Cover Image: Crying Tree by Melissa Maldonado-Salcedo 2020.
Melissa Maldonado-Salcedo //
I’d play on loop Joe Walsh’s “Life of Illusion” as I watched the news for days. For the first couple of months, I became fixated on the body count numbers. I have generally maintained an apoplectic attitude towards death (theoretically), knowing full well that this is one of life’s certainties, we die. It is inevitable. Dr. Oxiris Barbot, head of the New York City Health Department, told the Times, “What New Yorkers are interested in and what the country is interested in, is that we have an accurate and complete count….it’s part of the healing process.” Healing implies that there is a process that ends in restoration or health. I find this assertion misguided because death is haunting despite its finality. It lives inside you when you lose someone and takes on a life of its own, whether driving you to drink or to church. The dead are always present.
During the early days of lockdown, I became slightly obsessed with true crime. It was my way to “disconnect,” which felt wrong and unhealthy, a combination that accurately describes my way of coping. When I saw the Saturday Night Live spoof on women watching “murder shows” as an “act of self-care,” I realized I was not alone. What was it about death and murder specifically that was entertaining or therapeutic? I was intrigued by the gender dynamics of this phenomenon too. Femicide was a topic that I often discussed in my research but watching a Dateline or 20/20 episode felt less real and more intriguing. The culprit was more often than usual the “Ex.” It was like watching a real-life game of Clue unfold on my screen, which was preferable to watching reports on the real-life horrors of the pandemic. People were dying everywhere, and their bodies often had no place to rest. This plight was especially true in one of the epicenters, which was where I lived. One of the most traumatizing stories emerged from the overflooded morgues and funeral homes forced to use refrigerated U-Hauls to store corpses. The smell and leakage from the moving lorries in Brooklyn alerted authorities of this hazard. One funeral director attempted to explain, “The death rate is so high, there’s no way we can bury or cremate them fast enough.” So they resorted to packing bodies with ice because they “ran out of space” to store them properly (Feurer and Rashbaum 2020). I decided to move upstate because I needed space and was suffocating after the pots and pans stopped ringing at 7 pm.
I was born into an evangelical home, so most things during my childhood were a matter of life and death. Perhaps this is why dying did not necessarily scare me, primarily because of all the talk about being “born again.” The afterlife was a constant topic too. I had to live a good life filled with performative Christianity according to the Bible and my family to enter heaven. I learned (the hard way) that most things I liked were sinful, criminal, and fattening. As I aged, my mother’s heaven started to seem a bit repressive and uneventful. So when I left the church, I tried my best to abandon that way of thinking because it condemned you to a life of impending doom. I wanted to focus on this life and live it fully. I did not fear a lake of fire, nor did I aspire to live in the “gold-covered streets” and mansions they assured waited for us “believers” after the rapture. Pastors and preachers advertised that we were living at the end of time and reminded us all that “we had to be ready.” A trumpet would signal the advent of the return of the Messiah. It was not an inclusive event. Also, we are Latinx; most of our folkloric music involves a trumpet – salsa, merengue, cumbia, etc. I imagined it would be a very chaotic and confusing show.
My grandmother lost many of her children tragically. The first died from a snake bite. The second son was electrocuted. The third loss was due to breast cancer. My aunt’s husband declared he did not want a wife who was “mutilated,” so she was not “allowed” to have a mastectomy that would have saved her life. Instead, she faded slowly. I was in Colombia when her next child would die. He had cancer, and it was literally like watching a reenactment of a Gabriel García Marquez short story. He was a man of few words, and his daughters had placed him in the backroom of the house that had no windows. You could smell death circulating. My grandmother would lock herself in the bathroom and cry out loud. She would pray with anger, asking God to save him while also screaming for all the children who died before. Their deaths were a wound that never healed and only got more profound with the passing of each child. No word exists to describe the feeling.
The first time I remember thinking about mortality was when my friend tragically died in grammar school. I recently saw his photo in the New York Times archive, and I confirmed I remembered his face clearly. The article read, “Edwin Ortiz, 12 years old, managed to ride the top of an elevator in the Lillian Wald Houses on the Lower East Side, and he fell to his death.” When I found out he had died, they had a school counselor talk to us about grief. I asked if it was a “suicide.” I was eleven and a year younger than “druggie,” which we called him, affectionately. Surely he knew that this was a deadly game? Many (including the journalist who wrote about his death) did not realize that we did not have foresight given the time and place of our realities. We were a generation coming up with AIDS, Crack, and urban decay. Death was everywhere. A year prior, we learned that our music teacher had jumped from his hospital window when he discovered his status. He was HIV positive. At the time, this was a sure death sentence. What was different about this particular death was that Eddie probably was not tall enough to ride a roller coaster when he passed. He was that young, and we, his friends, were too.
