Grand-mama died after many long hours of struggling for breath. It was the first time I saw death and it frightened me terribly. The concept of gone, never to return had been a part of my life, but in the form of the animals we hunted for our food. And though the animals we killed never came back, there were always more; like the flowers in the field, they always returned. My understanding of death was not that it was final, more that it was a cycle of disappearance and reappearance with no harm done.
I watched Grand-mama all through the long night with my mother and sisters crying in my ears. I did not cry. Maybe because I did not truly believe her life over. A part of me waited for her to finish her rest and return. For a child, death is both very real and very abstract. Even hardened adults grapple with it.
The next morning, I helped my mother wash Grand-mama's body and dress her in her favorite gown, the loose light blue one with long sleeves. She'd always been cold, and told me many times that the sleeves were a blessing. My father and brother carried her outside, to the place where they'd dug up the soil for her.
She went to be with Grand-papa, and her mother and father, brothers and sisters, and their mother and father before them, my mother told me. Her spirit was still within in the body, even though she was gone forever. We buried her on the west side of the house, another link in the circle of our ancestors. It was tradition; we bury our lost loved ones in a wide circle around our home, and their spirits guard us against dangers to our dying day, when we join them.
It was our duty, my mother told me, to live such lives as would honor those who have gone before us, and then in death to safeguard those who came after.