“Are we done yet?” my seven-year-old cousin Franco asks from beside me, both of us visibly sweating from the early afternoon heat.
We’re sitting by the aisle of the average-sized Carmelite church, listening to the first among a handful of prepared speeches that, honestly, I’d kind of been dreading to hear.
I love-hate eulogies. Love them because they’re wonderful and heartfelt and remind everyone of things we love about the people who’ve passed – hate them because they’re wonderful and heartfelt and remind everyone of things we love about the people who’ve passed.
“Almost, Frank” is what I tell Franco, who’s become a little restless. I can tell he’s wondering why the mass hasn’t ended yet. After all, he knows the celebration is done after all the people in the church have lined up and received communion; knows after everyone has done their last sign of the cross that you could leave. But we weren’t. We were still sitting, still listening to people talking.
So maybe because I felt some unspoken need come over me – a need to explain to Franco why all the talking after this particular mass was necessary (and because of my own natural tendency to seek explanations to many things) – I also tell him, “You can listen. They’re going to talk about Manong Quinito.”
Manong Quinito. He was Manong to majority of us Gonzalez cousins, but not me. I was number four, four among eleven Gonzalez cousins. And I remember, after pointing it out one Christmas maybe two or four years ago (even when nobody really cared that I’d counted how many cousins we were and in what order we each came in), Quinito himself (seemingly the only one who’d listened) proclaimed, “That means I’m number five.”
Number five. I’m older than you, I think, staring for the thousandth at the photo of Quinito they’ve poised over his sleek, black-and-gold urn – a good choice, in my opinion; he would have liked it too. I shouldn’t have had to outlive you.
“How many more minutes?” Franco turns again to ask me, over the applause that follows the first eulogy.
“Ten more,” I reply, hoping my estimation was right. I could easily trick my four-year-old cousin Ines into thinking ten minutes was a lot longer than it actually was (as I’d already mastered doing by now), but doing the same to a seven-year-old would be a little harder.
Seven. Franco’s seven. I was reminded of that when, ten minutes before the mass even began, he’d asked me, “How did Manong Quinito die?” I answered him honestly; he was old enough to hear it again. Immediately after, I asked if he remembered his Manong Quinito, the one who visited every year from Australia, and he said yes. But I can tell that seven is a little young to understand completely the gravity of the loss, and for one quick moment, I’m certain I’d be the exact same way if I had been the one who was seven years old.
Quinito had always been the little brother my Manong never had – so I suppose, by extension, he was the little brother I never had, too. Once, when it was just Mom and I visiting in Australia, Quinito – who’d been ten – and I – only a year older, eleven – bonded through the only thing we had in common back then: art. He’d hand me his sketchpad and watch me draw enlarged versions of his favorite manga characters (by his request, of course. He’d comment that I was really good, and I’d tell him I honestly don’t know how to draw people, but thank you anyway, and you’re really good at drawing your Pokemon too, Quinito. And he’d seem to beam at the recognition, and I’d say it’s because we’re left-handed, and they say left-handed people can draw.) I’d never had a little brother, though God knows I’d always, always wanted one. But that trip, somehow, made me feel like I did. In some strange introspective way I had even as a kid, I was slowly realizing that Quinito was the first of many little brothers I’d have in the form of my younger cousins.
In many ways, I’ve always thought we Gonzalez cousins have the bond of siblings, each different but still special. Add that to the fact that I’m a complete and total sap, then you have a typical “big, happy family” portrait worthy of children’s storybooks.
Is there a children’s storybook that talks about losing family? About having one essential, irreplaceable, constant piece being torn away from you.
I can’t even remember how old I was when I finally understood that someone dying meant I’d never see them again, when I felt that fear wrap around my chest as I wondered, “Who would I have to see go first?”
Never in a million years did I think it’d be you, I think as I stare at the urn again, strangely certain that Quinito could hear me, wherever he was.
By the time the final two eulogies are about to start, Franco again asks how many more minutes. “Five more,” I tell him, trying to keep my voice steady because I know what’s coming, know I can’t trust myself to do anything but listen because these last two eulogies will be delivered by Quinito’s parents, and somehow those would feel like our final goodbye to our gone-too-soon-brother.
They talk about how happy Quinito was. How he’d left no stone unturned and lived his life to the fullest, even in his short twenty years. He had great friends, accomplished many things, and even found love. And I know whatever his parents are saying are not just words designed to make us feel better about losing him too soon. Because deep down, we all knew that what they were saying was true, that he was happy, so, so happy, and that’s how he left us, and maybe that was the plan all along – the plan in this grand scheme of things.
I think back to Franco’s question before the mass. How did Manong Quinito die? I should have told him instead, “He died happy.”
And maybe it was fate that Franco, my seven-year-old kid cousin that kept anxiously waiting for us to leave the church and go on our merry ways, sat beside me that day because again another question he’d asked me earlier comes to the back of my mind: Are we done yet?
I quickly glance around me at all the people who’d come to join us celebrate this funeral mass. A church that was full. And though many of his friends were still in Australia and couldn’t be with us physically, there was no changing that Quinito had been so genuinely loved by everyone around him – which is honestly so, so hard to be.
I look at his urn, at the photo of him, smiling – happy. Maybe the reason he left too soon was because he was the happiest anyway.
Quinito, who left us at twenty. But with no grudges, no regrets.
Are we done yet?
“That’s a good question, Frank,” I almost tell Franco from beside me. “Are we done yet?”