When I learned that Eddie fell nine flights, I remember feeling my stomach drop. I lived on the ninth floor. He often wore a white turtleneck and teased me relentlessly. I stole a french fry from his tray as we waited in line for lunch. He then called me “hungry.” No one called me this again after he died. It no longer was funny; the joke had lost its bite. He lived with his grandmother. Like many of the other kids who grew up without him, I wondered what would have been of his life. When we graduated from Middle School, no one mentioned him during our ceremony. Would he have become a professional baseball player? We all knew that basketball was not an option, given his short stature. But what if he would have had a growth spurt in his teens? For many years, I cast my vote at a particular polling site, our old primary school. I’d run into my former classmates; some of us still lived in the old neighborhood, some of us were too lazy to change our mailing addresses. However, we never talked about Eddie, but this did not mean we did not remember him. Years later, a group of us found each other on Facebook, and I do not remember precisely what we were discussing, but I typed, “we were so young when we had to face death; we were not ready.” No one responded, and I realized that some things never change. I remained imprudent, and no one wanted to talk about it…still.
When I was in high school, my junior year, I lost another friend, Pamela. I was the last person in my school to see her before she went on her fateful trip to Colorado. I remember sitting in Latin class, and she was excited her uncle, who never called, invited her to go skiing. She told me how fast she wanted to go down the slopes. As we were rushing out of last period, I dropped my beeper from the top of the stairs, and Pam scooped it up before the nuns noticed and confiscated it (again.) One more demerit, and that would guarantee yet another Friday afternoon detention. I got to the bottom of the stairs, and as she handed it to me, she whispered, “you owe me one.” I went home expecting to hear all about her trip when we got back to school, but that did not happen.
Pam was due back in school on Monday. The night before, I was in Soho and saw her jacket while I was window shopping, a brown bomber with the American flag on the back. I thought to myself, “Pam must be having the time of her life.” First thing in the morning, the principal notified us that she had crashed into a tree and died from her injuries. My friends were crying, but I remained stoic. I went through the day in a daze, wondering if I remembered her while she was dying. Was that a sign? I went to her funeral, and I still remember that our entire all-girls school was there. It was a closed casket. I remember her mother thanking me for attending the service. She asked what classes I had with her. I told her we sat next to each other in Latin. She exclaimed, “Pam was good in Latin!” And I thought, “of course, she cheated off of me.” I smiled and responded, “she sure was.” I remember thinking, “we’re even Pam.” I have never opened a yearbook photo where she appears after we graduated. I have never gone skiing.
The other day my son innocently shared that he thought that this pandemic was his 9/11. Both tragedies were in the backdrop of our coming-of-age stories. It was impossible not to associate the two events. I lived within walking distance from the towers and was at school when the first plane hit. I currently teach at the same school, which is one more reason for the inextricability of these matters. I vividly remember men and women covered in ash walking down Avenue D as residents from the projects came down to hug them as many cried on their shoulders. It was one of the most moving things I remember from that day because there were no divisions; we all hurt. It was a pain that I would relive in the most visceral way when I saw the Grenfell Towers burn. I was separated by an ocean and a six-hour time difference, but I felt like I was right there. As I saw the building burn through the screen, I felt their pain.
Grenfell Tower was part of the Lancaster West Estate, which is council housing in London, England. Having grown up in the projects in New York City, I knew that despite our geographical differences, the “hood” culture was very much the same. “The Projects,” whether in London or New York, shared undeniable similarities from being predominantly made up of lower-income and immigrant residents to the “entrepreneurial” spirit that defined the neighborhoods. Some families had lived there for generations. The graffiti, the urine in the elevators, and the strong sense of community was a feature of project living. Hence, the relationships within these communities run deep because there is history. When I lived in Madrid, my closest friends were all from Vallecas, which was also the projects, and we’d joke that public housing was the same everywhere. However, we only could say this, anyone else who said anything remotely similar was offensive, rude, and asking for “problems.” We would “beef.” I still think this is true (on some level.) I still roll my eyes and my inside voice shares a few expletives when I listen to “scholars of poverty.” I am an expert.
On June 14, 2017, a fire broke out in the 24-story high-rise, Grenfell Towers. On that day, 72 people were reported dead, many were children. Many families included extended and older members and lived on the top floors. They decided to stay and not separate because if they all could not leave, they all would die together. That hit me hard because that made sense to me. Twenty suicide attempts were reported the following month in North Kensington since the fire. That December, I went to London and had every intention of laying flowers at the site. I could not even bring myself near the vicinity. I have never gone to the Freedom Tower either. I wept from a distance.
