Outside the Circle

Cindy Milstein

Ghost Stories: Rock, Paper, Ashes

Note: This piece originally appeared in my edited anthology Rebellious Mourning: The Collective Work of Grief, published in fall 2017 by AK Press. I encourage you to get and read the whole volume, beautifully designed by @eff_charm, and including over three dozen poignantly poetic, bittersweet, and beautiful voices. For more info or to order, see https://www.akpress.org/rebellious-mourning.html

*

As the crow flies, it’s a short distance from the spot on Bernal Hill where police murdered Alex Nieto to the sidewalk on Folsom Street where police murdered Amilcar Perez-Lopez. Eleven months separate their deaths, yet the geography of class war in San Francisco’s Mission District forever binds them.

When disappearance becomes daily, even hourly, linearity disappears. One is made dizzy in this neighborhood, dancing with all the ghosts.

So there’s no telling if their killings were before or after the arsons and lockouts, landlords as thugs and 24/7 police presence. No knowing where they fall on the timeline of white supremacist erasures of culture and myriad evictions by any means necessary. If they were slaughtered before or after blocks of luxury housing rose up overnight like mushrooms following a rainstorm, like pioneer wagons enclosing land, like gray cold-steel tombstones.

But those who desired to stay put in their community did know a simple truth. When state-sanctioned guns felled Alex and then Amilcar, neighbors instantly pointed to the culprit: gentrification.

It’s common knowledge here that cops and condos go hand in glove in fist.

*

As the bullet flies, it’s split seconds for people within earshot between life and execution, between being in one’s own home and pouring out into the street to converge with others.

On the night of February 26, 2015, the police went door-to-door, admonishing those living on both sides of Folsom, between 24th and 25th Streets, to keep indoors. The cops tried to tidy up their mess. A brown person shot in the back, now dead on the concrete, between two parked cars, outside his rented apartment. A person with a name, with friends and girlfriend here, with parents and siblings left behind in a small village in Guatemala.

Yet from behind curtains, people had heard and seen. They not only watched but also documented. They hung, suspended in disbelief, on the details of loss from within their houses. Then, after the police had shoved off, they scurried outdoors and hung onto each other.

Word spread. Photos too. Soon, across the Mission, others heard and saw.

Candles, flowers, crosses, sympathy cards, and other pallbearers of mourning were gathered. Images of Amilcar, coupled with words like Justicia and Yo Soy Amilcar, were color copied or screen printed. Adorned with such offerings, fused by tears and the heat of stunned silence, the sidewalk, the crime scene, became altar.

I’ve no memory of whether it was that night or the next, but this bit of pavement held us. From around our embattled neighborhood, we huddled together, in what was part wake, part witnessing, part rage and fear, wholly grief.

I remember being there with a friend who’d come here over a decade ago from Oaxaca. Her eyes stayed damp with “not again?” We hugged for a long time. She leaned her head against me, so close I could feel her breath, and looked over at her son, standing nearby. He, ten years old, was the exact same height as Amilcar, now forever frozen in his early twenties. He, her son, another brown person, could have been “mistaken” by police for another mother’s son, Amilcar.

I remember all the other eyes, shell-shocked embers in the candlelight. I remember Alex Nieto’s parents joining in this vigil, along other parents, sisters, and uncles of those who lives were stolen—people thrown together as now forever-bonded family, not out of choice, but from police-inflicted wounds only they could fully understand. I recall, too, Amilcar’s friends and housemates, struggling to speak, in Spanish, with others struggling to translate their words, into English—because no words could make sense of this in any language.

Someone figured out how to call the one community phone in Amilcar’s hometown. Someone told his family. What got translated to us was that his mother collapsed on the hearing the news. It hadn’t been long since Amilcar had sent toys home to his younger siblings and money so that his parents could buy a tractor for their subsistence farming.

A mere block or so away, not long after Amilcar’s callous end, other immigrants found themselves in the bull’s-eye. Their corner store and apartment above were ravaged by fire. Two were killed, father and child. The mother and her two surviving kids were left homeless. Their belongings, charred black and with the acrid smell of death, were heaped on the sidewalk, left for days, as if warning—by landlord, city, or police?—to spark further fear among the marginalized and precarious.

