There are no closed captions at a Zoom funeral

It’s my first week at a new job. After orientation and onboarding, I talked with my supervisor about setting goals for the next six months and we made a list of the meetings I would need to attend this week. Then I asked my boss for time off. “I just need two hours tomorrow afternoon,” I explained. “I have to go to a funeral.”

My abuelito died of cancer last Tuesday. He was 89 and frail and grumpy about it. He was my mother’s father, and I rarely saw him growing up. I don’t know if that was a conscious choice on my mother’s part—perhaps an intentional extraction from my childhood memories to protect me from his temper. For all my life, she would not speak of her father unless directly asked. In the end, she did not tell me that he had died either.

The night Lito passed, I was home with her and my younger brother in Little Rock, Arkansas. My brother and his friends were on the eve of a winter road trip. Dad cooked brisket and Mom took her phone into the other room. After it was clear that she would not be joining the rest of us for dinner, I came to her side by the fireplace. I told her that I hoped I would get to go with her to see Lito one last time, so that I could say goodbye with her in person. Maybe we could make the trip to San Antonio after I’d started my new job, I suggested. “I don’t think he will make it that long,” she said. Instead, she told me to focus on our last meal with my little brother before he left the next morning. She didn’t want to spoil the fun.

I wouldn’t find out that Lito was already dead when we had that conversation till the next night, when my father sent a text that he needed just a minute to talk.

That was a week ago. Now it is 12:30 p.m. on the first Tuesday of the new year and no one has the link to the Zoom meeting. The churches are all booked up, so the service will have to be at the funeral home. And perhaps it is for the best, because only my Uncle Manuel’s family and a handful of others will attend in person. We now know that those family members who said their goodbyes to Lito in person—those lucky few who held my abuelo’s hand on his death bed—every one of them was exposed to Covid. Lito’s caretakers, my Uncle Jesse, and pregnant Cousin Yesenia have all tested positive. Baby Ethan has a rash and needs to wait for a special test for children. Everyone else who could have attended in person is in quarantine.

By the time my father finally texts the Zoom meeting ID, I am curled up on the couch of my living room with a cup of tea and a purring kitten, still in Arkansas. Uncle Manuel is using the camera on his iPad to show us the viewing room. I am overwhelmed by the phantom stench of mildew that seems to emanate from the scarred, grey carpet. The walls are a sickly cream, but maybe that was just the lighting. I’ve got enough view of the ceiling to see those white, square, pock-marked tiles that I used to try to lodge pencils in as a school kid. It has all the energy of a church basement despite the one wood-framed window that’s harshly illuminated in the iPad camera’s contrast settings. 

Uncle Manuel directs the camera to the open casket so that we can all see Lito at peace. I am alone in my house. No one can hear me crying.

Lito is dressed in his mariachi uniform—a bright red cravat, pressed white shirt, and black jacket with silver details—which I remember from the photo he kept over his favorite chair in his living room. There is a heap of matching red roses and white lilies over the casket. Uncle Manuel puts the iPad up close to Lito’s face, which is worn, hollow, and grey. I try to look at something else.

I flip through the gallery of screens showing the other virtual attendees. My Covid-sick Uncle Jesse has joined through two different devices with the name “joe” on one and “joejesse garcia” on the other. One camera looks straight up his nostrils. Cousin Marla is bouncing her new baby in a striped onesie in North Carolina. There are no other cameras turned on, just white initials on black squares for a handful of family members I’ve never met. I keep my camera off too.

Uncle Manuel directs the iPad to a TV screen mounted in the corner of the room. As he begins to introduce the photos in the slide show, the feedback from his mic makes him sound like he’s turned on a TikTok filter. Maybe he has. A bodiless voice yells out into the call to turn the volume down. Uncle Manuel apologizes and continues.

There are photos of my mother when she was young, photos of her nine siblings including the ones who have been estranged for years. There is a short video of Lito on his death bed with a guitar, softly singing along to a recording of his favorite mariachi song:

“Ay corazón que te vas para nunca volver. No me digas adiós.” I am sobbing and singing along with the screen. “No te despidas jamás, si no quieres saber de la ausencia el dolor.”

There is a hard cut to the next video—a transition in the middle of a lyric. Now Lito is lying down, the gentle folds of his white shirt like waves in an ocean of white hospital sheets. He is speaking Spanish—it is something important. He gently wipes a tear from his eye with a white tissue. And now I am fully weeping because I do not know what he is saying. I do not speak Spanish well enough to understand his whispered pleas and there is no one to translate. I briefly wonder if there is a way to turn on closed captions—but this is not Netflix or YouTube. I am not watching a TV show on one of my many streaming platforms. There are no closed captions for a Zoom funeral.

As the slide show starts over from the beginning, my mother joins the call. I know because I can hear her yelling at my father to help her with the app on her phone. I am looking up at her in the little Zoom box. Her hair forms a wispy halo around her downturned face. I pull myself off mute and explain that she needs to mute herself. I may have been too harsh. She signs off the call entirely.

There are a few minutes of quiet, then the priest steps up to the little podium. He is handsomely dressed in the robes of Catholic clergy, but I suspect the whole ensemble is made of a suffocating polyester, aged to the same sickly cream as the walls. “The family has requested that we start with a prayer of the rosary,” he says.

As the priest guides us through the prayers for each of the beads in his hands, I try to say the words that I remember. They are in English this time, but I have not been to mass since I was a child. Soon, I lose track of how many Hail Mary’s we’ve said. I can’t focus any more. (The rosary is a long prayer.) I step over to my window and watch the birds at my feeders. Northern cardinals chirp in the trees. They were Lito’s favorite bird. My mind wanders.

Early in the pandemic, I went to a virtual cheese tasting where a cheese monger prepared individual plates of five artisanal cheeses for us to taste in the comfort of our own homes. If you couldn’t pick up the cheese plate from their shop in town, the event planners provided a list of cheeses for you to buy yourself. At the designated time, all the attendees joined a Zoom call so the monger could walk us through the flavor and history each cheese. I have been to three of these now.

I wondered what would be on the list for a Zoom funeral basket:

  • rosary (1)
  • prayer book (1)
  • Kleenex (3, travel sized)
  • portrait of the deceased (1, upgrade to glossy finish available by request)
  • red rose (1, plastic)

         My mind continues wandering. The kitten has come to join me as I stare idly at the birds. I don’t know how long I’ve been at the window, but the priest is still saying the rosary and Mom has finally joined the call again. I am coming to the end of my lunch break. Lito was a Jehovah’s Witness when he died, so I don’t feel bad about leaving early. This mass isn’t really for him. I log out of the meeting and wash away my tears in the shower.            

Now it’s teatime—a weekly social hour for my new team at work. It’s important that I get to know them, this being my first week on the job. I take my cold, untouched funeral tea back to my desk. I check my lighting, straighten my background, and make sure there is no trace of redness in my face. I log into a new Zoom meeting.

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