This past week a very sad event occurred in my community. One of the beloved second grade teachers passed away. I did not know this teacher VERY well, but him and I have had several conversations throughout the school year with him. My first memory with this teacher was one of my first runs in the community in January. I was running along and he ran out of his house shouting at me to stop and then he invited me him for a cup of coffee. I wish I took him up on that offer, but I told him I wanted to continue with my run. He always had a lively and fun personality. He always joked with coworkers and his students adored him.
I remember working with my afternoon English teacher and him coming up to me one day and explaining to me that I am always invited over to his house for coffee and that I am considered a daughter in his eyes. He had an open heart and was of the friendliest coworkers I had. I remember when I came back from Skopje he welcomed me with open arms and asked me if I was feeling better. This open-heart and kindness is something that he left a huge mark in the village.
After I found out about him passing away from a heart attack I went to the school to see how I could support this community. The school was completely empty. Nobody was in sight. I called one of my counterparts and she told me that school got canceled that day because he passed away. The funeral was scheduled for that afternoon and I was encouraged to attend it.
Now, I have never even attended a funeral in the United States before, how am I suppose to go about attending this acquaintance’s funeral? I pulled myself together and showed up to the school when the other teachers were instructed to as well. We gathered for an hour and reflected on him and how he will be missed. Some teachers had tears in their eyes and others seemed to be lost in a world of sorrow. I was in a mix of confusion not knowing how to act or how to approach this situation.
Slowly, students gathered outside to attend the funeral, every age from 6 years old to 17 were outside waiting. Many students this teacher had years ago were there ready to experience this funeral. All the teachers gave each other a look of despair and step outside to face the students with strong faces. As a school we lined up all the students in orderly lines (this is one of the first times that I saw lines being enforced).
We walked to the house of the teacher. As we walked there as a school I felt somehow more apart of the community than I ever had before, I knew I belonged now. While walking there, many of the women teachers fought back their teachers overwhelmed with all their memories with their coworker. The streets of Pallchishte were unrecognizable. There were hundreds of cars lining the streets and hundreds of men lining the streets ready to walk to the funeral and show their regards to this amazing teacher. I felt uncomfortable walking through the pack of men because it truly made me feel apart of something bigger, but sadder.
Then, we waited as a white eerie van pulled up to the house; we all knew what this van was for. It was a very complicated process, but I picked up a couple new aspects of this culture.
- Women only attend funeral if they are coworkers with the individual that passed away.
- Besides that, only men go to the funeral. Women are seen as not needing to go to funerals.
- Women mourn in the house of the individual that passed away.
- Men either mourn in another house or outside in a courtyard/backyard.
Being able to go to a funeral is actually lucky in this case because I am a woman in this culture. The only time I would ever be socially acceptably allowed to go a funeral is in this situation.
I glace up high in the house of the teacher and saw about 20 women crowding around the windows tears falling down their faces. The pain in their hearts seeped into mine. I tried to empathize with them as in many ways as possible. As they laid the body at peace in the van I hear a faint cry from a young woman. In Albanian she was crying, “Don’t take my dad away, don’t leave dad, don’t leave.” All of a sudden I felt light headed. I placed my arm on a nearby car and tried to center my thoughts. Its hard to figure out what I am here. Am I mourning? Am I observing? Am I a teacher and a coworker? I am all, but in a different way. This young woman that was crying was his daughter.
As the van slowly pulled away from the house the closest family of the teacher walked behind the van. Then, we, as a school, walked behind that van. I felt a wave of emotion from around me. There was a feeling in the air, like we could almost feel this teacher’s presence around us. (Now I don’t believe in Ghosts but that is the only thing I could connect it with.)
As we walked through the village many other men joined behind. It almost felt like a parade of honor for this amazing teacher. Now it was something more than that, but I don’t think I can find the words to justify the experience. As we approached the cemetery, all the women teachers pulled aside and waited for all the men to pass. I watched as all the men entered the cemetery. There were at least a thousand men at the funeral and several hundred children. The teachers pulled me aside and told me that they were afraid to go to the cemetery. I still don’t understand why, but I think it has something to do with the fact that other women don’t attend funerals.
We entered the cemetery a round about way and joined the students and male teachers. Then there were some words spoken by the local Imam (Muslim leader in the Mosque). Everyone got down on their knees or bottoms. I asked one of the teachers what I should do next. She said I should I pray for him. So prayed, prayed with all my heart…to who…I’m not sure yet. Then everyone, and I mean everyone, raised their hands in the sky. This was how they pray in large crowds. I did the same trying to be respectful of the teacher.
As I looked around, tears rolled down many teachers’ eyes. The pain in their eyes was evident. I saw male teachers cry for the first time. I could see how much this community truly loved this man. I felt this warmth in my heart for him. He was truly loved and he left his mark on this community. Then, suddenly the funeral was over. I was ripped out of this peaceful environment back into my head of thoughts.
The next day, all the teachers gathered in the afternoon to pay a visit to the family. All the male teachers sat outside with the males in the family and all the female teachers went inside where all the women were mourning. As I stepped inside this house I could feel the pain within my soul. I got goose bumps and it took all the courage inside of me not to run away from all this pain. Every, single, teacher cried inside this house with all his loved ones. For some reason I couldn’t shed a tear. I tried, just to be polite and not to seem like the cold-hearted American. Alas, I couldn’t produce one drop of tear. Instead I tried to rip open my heart to show them my compassion. We let the daughter decompress as we sipped our tea quietly.
Then, we exited as soon as we came. I told every woman my heart was with them. They did not fully understand what I meant, but I hoped that they understood I was trying to sympathize. I learned I couldn’t shed tears when I needed to, but I also learned that being present and showing that I cared is sometimes something greater than words or tears.
This blog post is for this wonderful male teacher. I won’t reveal his name for the sake of his family’s privacy, but he will always be remember in my heart for his amazingly, kind-hearted, and generous spirit.