This past weekend I attended a funeral with my roommate and his family, one of the toughest things I’ve ever done, but I’m glad I went. So was he and so was his family.
I’ve attended only one memorial service so far in life, for my great grandmother on my mother’s side, and that wasn’t until after the initial sting of her passing subsided. On top of that, she’d died of old age. Jesse Villareal died at 51.
When Simon, my roommate and one of Jesse’s nephews, came home before half the workday was up, I was terribly confused. When I noticed his emotionally upset state, I was thrown into the realm of the unknown. Simon is such a positive, happy-go-lucky, go with the flow kind of guy. I’m the high-strung stressaholic. When he’s stressing out, my rock of stability gets shoved out from under my feet. So yeah, I paced around the house and asked him what I could do to help him–leave him alone or give him a hug? Talk to him or be quiet? Go on as normal or match his subdued energy? Ultimately, I told him about my lack of knowing what to do and he set the pace for how he wanted/needed in order to absorb the loss. We got out of the house for a bit that day and he made an effort to go on as normal. It was a major relief to see him smile again and laugh at my corny jokes and deadpan humor. Me talking about my Superman-like reflexes, then dropping an egg on the floor with inadvertently flawless comedic timing helped.
After one flat tire to Simon’s truck, along with another part needing replacing, we drove a rental car eight hours to Hemet, California, passing through a depressing-looking Indian reservation (I argued that they’re called Native Americans, only to be reminded that they’ve been called Indians for 500 years; whatever), beautiful stretches of desert and mountains, over the Colorado river, a “real river, like the ones [I’m] used to,” as Simon put it, and finally down and around some more hills to a beautiful American town that hasn’t forgotten it’s near the Mexico border. We stopped at Simon’s cousin’s grandmother’s house in Phoenix, originally to leave his truck behind there, but Simon’s dad ended up driving it to Tonopah for minor repairs to the 22-year-old thing. We also stopped someplace west of Phoenix to say hi to some of Simon’s nieces and nephews, one niece who’s in the process of reading Aigis 1 and thinks I’m a celebrity. I kinda froze up at the thought of someone having such high views of me. Hopefully I didn’t disappoint.
The tired arrival was bittersweet. I was finally meeting the mom’s side of Simon’s family, but not under the most cheerful of circumstances. Still, they were full of smiles, Spanglish, good jokes, and humor, including a “boy, you’re tall” comment aimed at me. Yeah, Mexicans hover around five feet tall, while I tower at the above average 5’10”, so the first family member I met that stood at over six feet got an “oh my god, someone taller than me!” comment.
It was easy to forget we were all about to attend a memorial service first thing in the morning. I met Little Martin, his wife Hama, and their son, Vinnie, who accommodated us with a place to sleep and such. They were welcoming and genial, and explained how their swamp cooler works (had never seen one before that day), then saw us off as we headed to Simon’s grandmother’s house for several minutes, and then one final stop at Uncle Martin’s to see the bulk of the rest of the family, who all assumed Simon and I are boyfriend-girlfriend, and wouldn’t believe us when we both insisted we aren’t. We don’t kiss and hug and such, and we don’t go on dates. We just live together. I take care of him, the house, and his dog. In turn, I get a roof over my head and his calm, positive energy, and lots of thanks for all the cooking and cleaning I do. He would quite honestly be better off living out of a hotel if I wasn’t here.
Anyway, the family welcomed and treated me like I’d always been a part of the family, and they acted like they weren’t about to formally bid farewell to one of their family first thing in the morning. I did my best to keep up with their wit and humor. We visited for less than an hour since it was closing in on either eight or nine, and we’d left our house at 6AM just to make the trip to California. On top of all the driving and visiting family, we’d also burnt four hours in Phoenix because genius me didn’t grab my credit card for the car rental we’d scheduled. Simon doesn’t own any credit cards since he knows he can be an impulse spender. Thankfully, his dad was able to come to our rescue and get us back on the road with a rental vehicle that would fit the two family members we were planning on giving a lift home on Sunday.
