and bolted out of the house shrieking, "¡Que! ¡Que! ¡Que!" ("What! What! What!). My thoughts were a little kid had fallen, been hit by a car... Where was my daughter, Laila!!??
I jumped in my pickup and peeled out toward my sister-in-law's. Some construction workers on the lot next door to her house were looking over the fence toward her cousin's house. I asked them what was up. They didn't know. I saw a lot of pandemonium at the cousin's house. I drove around to the other road at the hardware store that accesses the house. My sister-in-law and niece were screaming and crying like I've never seen or heard before, in each other's arms - my niece trying to gain control of my sister-in-law. I asked what had happened. She screamed her papi was dead in her house!!!!!
By this time people were walking over the check out the scene. I U-turned, arrived at the house to find my wife on the porch sitting, rocking with her arms around her, screaming and sobbing, "¡No, no mi papi! ¡Mi papi se murio! Nooooo!!!!!" I embraced her, began to cry with her, then told her I had to go inside.
I entered to see my brother-in-law (son of Lelo) sitting on the couch in a trance. I bolted up the spiral stairway and found Lelo on the floor in one of the bedrooms. Another neighbor was seated on the bed, exhausted after trying to resuscitate him. I felt Lelo's forehead. It was on fire. Then one of Lelo's brothers and his grandchild (whom he raised as a son), arrived. The brother felt his head and made the same comment I did about how hot he felt. The grandson got on the floor in tears and put his head on Lelo's chest, sobbing, "Mi papi, no papi..." Lelo's lips were gray. I couldn't watch.
I went back down to console my wife, Carla. But where was my child? Carla said she was still sleeping at the house. I told her I had to go back for her. As I walked back, I encountered my niece, hysterical and in tears, sobbing, dragging my daughter, Laila, back toward me - she had gone back to get her. I grabbed Laila and my niece shot for the house again. She's 14 years old, grand-daughter of Lelo, and also raised by him with her brother, aforementioned.
At this point, people were flooding in, most standing outside, many passing upstairs to where Lelo lay. The ambulance had been called, but had not arrived after almost 25 minutes. Everyone was concentrating on calming my sister-in-law down. She was beside herself, hysterical.
The paramedics finally arrived. They could not save Lelo. He was pronounced dead. My wife was now of a relatively level head and was taking charge. I couldn't help but feel sad and proud at the same time. One of her relatives approached me and told me she had a bag containing all of Lelo's personal possessions that I should take out of the house now. There was a small amount of cash, his cedula, debit cards, watch, rings, etc. - I hid the bag in my truck.
My daughter had no idea what was going on and couldn't understand why mami and papi were crying, and why all these people were here. But 2-1/2 year-olds are pliable. I told here Papi Lelo was sick and we were all trying to help him.
By this time, the women were in the kitchen preparing sandwiches and soft drinks for those arriving - this only happens when a dead person is not coming back. In Costa Rica, the funeral vigil lasts two or three days and begins very soon after the moment of death. While the women took over the kitchen, the men were on the phone to the pastor, the mason (who would construct the crypt), the funeral home that would provide the casket, and the grave diggers who would excavate a shallow hole at the cemetery in Sardinal. The body had not cooled. But in Costa Rica, you don't get embalmed. So the clock starts ticking the minute you die - decomposition accelerated by tropical heat.
I opened the restaurant and donated serving plates, ice, chairs and tables for the vigil. People were piling up in front of the house. A small group of us had drinks at the bar while young men moved the chairs and tables. Word was out and some more people arrived at the bar drawn by the open door on a day when I'm normally closed. They all knew Lelo and were shocked. I loaded up beers in a cooler for the vigil.
The funeral home was called. By 11PM, Papi Lelo lay in a beautiful, hard-wood closed-top wooden casket with an intermediary glass partition for viewing (bluntly: it's a "see-through" closed casket to avoid "off-gases"), and an inlay of Jesus at The Last Supper on each side. He was then moved to his house at the beach, with everything in tow - chairs, tables, food. Someone donated a through-wall A/C unit to keep the room he was in at the beach house cool to stave off Mother Nature for as long as possible. It was propped up on a stool and a plastic trash bag covered the remainder of the window opening.
Hotel Playa Hermosa donated tents. More plastic chairs and tables were rented to assemble in front of the house and on the beach. A steer was slaughtered. Flowers poured in in the middle of the night. The "kitchen" was set up behind the house - three wood fire pits with gigantic cauldrons were constructed out of cinder block to cook rice, and make a beef stew. A large preparation and serving table was constructed. People on vigil need to eat. Everyone pitched in. It was absolutely amazing!