Such a sign was hardly necessary. Similar conflagrations were becoming regular occurrences in our neighborhood. Funny, people in the Mission observed, how a sprawling three-story building at Mission and 22nd Streets was consumed by flames, killing one and permanently evicting dozens of low-income and mostly Latino residents, but the extremely expensive new Vida—Spanish for “life”—apartment complex right next door received not a smudge. Here on 24th Street, where a haphazard array of bedraggled flowers clung desperately to the padlocked security gate pulled tight across the front of the burned-out corner store, neighbors with worn-out eyes greeted each other with, “Another arson.” Chalked words on the storefront’s pavement, done by a friend with solemn respect and raw pain, punctuated this point: “My neighbors keep getting killed and displaced by fires, gentrification, and police.”

That fire, Amilar’s death, were only two of so many losses that one can’t even keep them to memory, because minds only have so much room for pain. Mine is no exception. I was deep in grieving both my biological parents’ deaths, mere months apart, after over a year of caretaking them. My beloved collective house at 16th and Mission, and one of the few remaining autonomous political spaces in San Francisco, was in the midst of our own anticipatory grief. While we boldly proclaimed “RESISTING OUR EVICTION” from painted fabric hung outside our building and went on an equally bold offensive against our landlords, the anxiety was already tearing our home apart. And almost daily it seemed, I was going to yet another in a string of direct actions organized by Eviction Free San Francisco in often-vain hope of saving others from displacement. More than a few times, once ousted from their homes, longtime residents died within a week or month. Thousands of others were living on cardboard beds laid on patches of concrete—a city within a city.

Quickly we learned that Amilcar’s entire building, crowded with some two-dozen immigrant/undocumented men seeking a better life, had for some time been targeted for eviction. The landlord probably leaned on police to be the “stick” to get the tenants to leave. The carrot was reserved for the landlord: the promise of tripled or quadrupled rent in a housing market out of control. That likely explained why undercover cops were lurking outside Amilcar’s home that February night, and why housemates, fearing for their own lives, “self-evicted” shortly afterward.

The banner “EVICTION = DEATH” seemed to be unfurled frequently, not slogan but cruel reality.

*

As the mosquito flies, it’s mere hours between my mom’s terminal cancer coming out of its dormancy and my dad going into a coma from West Nile virus. One minute they’re lying together in bed, my mother sick from restarting chemo treatments that day. The next, my father topples onto the floor, into ambulance, into intensive care, ultimately onto the “life support” that made him captive to nonlife. That, in turn, compels my mom onto a walker, into a studio apartment in an independent living facility, among other women whose husbands are no longer.

Dust bunnies suddenly become the only inhabitants of my parents’ once-lively Midwest home, until a year later it too will no longer be part of my family.

Death didn’t do them part after decades. Their union was torn asunder by forces so much larger than themselves. My mom’s cancer was a rare type, eating away at her bones. A virus had incapacitated my dad. But my dad’s long years laboring for the State of Michigan had allowed retirement with fantastic health insurance, so they had only the finest “care” money could buy. They believed in that, and that it would cure them.

Through my “anarchist glasses,” to borrow from anthropologist James C. Scott, it looked altogether different. I saw not their symptoms but pathologies like capitalism. I saw cancer as the ubiquitous by-product of commodification, churning out toxins while making consumer goods, or making consumer goods that are themselves toxic. I saw a tiny insect, newly weaponized and relocated by military-industrial climate catastrophe. And I saw clearly a health insurance complex that views ill bodies as growth industry.

One minute I’m in a vibrant metropole, surrounded by social movement and anarchists, community and possibility. The next, sleepless, I’m in an airport. I’m on my own, waiting for a connecting flight to a tired Rust Belt town. CNN plays on the television by my gate. “West Nile epidemic in Michigan” flashes across the big screen; four or five deaths reported across the state. I recall thinking how it wasn’t an epidemic at all. How relative to population, so few people had perished. How mainstream media sensationalizes. Then I didn’t give it another thought. I boarded a plane to end up in a hospital.

