YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The State | COLUMN ONE

A vigil for the living

A brother seeking privacy in a visit to his young sister's grave finds instead an unexpected community in which grief's burden is shared.

January 16, 2007|Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writer

I PARKED my car on the salt-and-pepper asphalt and crossed the grassy expanse, weaving around headstones.

Clutching flowers and lyrics from a U2 song, I looked for the grave of my sister, Michelle Melissa Becerra.

She was a 22-year-old art history major at UCLA, just months from graduation. She was 10 years younger than I, the baby among my five brothers and sisters.

Michelle and I rarely interacted and I never really understood why. And yet the last time I saw her, Michelle asked whether we were going to take that summer trip to our parents' hometown in central Mexico. I told her to just let me know when. I was looking forward to the trip because I was sure we would bond.

Days later, she lay dead just blocks from home, killed when a car flipped onto the sidewalk where she was walking.

After her burial, I was filled with grief, and regret that I had never had a heart-to-heart talk with my little sister. Certain words should have come from my mouth, even if they made Michelle blush or fidget.

And now she was gone. It was as if she had just disappeared. And so, as lame as it felt to act so belatedly, I had to "talk" to Michelle, even if I had to do so over her drab headstone.

After about 15 minutes of searching, I found the black marker.

And there they were. The two old men.

They were no more than 10 feet away, sitting in lawn chairs and chatting about who knows what. They looked as perfectly at ease as I suddenly felt self-conscious.

With the men in the corner of my eye, words failed me. I didn't want to cry in front of them. I had never found the right words for Michelle when she was alive, and now she was dead, and these men weren't making it any easier. I wanted to tell Michelle that I loved her, but the words would not come out.

I stood quietly by her grave for a few minutes before leaving.

I came back a few months later with more flowers and yet another page of U2 lyrics. And sure enough, the pair were there, this time joined by a few other older men.

I tensed with annoyance, resentful that I didn't have any privacy.

My older brother Javier described a similar scene. Every time he visited the Resurrection Cemetery in Montebello, he said, it seemed they were talking about "mundane stuff," how their cars don't work, what they saw on TV, good lunch spots.

The scene repeated itself over a year and a half until one morning, about two months ago, I showed up just after the grass had been trimmed and watered. There was a soup of mud spread all over my sister's headstone. I bent down and began to wipe it away with my hand.

One of the men, mustached and wearing sunglasses, quietly walked over and handed me a rag. He retreated to his chair as I cleaned Michelle's headstone.

For the first time, I made out parts of their conversation. The man talked about how when he was young, all the kids used to chase after the water truck to take a bath.

Almost against my will, I smiled.


THEY are brothers. They first came to the cemetery nearly three years ago to bury their 98-year-old mother, a woman they had cared for into their twilight years. They came back the day after the burial. Then the next day, and the next.

They pull up each day in their white Cadillac DeVille, carrying a bucket for water, shovels, flowers and two folding chairs.

Benny Vasquez, 71, cradles a bag with six plain doughnuts; they're for the pigeons.

He lays a mat on the grass, gets on his knees, whispers and presses his lips against his mother's black marble headstone. Then he leans back on his chair and feeds the birds.

Benny doesn't talk much. His brother Tony, 73, is the gregarious one, the sunglass-wearing, thick-mustached ambassador.

Here, Tony says, walking to one plot. There is no headstone. The woman who comes to visit her daughter's grave isn't ready to buy one.

"She was real young, her daughter. I tell her, 'Don't cry, she's in heaven with the Lord,' " Tony says. "And she says, 'Don't say nothing like that to me. I'm mad at him. He didn't have to take her from me.' "

Over there is a grave frequented by his friend from Cambodia, a woman who raised three daughters who became nurses, Tony says, impressed.

"Her husband died of cancer. Look how pretty they keep everything," Tony says. "She says she can't get married for five years."

There's "Salvador from El Salvador," who went back to school to learn English after his young wife died.

As they survey the cemetery that has become a second home, they've turned their mother's plot into a community built on grief.

The brothers were raised in Denver -- two of 13 children. Both had been in a street gang in the late 1940s.

They remained close, even after the family moved to Southern California. Benny settled down with a job at Honeywell for 26 years. Tony would mostly move from one job to another.

Their mother always seemed to keep an extra eye on Tony even as an adult.

Los Angeles Times Articles