When something like this happens, the world should stop.
Today, I went to a funeral. Actually, I went to one without ever leaving my car. Barreling up the 5 freeway headed out of Los Angeles and bound for a small town much farther north, the brake lights ahead flashed red and the cars around me began to slow. Great, I thought, fucking traffic. It was lunchtime on Saturday. All of you people should be with your families or sleeping, not on the road! Didn’t they know that I had someplace to be? That I was already going to be in the car for nearly five hours, and now this? My cursing brand of textbook road rage started to percolate and bubble up inside me.
A police motorcycle blew past splitting lanes on the left side of me. I was startled because he failed to use his no sirens. There were no flashing lights either. Where was he going? The percolation immediately ceased and concern grew. Was there an accident ahead? He wasn’t exactly hurrying though. He clearly needed to be there quickly, but it couldn’t have been a true emergency. I became insatiably curious.
The cars began to weave left like one side of an undone zipper, signals flashing they were making way for something. Soon it was my turn to unzip and weave left, and that’s when I saw it: a slow-moving centipede line of a dozen or so cars. There wasn’t any extraordinary about the makes or models. They weren’t new vehicles or particularly clean, but they were slowed to a crawl, and each one had their emergency lights on and flashing. The police officer came back into view. He was waving and pointing like a symphony conductor, in huge gestures visible to everyone, directing us to make way. Every car on the freeway complied. What in the world is going on? I’d never seen anything like this, and yet something about it was deeply familiar.
Continuing to drive a little faster now, I couldn’t help but continue to swap glances between what was ahead of me and what was happening now out of my passenger window. I was completely wrapped, passing each car in the line and craning my neck to understand what those stone-faced drivers were up to. Eventually I saw what was leading this spectacle: a white hearse.
Somehow everything made sense. This was a funeral procession, lead by the deceased. For something that carried such overwhelming melancholia, the hearse was pristine, gleaming in the sunlight of the afternoon. The side read GUERRA – GUITERREZ in large floral letters, the name of the person loved by all those inside the other vehicles. They were in the middle of experiencing a tragedy and undoubtedly faced with overwhelming emotion. What I’d mistaken for stone faces, were really visages depleted of energy, deflated by the exhaustion of expelling every tear stored and reinforced by the need to drive and move forward.
For me, this sunny Saturday was exciting because I was headed to celebrate the joyous marriage of someone so close to me. For them, this Saturday was the day they would say a final goodbye to their precious person, maybe their child, parent, friend, sibling. I wouldn’t ever really know, and really it doesn’t matter who the person in the white shining chariot was to the others behind it. Their worlds had shattered.
Death and heartbreak are really the only things I know that are truly earth-shattering, and really they are one and the same. But that’s a part of life, isn’t it? We die, we leave, and if we’re really really lucky, there will be people left to pick of the pieces of what was shattered by the loss. It’s the mark of truly loving someone deeply, and giving them the power to support parts that crumble in their absence.
Recently, someone I’d grown to care a whole lot about experienced an overwhelming tragedy, and when I heard the news, I burst into tears. I couldn’t help it. In all my empathy, I’d put myself in this person’s shoes and collapsed into a puddle of tears. It was that tragic. As quickly as the tears came though, so did the guilt. I felt guilty for feeling another’s loss so deeply. It wasn’t about me; it was about my friend. After a while, my mother—the wise, strong, and comforting woman she is—dissuaded my guilt and said, “When someone experiences that kind of unimaginable loss, their world stops. The world should stop for tragedy, and best thing you can do is recognize that with them.”
That Saturday afternoon, I thought about what she’d told me and made sure to mentally pause and acknowledge that something significant had happened. I hope the other drivers did the same. For each person who followed the hearse (and probably for others too), their worlds had stopped and for a brief few minutes on the 5 freeway bound north, our worlds had stopped too.
The Square Peg