A week later, the diagnosis came in. It surprised us all, even though one health worker after another suggested testing for the virus. “They watch too much television,” I mumbled to myself. I now imagined CNN adding one more miniscule number to its rolling-repeat story on the Michigan epidemic.

None of the medical staff knew what to do. The disease was rare, and they had little knowledge about it and no experience. I dived into research, becoming as expert as I could through the fog of two parents simultaneously facing death and my life irrevocably altered. I advised numerous doctors-who-didn’t-listen-well. The head one said I needed to give permission to insert a tracheotomy into my comatose dad, who couldn’t breath on his own. The temporary tube ensured oxygen, but air and time were running out. Meanwhile, feeding and peeing tubes snaked around his paralyzed body. As reply to my direct question, this particular doctor-who-didn’t-listen-well declared, “There are no downsides. It’s a simple procedure.” I signed the form.

During the overnight shift, a chatty night nurse pulled me aside, an enormous crucifix hanging across her chest. She said she’d pray for me. As I would come to find, there were a lot of crosses among the workers. There were a lot of offers of prayers and “God bless you.” My being godless Jew seemed incomprehensible, and so went unremarked. “Here’s what the doctors didn’t tell you,” she confided. An hour later, I knew the downside: suspended life, suspended death; that is, until ugly death in ugly institution making bank from stockpiling zombie-like beings. I knew I should have said no. “Hospice,” she said, without a hint of discomfort. “Bring everyone together. Surround yourselves with what has meaning and say good-bye while he’s still here. Let him die well.”

I often think back to that nurse. She became my temporary breathing aid—that nurse who did the right thing when she didn’t have to. Who cared more about people than she did the bureaucracy of hospitals, mounds of paperwork, and hierarchy of doctors. Who, like so many other lower-rung care workers I would encounter in sociable Michigan, was a lowercase christian, practicing not preaching.

I knew well that both my parents had long ago signed living wills, spelling out “do not resuscitate,” no life without quality. I also knew that it was my decision to make, as their anointed power of attorney. As eldest kid who, almost from my birth, had always been their single parent. As anarchist suddenly on their own, adrift in an endless series of bad choices without the compass of what I thought was my community, my “faith.” As person striving toward some common good among all family members, but having to finally, after too long, bypass consensus in order to fulfill my parents’ wishes.

I would sign many forms over the next thirteen months that felt like thirteen years that felt like the unlooked-for bad luck of a Friday the thirteenth. I’d think hard before doing so, often seeking counsel from nurses, after that tracheotomy mistake. But the only forms that felt like comforters—not cold, hard paper—bore the word hospice.

*

As the airplane flies, it’s only hours between a continent where anti-blackness has long been one key criterion of who is considered human and who is not, and another continent where anti-Semitism has for centuries served as a key yardstick for this same question. Historical specificities and philosophical underpinnings separate their unfolding, yet they willingly share a metrics of hatred, an efficiency of eradication. On both landmasses, for blacks and Jews, for indigenous and Roma, among others, eugenicists have measured skulls to calculate who is worthy of life.

Yet such virulent forms of racialization, for all their genocidal logics, see through distinctive lenses, shaping society and selves. So in the lands called North America, I am usually read as white. In the place called Europe, I’m typically read as Jewish. It’s as if the metal detector at the airport, coming and going, somehow transports me into another realm, altering my body.

I am not exempt. I, too, peer through different lenses in these different worlds. Each time I’ve journeyed to the world some of my family escaped—those who made it out of eastern Europe, without papers, across waters, into Chicago ghetto, speaking in Yiddish not English—I see almost nothing but vast graveyard. I feel as if I’ve lived there before. That I should be there, shouldn’t be there, should have been turned into ash, smoke, nothingness.