Friday, the morning of the memorial service, the mood shifted. Simon and his family made idle chat while he and I prepared stuffed jalapeños and everyone ate breakfast burritos (a first for me but they tasted very good). The family was and wasn’t going through the motions of a normal day, the normalcy dampened by the emotional pain and tears waiting below the surface, waiting for their cue to burst forth. I let them know I wasn’t sure what to do, but that I was there for all of them in any way I could. I wanted to escape back to their happy, carefree energy, and possibly even avoid going to the memorial altogether, but I quietly accompanied Simon in our rental once Little Martin announced it was time to go. I listened to Simon swallow down tear after tear all the way to the mortuary.
I didn’t start tearing up until after we walked around to the front of the building and took in the double doors with colored glass. As soon as I stepped onto the final stretch of sidewalk leading up to the entrance, it was like every last drop of emotion from all the tears shed in that place hit me like a wall. I unexpectedly choked up–I didn’t think I’d cry at all, since I never met Jesse–but I started crying and sniffing right alongside everyone else. Every few minutes I’d get my tears under control, but every time more people filed in and added to the crying, I shed a fresh wave of tears. It hurt so much to watch such a welcoming, genial family endure their loss, and what got me the most was watching Jesse’s mother, Manuela, whom I twice watched approach the casket I dared not get anywhere near, along with another family member who took one look and lost it. I don’t want to imagine what it must feel like for a parent to outlive their own child.
After over an hour of all that, Simon drove us to Uncle Martin’s house, where we recuperated from the emotional drain and encouraged other family members to go. Many weren’t sure they wanted to go through what we just did, but Simon and I both insisted it was the right thing to do. The hesitant ones mustered some courage and headed out, and once it was close enough to one o’clock, Simon and I headed to what used to be Jesse’s house, where everyone was to gather to eat and drink, and celebrate Jesse’s life. I don’t know how they all wanted to step foot in that house, but no one hesitated showing up for a mix of American, Mexican, and local Chinese food.
I discovered I like carne asada but can’t handle the spiciness of stuffed jalapeños, and that no one in the family does much baking. Everyone gradually recuperated from the memorial and began laughing and smiling again, and that night I treated everyone to my signature chocolate chip cookies from scratch, the ones my grandmother taught me how to make.
Saturday, Simon and I hit Oceanside, just north of San Diego. Now I can officially say I’ve been to America, coast to coast. We ate lunch at Andy’s, a restaurant at the end of a pier, while watching people catch mackerel and two other types of fish we both considered just more bait, but were considered food to those fishing ’em up. After lunch, I boogie boarded for about two and a half hours in 67-degree water, a temperature New Englander me rarely gets to enjoy, while Simon got joy of watching me catch wave after wave with a perpetual smile on my face. Didn’t even notice I was smiling through it all.
Saturday night was one final party held in Jesse’s honor. Hamburgers, hot dogs, BBQ chicken, and some more carne asada, along with lots of social drinking. I had one strawberry margarita, and then goaded into having a shot of something called a fireball. They poked fun at me while I downed it in 5-6 sips, then chased it with some more of my margarita. They tried to goad me into another but I’m not one to cave under peer pressure, nor am I much of a drinker. The family didn’t try to pressure me any further, and even admitted that getting me drunk for the first time in my life on shots wouldn’t be the wisest thing.
Now, I was fairly warned that everyone has at least one nickname, in addition to their given name. Some have a few nicknames, creating enough confusion to not know who’s who when using real names on Facebook, resulting in even more confusion when family doesn’t accept friend requests. Here are their names and nicknames:
Nini (Natisha), Nani (Jody), Nina (Minerva), Nunu (Uncle Junior), Nana (Adriana), and Nana (naw-naw; Grandma). Booboo (Sal), Goodies (Gloria), Crazy Mary (Mary), Lelee (Adela), Kongi (Jessica), Chachi (Luis), Pucky (Martin), Tubba (Vinnie), Yaya (Rose), Pali (Uncle Jesse), Tonos (Little Jesse), Rudy (Raul), Tina (Christina), Rolo (Rolando), Andy Man (Andy), Hama (Josie), Bash (Sebastian), and Beto (Stella).
That night, once people started feeling partied out, so many people thanked me for being there with the family, and especially for being there for Simon and helping take care of him day to day. They are all very welcome. And no, we’re still not boyfriend-girlfriend.