My wife's two sisters who live in California were arriving on different flights at different times very late on Monday night. Eventually, they both arrived. I had to leave the scene. I broke down when her younger sister stormed into the house screaming, "¡Donde esta mi papi! ¡Quiero mi papi!". It was too much for me.
I spent the 36 hours tending to the needs of my daughter, my wife and myself, talking to friends, neighbors and relatives and eating and drinking, as my wife tended to the needs of her deceased father, and all of the friends and relatives arriving to pay their last respects. Nuns arrived. My wife didn't sleep for 2 days. I cheated, and took cat naps in my pickup with Laila spread across the back seat when she needed a nap and I needed to collapse. Mosquitos were a downer, and I never really slept (even when you crack the windows 1/2", mosquitos find their way in). Laila is "Pura Guanacasteca", and was a real trooper.
I took Laila home for a shower, to change here into her pajamas and to read to her at about 11pm on Monday night. The mass in Playa Hermosa was scheduled for 7am the next day, with another mass at the church in Sardinal following. Then, we would lift his casket and walk from the Sardinal church to the cemetery (about 3 or 4 kilometers) to entomb him. I awoke at 12:30 am to my wife's voice on the telephone. There was blood in her father's mouth and he was bloating. They had to head to the cemetery at 1am to lay him in his final resting place - NOW! She was weeping when she hung up.
I arrived at 1am with Laila, fast asleep on the back seat. There was a delay. Someone had determined that the situation with Lelo's corpse was not as grave as thought. We would wait until 5am to proceed to the cemetery. I tried to sleep on top of the lock box, outside in the bed of my pickup until then, and managed to get a few minutes of sleep.
At 5am the procession started. A bus accommodated those without cars or whom could not hitch a ride in the back of packed pickups. We arrived at the cemetery at 5:20am. We walked to the gravesite where the mason was working to complete the formwork for the top of the tomb (with the amount of precipitation we recieve here, bodies float. So they are entombed in a masonry box with decorative tile, above ground - think New Orleans). A prepared pile of aggregate, cement and sand lay awaiting along side to complete the top of the tomb.
I and 4 others moved Lelo's casket from the back of the white Caprice Classic station wagon to a stand placed next to his final resting place. The casket cover was opened for last views of Lelo, and for last respects. Lelo's eldest daughter wept and groaned on top of the casket and would not let them close it. My mother-in-law stepped in.
The formwork was completed. A garden hose was located and connected to a spigot and the pile of concrete mix on the ground whetted by one and mixed with shovels by 2 others. The casket was lifted on belts by 4 people, lowered and adjusted in place in the cement block tomb. The belts were removed. Kids laid flowers on top of it as bottom boards were placed on top of the tomb in succession, along with a re-bar grid to reinforce the poured concrete that was tied into the re-bar verticals in the cement filled block sidewalls. Two wheel barrows moved the mix in succession, with each load shoveled and troweled on top until Lelo was entombed. People then began to file out of the cemetery. The finish work on the tomb would be completed later.
It was over.
Aurelio had touched my life profoundly without me even knowing so. He was the great provider for his family, sent his 6 kids and 2 grand-kids to private schools, adopted and raised his 2 grandchildren. He was the only person I know here who would give his word on a handshake - and keep it no matter what... The only one! He supported me in my launch of my restaurant, going above and beyond the call in countless ways - he wanted me to succeed and helped me in every possible way to ensure that I did succeed - ways I couldn't even think of. Ways that cost him money, time and effort. He was "Abuelo" to my daughter - her beloved grandfather , "Papi Lelo". He had his faults, like the rest of us. But those were eclipsed tenfold by his love, generosity, humility, integrity and intelligence. Yeah, he was a smart guy too. Smart like a fox. He was the rock of the family.
Now we have no rock. My wife told me I'm the rock now. Great compliment. Big shoes to fill. Scares me.
Te quiero, Lelo. Para siempre. And if I have another kid who is a boy, he will have your name. I love you. I miss you. I will always remember you. And I will make sure Laila remembers you too. I'm sick with despair. But I'm richer for having known and loved you. You've made me a better man that I was before I knew you.
What I'd give to be able to play one more game of pool with you over a beer and some conversation, my father-in-law, my friend... I love you! R.I.P.