I see ghosts there. I see ghosts here, too, but not as such constant companions. In Europe, my ancestors visit me at every moment. When I do laps at a pool in the middle of Berlin, something besides the water chills me; I learn later that in 1935–36, it’s the first place Jews were banned from swimming. When I take a local train to visit a remote concentration camp in Poland, now museum, panic grips me; I find out afterward these were the same tracks used to ship humans to gas chambers. I sip coffee in a charming café in Vienna and feel sick to my stomach, discovering hours later that it was where Adolf Hitler, as young artist, hung out. Buildings and streets; forests, fields, and ponds—all house spirits not at rest, reaching out to me.

I myself become part of this army of phantoms. I’m routinely identified as Jew, questioned about my name or eating habits by those who think they’ve seen an apparition. Some are eager to tell me stories of deportation or extermination, family or town history, complicity or purported resistance. Yet the tales nearly always involve some Freudian slip, as if they’ve forgotten they’re talking to an actual, still-living Jew. In the eyes of others, usually wizened-old Europeans, I’m mirrored back as ghost, as one who got away.

I grow confused, mixing up decades, blurring centuries. By my side, burned witch-ghosts and charred peasant-ghosts; family-ghosts that my dad told me about, burned alive in a synagogue; incinerated Jew-ghosts, anarchist-ghosts, and genderqueer-ghosts, merging in flames; refugee-ghosts, lost in the fires of wars still raging today. I become obsessed, seeing continuity at every turn. Smelling death, as if bloodhound. Feeling flesh tear at the bark of every German Shepherd.

This translates into compulsion to pay homage to all those murdered. And so with each visit to this continent-cemetery, I’ve traipsed to more mass sites of slaughter than I can count—many now quiet fields or lush, deep woods. At each, silently, I place a small stone. Something solid as small offering to counter all that melted into air. Something rock hard, as resistance against disappearance.

On one trip to yet another concentration-camp-as-museum, I glanced down at the jigsaw-puzzle pebbles beneath my feet. Tuffs of weeds sprung up between rocks on this desolate country path that led to sections of the camp. Was it my imagination? Here and there, shapes on stones. Bits of what almost seemed human-made, peeking out from the overgrown brush. I kneeled down for a closer look, and fragments of Yiddish letters came into view. Broken and repurposed gravestones, transported from faraway European cities to this remote killing factory, cobbled together into walkway.

Some years back, in Warsaw, at the edge of the infamous ghetto, I wandered through what from one angle looked like an enormous forest and from another an enormous cemetery. It was one and the same. Trees grew out of remnants of tombstones, brutalized by weapons strong enough to smash them to bits. Or was it tombstones trying to rebirth themselves out of the trees, as ongoing gesture of defiance against fascism, itself being resurrected globally in 2017?

Tens of thousands of stones in Warsaw were barely recognizable. All the written records of who was laid to rest there were destroyed during the Nazi time. Tens of thousands of ghosts unsettled, demanding not to be lost lives, lost people. Demanding that National Socialism’s project of resolving the “Jewish question” by complete erasure of all traces of life, including death, not be allowed to succeed. Stones not merely as mourning but also as battleground.

At the front of this forest-graveyard sat a man who’d voluntary taken up his now-deceased father’s work: to re-create the record of each and every name—each and every person—buried in this place. From the lines on his face, it looked doubtful that he, any more than his father, would finish this task before the grim reaper visited him. Yet he diligently did his public work of grief, unpaid bookkeeper for the dead, sharing memory of lives lived and resistance fighters.

In other death sites across the cemetery that is Europe, one can see much evidence of ghosts who, too, strived to do the work of grief. Ghosts like me, still doing the labor. When I toured Buchenwald, thousands of little bits of proof that people had lived and loved were on display in a glass tabletop-like case, stretching many feet across the museum. It tenderly held what seemed tens of thousands of buttons, hairpins, beads, and trinkets, all secreted away in the death camp’s barracks and found after “liberation.” Those slated for crematoriums kept mementos of those already gone—reminders that people still hadn’t been extinguished as human.

At Auschwitz, some of those who collectively sabotaged the ovens had buried photographs and letters with their names on them in the camp’s ground, witnessing loss for the future, mourning themselves in advance of dying on their own terms.

