My father’s youngest sister, my Aunt Rezia, died recently. She had outlived my father by seven years, something she marveled at each time I saw her since his death. “I can’t believe I’m still here and your father’s not,” she would say in the same pained voice in which she recounted burying her two oldest sons, over a decade apart.
It was the end of the day, and Tante Rezia had just closed the stall where she’d been selling schoolbooks, notebooks, pens and other educational supplies in downtown Port-au-Prince for more than forty years. She was heading home when she stumbled and fell. The last two words she uttered were to a fellow vendor: “Tèt mwen.” My head.
This was both resonant and ironic, because whenever anyone in the family talked about Tante Rezia, we would talk about her head. She had an excellent memory, which also meant that she held grudges the longest. She was headstrong and was often said to have a hard head—tèt di—the kind of stubbornness that had carried her from an insular childhood and adolescence in our ancestral mountain village to a boisterous city life during which she had raised four sons and a daughter on her own, losing the two sons she did—as she often pointed out—when they were no longer in her care. She loved pens and paper. She also loved books, their smell, their shapes, the noise they made when their spines were cracked. She was a bookseller who could not read or write, but under other circumstances, she might have been a writer, an artist.
I heard about Tante Rezia’s fall and eventual coma the following morning at 3 am, after she was hospitalized in a trauma facility near the Port-au-Prince airport. My cousin Agathe, who was one of many family members keeping vigil, called to ask if I would speak to the doctor on call.
Tante Rezia had suffered a hemorrhagic stroke, the doctor told me, and her prognosis was very poor. My cousin Agathe, I told her, had been warned that Tante Rezia would maybe live six more hours. The doctor would neither confirm nor contradict this. Sometimes, she said, the body takes its time. Tante Rezia’s body did take its time, the way love takes its time, the way mourning takes its time, the way art takes its time. Though she never regained consciousness, she lived for another week.
After she died, the funeral planning started in several countries, and a date was decided for the funeral based on the health concerns and travel ability of other aging family members. My Uncle Franck—Tante Rezia and my father’s youngest brother—likes to refer to the gathering of funds for family emergencies and funerals as a “marathon.” Once the marathon was done, it was decided that the funeral would be held the following Saturday.
The all-night wake at Tante Rezia’s house in Delmas the night before the funeral actually felt like a kind of marathon. The square cement house had been nearly destroyed during the January 12, 2010, earthquake. At work, Tante Rezia had nearly died: she had barely escaped a falling electric pole when she’d run out from under the covered sidewalk where her stall was. The stall would have been all right, she said, but she would have been killed. The house, like the business, was repaired through several “marathons” as well as Tante Rezia’s ingenuity. No one knew how to make money grow faster than her. Tante Rezia often traced financing her children’s education and building her house to a $100 loan from my father. She was like Midas, my father liked to say, except that she gave too much of her money away to ever become rich.