The Sound of No Hands Clapping

Mama, Me, and my Older Brothers (Twins)
There is a familiarity that comes from touching ground in the Dominican Republic on a plane full of natives and ex-patriates. The unmistakeable sound of hands clapping giving thanks to God for a safe arrival. When I was young I thought the ritual was a normal occurrence, it wasn't until I traveled on my own to other destinations that I learned it was particular to our culture.

On my latest visit to the Dominican Republic, a short trip that only ended a week ago, there were five passengers whose hands did not move as the rest of the cabin roared in thankful frenzy. These five passengers, myself included, were not returning to their motherland in a spirit of vacation or lush hedonism, instead we were returning to take our dear Mama to her hometown, the place she wished she would die in but due to fate uncontrolled by us mere mortals, we could only promise her that she could be buried there instead.

As the plane landed and my hands stayed firm on my lap, I knew that I could never experience this trip of going "home" the same way ever again.

In the Winter of 2011 I had the privilege of staying in the Dominican Republic for a few months, retracing my family history, exploring the country, and figuring out exactly who I was. I say I was privileged because my dear Mama gave me permission to live in her house while she bore the life of confinement in New York. I will not get into details about this trip as it is well documented in this here account of my life and travels. What I will point out is that towards the end of my stay in Mama's house, I was called home to NY as it appeared Mama's life was coming to an end. As a family we made our way to her, to say goodbye. She made it clear she did not want to die in New York, but that she wanted to die in the comfort of her rocking chair on her porch, next to her neighbors of 60 years, on the street where she not only raised her own children but several of her grandchildren as well. And so it was, that when she was well enough to travel she was sent home, for what appeared to be the last time.

We learned shortly thereafter that it was not indeed Mama's time to go to Heaven as we had anticipated. She returned to New York several months after I returned to my job in London. Her hearing started to deteriorate, and her ability to walk lessened. She became trapped on my mothers' living room couch, unable to fend for herself she was not allowed to go back home. On my weekly calls she would always ask me the same thing "When are you coming?" and I would always have the same answer "I don't know Mama."

About 6 months ago, I lost my job in London and like two years prior I had no choice but to leave the UK and find a new life somewhere else. Returning to New York seemed like a chore, an unappreciated option, and more like a punishment. I had faith that I was being taken to live in a city that I despised for a reason and so I kept my mouth shut and my spirits high. Though I did not live with my mother and Mama I did have the opportunity to see them quite often. My visits with Mama were simple ones, sitting by her as she read the Bible or watched Telenovelas.

She was in and out of hospital so often that we grew used to it. The last occasion however, turned out to be the most complicated. My mom took Mama in to see the doctor simply because she was worried that Mama wasn't eating enough. Mama, who was always still and could barely move on her own, went into a panic. The doctor reacted and gave her a sedative that put her in a coma, one that she would seemingly never wake from.

For the next month we came and sat with Mama, watching her sleep, machines pumping air and liquids into her body keeping her alive. The choice had to be made and our parents, her children, decided to remove the machines. I knew it was the right thing to do, Mama was no longer with us. I felt angry because I missed out on hearing her voice for the last time, her soft laugh, her asking us to bless her as she often did, I never got to look into her eyes and let her know I was grateful to have been her family. The one thing that I did know is that I was glad I was here, present in her surroundings for the last few months of her life, a gift I am eternally grateful for.

On the day of her scheduled death, she woke from her coma. She looked as us, following us with her gaze, listening to our words and moving her hands and arms in what I would like to believe was her way of saying Good Bye. She closed her eyes again and went back to sleep just before they turned off the machines. She fought hard for a good five hours before she lost all ability to breath on her own. Watching her suffocate was a hard thing to do, but being by her side with some of my other cousins and her children is the way I would like to die someday. If I was in London it would have been an experience I would have regretted missing, not because I wanted to see her go, but because I wanted her to know that I was there, that WE were there.

Flying to the Dominican Republic was a whirlwind adventure in itself. Not to disregard the experience of the funeral and the sermons, what I would like to focus on — for it had an impact on me like no other experience in my life — was her actual burial. Set into a family tomb with her mother, sister, and other family members, her plot is the highest in an eight person tomb. The only two empty plots were hers and her only surviving sibling, my Tío Dario.

It took about six men to shuffle her oversized American coffin through the narrow passages of the Dominican Cemetery. Void of any actual paths, I said sorry over every grave I stepped over. We had no choice but to climb onto all the tombs that surrounded the Rosario Pena Ortiz Family House and watch as she was hoisted up over a barrel and plunged into a grave that was too small for her coffin. Scared that she would not fit, everyone went into a panicked prayer as the gravediggers forcefully shuffled our Mama back and forth into the plot. We were all holding white balloons, one for each year of her life, and as the gravediggers gave her a final push that ensured her place in the tomb, we let go of the balloons and I found myself shouting without thought: "Goodbye Mama!" as 87 white balloons filled the sky in the blazing heat of that Dominican afternoon.

Flying back to the States I cannot even remember if passengers clapped on our landing in New York. I feel at peace with what transpired and I can say with certainty that Mama's farewell was a beautiful one.

My time here is now short lived, just like in 2011 when I returned to London after Mama returned home, I will be leaving New York once more as Mama has returned home for the last time.

Thanks to a job offer, this time it will be somewhere new, somewhere different, somewhere bold. I don't exactly know what plan God has for my life, but I do know He likes to move me around, bringing me to New York only in the moments where it is necessary, once the reason is past, I have to start packing.

Goodbye Mama. Thank you for taking care of us and seeing us grow, rest in peace with your mom and sisters, and bask in the glory of our Father in Heaven. You shall live forever in our hearts.

The Sound of No Hands Clapping The Sound of No Hands Clapping Reviewed by Christópher Abreu Rosario on 11:00 Rating: 5

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