And in Prague’s Pinkas Synagogue, emptied out of its Jews in the Shoah, the walls are now covered with the names of some seventy-eight thousand Czech and Moravian Jews who perished under the Nazis—hand-scripted dignity against disappearance, penned over some ten years in this synagogue-turned-museum.

When I fly back across ocean, little does airport security know that my backpack is overfull with stowaway ancestor-ghosts. Or maybe I’m the stowaway, never at home in this world—a world where, for now, again, barbarism trumps humanism. Maybe I’m a diasporic already-ancestor-ghost carrying a heart overfull with the suffering of ages.

When murderous social conditions corner us, when loss is almost inevitable, witnessing becomes rebellious. Meaning is bestowed to what and who are being made to appear meaningless.

*

Hospice. From the Latin hospitium, “hospitality”; from hospes, “host,” “stranger,” “guest.” From medieval times, referencing places of rest for the weary, shelter from storms, gifted from one stranger to another.

Centuries later, in the mid-1800s, women picked up the concept, creating homes for the dying. But it was in the late 1940s, after Nazism and Bolshevism soaked Europe’s soil with blood and ashes, that hospice found its ground, cultivated by Cicely Saunders, a nurse in England. After death itself had been made mass and anonymous, mechanized and dehumanized, hospice aspired to give it worth again.

“Life-support systems were intended as bridges, if there’s quality of life visible on the other side,” said the physician assistant who shepherded the eight-bedroom residential hospice I’d stumbled on, just a hop, skip, and jump from my parents’ now-former home and where I’d grown up. “It was never intended for how it’s used now, when there’s no hope. Sure, doctors can keep people alive longer. But the question in each case is, Should they?”

I glanced from her eyes to the window while she spoke. Outside, to the unfolding of spring on these twenty-two acres, tucked away in an abandoned quarry. At blossoming and fading, commingling in this gentle setting. At the shock of the new that is forsythia, tulips, cherry and crabapple trees, bleeding hearts, all opening to the sun until their flowers curl up and drop, the makings of the next cycle.

After nearly nine months of countless medical professionals dispassionately asserting “we can” when I knew “we shouldn’t,” her words were balm. Verification, contra to all those who’d made me feel crazy or cruel. And completely alone. So alone in the necessity of choosing death for my dad over “life.” Especially given the sadness trapped in his eyes in his prison-like nursing home, a warehouse for lifeless bodies tethered to machines—one of only a handful of such facilities in Michigan that took those forever chained to trachs.

From my earliest memories, his eyes had always harbored sorrow—pupils held hostage to accumulated ancestral trauma. Now that they were the only nuanced communication left him, a lifelong talker, their pain knew almost no end. The only time those eyes of his lightened, gave temporary refuge to joy, was when birds came to the feeder outside the tiny window in his room-cell. And so for his six months of nonlife here, in a nondescript cinderblock building an hour from where my mom now lived, I obsessively brought birdseed. I obsessively filled the feeder. Obsessively watched for birds and then the flight in his eyes. I did this instead of signing the form that would free him, as free as the occasional birds that showed up. Even they didn’t want to be near this place—neither a place of nursing nor a home.

The physician assistant sat me down on a comfy couch within minutes of my walk-in visit to the hospice, though it was plain I was interrupting her day. She asked if she could hug me. She embraced me with warmth, and spoke with neither artifice nor sugarcoating, but always empathy. I felt as if she could read my mind, give voice to what in “normal” society one wasn’t supposed to think or say. “You want your father to die, right? Not if things were different. But they aren’t. He’s already gone. In a better world, he would have already been allowed to die naturally, in his home and community, the way it was for most of history.”

She conversed amicably about hospice. To strive, in egalitarian ways, to accentuate quality of life in every moment for everyone on this journey, while aiming to alleviate suffering for all. Treating all bodies with inherent worth and dignity, not as commodity. She spoke not of logistics and paperwork but rather aspirations, not as mere words but instead as everyday, collective practice. A commons where the seasons of life and death are given permission—with consent, with transparency and honesty—to unfold, mirroring the ephemeral beauty of the springtime enveloping us, and its interdependent ecosystem.