My friend Rafa died a few years back. He lived in Madrid and had polio as a child, so he used crutches to move around. This did not stop him from going dancing every weekend. We would meet up for Pizza on Fridays with our group of friends, and he would sing. He loved music and was always ready for a solo. When I left Madrid, I promised him I would return, and we would harmonize together again. However, time and space got the best of us. I wanted to tell him that my son had his name, that I was grateful he saved my life, and that I would never forget going with him to the theater to watch Fernando Arrabal’s “El Gran Ceremonial.” It was his first time going to the theater, and he did not stop talking about all the feelings he had as a result of the experience. It is one I hold very dear to me. A few years ago, a mutual friend contacted me to let me know that Rafa had died. He had health complications and was morbidly obese, which also limited his ability to be mobile and recover. In a Facebook chat, he wrote, “I imagine you would want to know.” I did, but I could not respond; it hurt too much to feel I should have been with him.
I started dreaming about Rafa frequently during the pandemic. He was smiling or making jokes, and he was glowing. I wondered if I associated his polio with the epidemic we were living through subconsciously. On December 13, 2020, I was watching Saturday Night Live with my partner and son. I was excited about Bruce Springsteen’s performance, mainly because he talked about how this last album was him looking down at the barrel of death. The first song was great, but it was the last one that moved me. He sang, “I’ll see you in my dreams.” I felt like Rafa had reached out to me. I felt the tears stream down my face. He was telling me, “I’ll see you in my dreams, we’ll meet and live and love again…I’ll see you in my dreams…for death is not the end.” It was as if he hugged me. I broke, and it was a flood of emotions that overtook me. This is what is so tricky about grief and bereavement; it can creep up on you when you least expect it. I finally felt like I was able to mourn Rafa, Pam, and even Eddie. I cried for them all like I never allowed myself to do so before.
Dying to Tell
My friend Patricia did not die from Covid; she died of Cancer. However, because of Covid-19 and the associated hospital protocols, she lay in a hospital bed in Argentina by herself for weeks with only my uncle who could stay in the room with her. She did not get to say goodbye to her family and friends the way she would have liked to; no kisses or hugs, no hands to hold, just facetime. We both had married into a family of colorful characters. We shared a lot in common. We were the darkest, roundest, and most opinionated in our new adopted family. This bond allowed us to build up solidarity against many of our other family members. The last time I saw her, we laughed about how our boys were both big for their age. Even though her son was a decade younger than mine, and she was a decade older than me, we loved them deeply, intensely, and divinely. So when I found out she had cancer, I knew she would fight it; she had to. I saw her post photos of her short hair; then it was all gone. But one day, she went in for a routine test and never returned home.
I had my son Pablo pretty young. However, we loved being mothers despite our professions; we boasted about our most important and most fulfilling job. Patricia waited for a long time to have Facundo. She held on until his birthday. She was able to say goodbye to him, and soon after that, she took her last breath. I knew how much it must have hurt her to know that she would not see him graduate, walk down the aisle, nor would she hold her grandchildren. I remember turning to my son and telling him; not even death could keep me from you. In my mind, that is what love allows us to do, to endure, to be eternal. However, death reminds us that tomorrow is not promised. This thought gutted me.
No matter how much I teach about death or talk about it, it was only Disney/Pixar’s Coco (2017) that brought me comfort. We live on in memories, in our family; we remember in music. I have taught medical ethics since 2013, where I cover euthanasia and other topics related to life and death. However, a pandemic was never a topic of interest for me to cover. I admittedly was short cited. Despite all the warnings and data, I never thought I would live through one. I survived Covid-19, and I wonder if it was because, at the time, I did not know I had it, which allowed me to not fear or prepare for the worst. Panic is my default setting. Luckily, I figured Theraflu and sleep would eventually bring me back to my feet and that my sense of smell would subsequently return in no time. I did not notice how unbalanced I became. Given that I have Multiple Sclerosis, I thought my prodromes were just a flare-up and not a symptom of one of the deadliest viruses. I often warned against the dangers of pseudoscience but never would I have imagined the dire consequences of our unscientific tendencies during the previous administration. But then 2020 happened, and COVID-19 became all I could think, talk, and cry about for some time. As people rejoice and prepare for post-lockdown life, I am still mourning and expect to be forever.
Feur, Alan, and William K. Rashblaum. “’We Ran Out of Space’: Bodies Pile up as N.Y Struggles to Bury Its Dead.” The New York Times, 20 April 2020.
James, George. “Elevator Thrill Game Kills a Boy Once Wary of It.” The New York Times, 29 March 1991, p. 3, https://www.nytimes.com/1991/03/28/nyregion/elevator-thrill-game-kills-a-boy-once-wary-of-it.html.
Portwood, Jerry. “SNL’s True-Crime Obsession Song Paradoy ‘Murder Show’ Pokes Fun at Women’s True-Crime Obsession.” Rolling Stone, 28 February 2021, https://www.rollingstone.com/tv/tv-news/snl-murder-show-true-crime-sketch-1134572/.