This world is not ours to fix, she made clear, this woman who was now fast family. It is a process of which we’re only one, humble part.

With a few steps through this door, I went from loss of support system and cold immersion in the Kafkaesque world of hospitals and nursing homes, into a caring community of “care workers” who kept saying that this wasn’t a job. Hospice, they matter-of-factly explained, was a “calling,” “an honor,” “something we do with and for each other.”

During that time, far from my big-city home, and what I thought was my political and chosen family, I felt abandoned by my anarchist friends, my anarchist world. Too often I heard, “Come back when you’re done,” as if death were some solitary chore with distinct end. As if experiences were outside our circle, disconnected from our culture. I felt that my labors of care over the years, through others’ impactful losses, were neither reciprocated nor made visible. I felt exiled.

Even as I was convinced I’d lost all belief in anarchists, I found myself born again into something that lived out the ethics of anarchism. Because it’s true what us anarchists contend, though too rarely actualize: when people create a new culture together, they in turn become better people, in an upward spiral that births anew society and us.

Here, among these midwives of death—largely apolitical, at times offhandedly prejudiced or heteronormative—there was no need for political label, much less countercultural trappings, to compel care. These people, flaws and all, were able to educe the best parts of themselves because they were embedded in the culture of hospice. Perhaps it was also because they were mostly female, already used to inhabiting bodies that aren’t valued when doing care labor for others, or when they themselves are aging, sick, or dying, seen neither as sexual, reproductive, nor productive.

Here, within a homey circle revolving around mutualism, it was never clear who was taking care of whom. Everyone was looking out for each other and doing whatever needed to be done together. People made do with what life threw at them, drawing out quality of days or even seconds, precisely because we humans will always know loss and heartbreak. It wasn’t that people were perfect, or all even nice. It was that they allowed themselves to be vulnerable with each other. They didn’t walk away from all the messiness of life and death and emotions. They stepped closer, with an authenticity that shouldn’t be reserved for moments when we’re face-to-face with our own mortality.

So when I told the physician assistant that my dad’s one wish after nine months of hell was to sleep next to my mom again, she did something she’d never yet done: allow the breathing machinery to follow him into hospice for twenty-hours before she would slowly turn it off and let his body takes its own course. Commitment to quality of life, for all involved in this most intimate of experiences, translated into breaking rules when the rules didn’t make sense.

It may sound strange to those who haven’t sat with and gotten to know death, who haven’t had the honor of helping someone die well, but I think those twenty-four hours counted as one of the best days of my dad’s life.

The hospice folks pitched in to rearrange his spacious room into part honeymoon suite, part family room, part community space. Two single beds were made into a double, covered in handmade quilts. Everything in the room faced outward, to a wall of windows opening onto unobstructed view—trees, pond, hills, and sky—and soft breezes. The hospice staff let me borrow bird feeders from around the grounds, relocating them within my dad’s view. Within minutes, around the clock, the feeders were traffic jam of birds, acrobatic squirrels, wild turkeys, and ducks. At dusk, a deer stood silently outside the glass and stared in at us.

My dad’s toenails were clipped—something he continually wanted done in the nursing home, to no avail, unless we did it. He was dressed in street clothes, his hair trimmed and washed, despite that fact that he couldn’t move and wasn’t going anywhere ever again. Friends came to visit. Relatives from around the country called to say how much he’d meant to them, as my sister held the phone to my dad’s ear. Photos, cards, and kids’ drawings, all made for him, papered the walls. We read aloud a letter from the one person, an occupational/physical therapist, who’d been good to him in the nursing home—a good-bye that was a thank you for all he’d given to her as a friend.

He was showered with dignity and love that last day—in a way that most of his life he hadn’t been shown love, including by me and my sisters, friends, kin, coworkers, and neighbors. That lifelong sorrow in my dad’s eyes reflected his inability to express and receive love in a way that brought him mutual dignity and affection in return, much as he tried. Only my mom got him, and he got her, love at first sight, unbroken. But those twenty-four hours transformed his gaze. His eyes shone, mirroring back what was finally reciprocal, just when one could say it mattered the least. As hospice taught, minutes are what we make of them together.

We stayed with him the whole of those twenty-four hours, except for a few. My mom changed into a beautiful nightgown; my dad was changed into pajamas. His one semi-good hand reached out slightly to pat a spot next to him, and my mom crawled in. They smiled mischievously up at us. I felt privy to a joy they shared alone many decades ago, as newlyweds. We left them there, hand in hand for a last night that felt like a first night.

When the physician assistant turned his ventilator off at the end of those twenty-four hours, we could hear birds chirping in the flowering red tree outside my dad’s open glass door, no longer muffled by the mechanical whir of the machines. In that moment, it was all of us who held our breath—not him. My dad kept going. Because of that one day of abundant life, he wasn’t ready to die. So for nearly eight more days, he slept peacefully as his breath slowed. I was sure he could hear, though. Hear and savor, as we turned his room into slumber-party space and neighborhood. As we shared things with him, from crying and laughing, to the smells of his favorite food or sounds of his favorite radio show, the Thistle and the Shamrock.

In that week of deathwatch, the lines blurred between biological family and the chosen family of this hospice. One day I was listening ear for a hospice staffer whose parent had just died. She became mine soon after. Through her own weeping, she apologized at first for burdening me when my parent was dying nearby. Then we both recognized that our lives and our parents’ deaths were part of the same cycle, not stopping when one clocked into work or checked into a hospice.

So when my father’s breath ultimately came to a still, the lines became fuzzy again in terms of who grieved, who honored him with washing his body, changing his clothes, wrapping him in yet another quilt as send-off. My family, biological and hospice, stood with watery eyes, watching my dad respectfully placed into an ambulance, driven to the anatomy program he’d donated his body to, where my mom’s body would join him less than four months later—side by side for some two years in the same classroom, then side by side as ashes. And two times within less than four months, after bearing witness to two parents’ last breaths, I’d place stones on rocks by ponds, near to where each died in their own hospice rooms with a view.

As good a death as one could hope for. As good a life, too, in this place called hospice.

At my dad’s transition between the thin line of life and death, my mom and I were stroking his arm and forehead, repeating like incantation “We love you.” When his breath quieted, and chest failed to rise, my mom looked up at me. “This,” she said, pointing from herself to him to me. “This is all we have. People. Each other.”

*

There is a wooded area in Lithuania, quiet and restful, outside a small village seemingly untouched from peasant times. I walked to those woods many years ago, after debarking from a local train resembling those in Holocaust era photos, past townsfolk staring suspiciously at me. I stood in the forest, listening to birds chirp, a tender breeze caressing my face. I looked at gently rounded mounds that a historic marker told me had been large dugouts. Nazi death squads and their Lithuania collaborators rounded up the town’s Jews and marched them along the same road I’d just walked, had them stand in small groups with their faces toward the pits, and then shot them in the back. Bodies fell, by the hundreds, one on top of the others, into the holes, until all were full. Soil was tossed on the heaps. Today, trees and weeds grow out of composted humans.

Those woods looked almost identical to the ones outside my dad’s hospice room; those bullets that struck Amilcar’s back, sent by modern-day willing executioners, are so like those that erased whole villages of Jews. Ghosts seem to dart between the foliage and firearms, caught in the cross hairs of life and death. Ancestors in our DNA make kin of us still-living human beings, across skin tones and languages, beyond borders. We become willing accomplices with each other.

And so on that street in February 2015, when Amilcar’s life was taken, we poured out our collective sorrow. All that we have lost, are losing, and will lose in this war-zone neighborhood called the Mission, itself a moniker for colonial massacres in the past. Grief converged in this public space. Emotions, unchecked and shared, as varied as the colors of melted candles, flower petals, and hand-lettered messages of condolence.

One speaker at the first vigil raised a hand up toward Bernal Hill and then brought it slowly back to the now-hallowed sidewalk. Our eyes followed the path. We felt the sweep of Alex to Amilcar, as if they are coming to meet each other. But unlike the first nights after Alex’s murder, when his family and friends still trusted the legal system, Amilcar’s neighbors immediately sought justice not from the structures that assassinate so nonchalantly, with impunity. This time, harsh lessons learned and passed along, justice was sought proactively, within community, for community. To further solidify our social relations and the opening this creates for giving pain meaning. Or to quote Ann Finkbeiner from an essay on the death of her husband, “The pain doesn’t go away; but somehow or other, empathy gives the pain meaning, and pain-with-meaning is bearable. I don’t actually know how to say what the effect of empathy is, I can only say what it’s like. Like magic.”

Like the magic that transformed our outdoor wake into hub of grassroots organizing, and shape-shifted that hub into wake again. Like the magic that made it impossible to untangle the communalized work of grief, social struggle, and mutual caretaking. We turned toward each other and had all that we needed when we combined efforts—from resources and know-how, from lawyers, artists, cooks, and teachers, to tradespeople, writers, herbalists, and nurses. We set about doing-it-ourselves, as neighborhood self-defense. People stayed one step, and often many, ahead of the police and their fabricated stories. People went on the offensive.

In those first few days and weeks, those on the street set about documenting what had occurred. With a thoroughness that would be the envy of any detective’s office, people gathered eyewitness and other evidence. Community members pulled together a press conference, outpacing the police in detailing what had really happened, so that in contrast, the police lies were pointedly apparent. Funds were collected to conduct an independent autopsy, which showed six shots to the back, contradicting the SF Police Department’s official version. Money was also raised so that once the autopsy was done, Amilcar’s body could be returned home to his family in Guatemala.

When the police held a community meeting soon after murdering Amilcar, people crowded into the hall. The officials were barely able to get a word in edgewise. All the pain and rage and heartbreak of this neighborhood were hurled at the cops, sitting smugly at a table in the front of the room. One of the first to speak was the usually shy ten-year-old son of the friend who’d stood next to me at that first vigil—the boy who was the same height as Amilcar. His family lived a mere block away from the police’s crime scene. He’d heard the shots. With uncharacteristic fierceness, he leaped onto a table, launching into an oration of his anger and fear, gesturing with his arms for punctuation. It could have been him; it could have been his friends. It was Alex, Amilcar, and others. “Stop it, stop it,” he implored. “Stop it.”

City and state, police and courts, haven’t stopped. They still delay and deny justice. Still constitute, by definition, the injustice system. More die, on these hills and streets and across other stolen lands. Yellow caution tape separates hard lives from bad deaths, grief from cover-ups, and tries to divide us from each other.

People in this neighborhood haven’t stopped. There will be no official justice for evictions, for murder by cop. Yet Alex and Amilcar have been gifted in death the dignity that white supremacy didn’t want to grant them in life. Hundreds of vigils, memorials, and affirmations of their lives have been organized. Birth and murder anniversaries are scrupulously celebrated. Something about those two deaths, wrapped in the shroud of sorrow that tries to bury this neighborhood, touched the frayed nerves of people barely hanging on themselves.

Looking into each other’s eyes, shiny-wet flames in the light of our self-organized shrines on a sidewalk cleaned of Amilcar’s blood but not his presence, let us see deep into common pain, and for a time at least, we found common cause and common humanity. Their deaths illuminated the shared indignities perpetuated by landlords, techies, the nonprofit-industrial complex, cops, and their many allies, all in league to steal what remains of San Francisco’s heart. The monsters in the Mission suddenly had to contend with a populace that knew which side it was on. That still does.

Only because we fight—against losses that shouldn’t happen, and for spaces to grieve together in cities that increasingly isolate us and care for nothing. We fight not only for quality of life. We struggle for quality of death, for lives and deaths of our own making and mourning. We battle for a return to natural loss, such as change of seasons and the seasons of life.

Maybe dignity, out of the ashes we’re handed too frequently, is the only justice we can hope for in this life.

As the heart continues to break, dignity.

*

(photo: wheat paste seen on the stolen lands of Tio’tia:ke/Montreal, winter 2019)

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This entry was posted on April 16, 2019 by in Dispatches from Life, Essays.
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