Silvia stood outside the warehouse door, a thin ribbon of smoke trailing upwards from the business end of her cigarette. She lifted the butt to her mouth and inhaled, squinting her left eye against the sudden breeze that carried the smoke straight into her face. Her vision remained fixed on the small boy playing in the yard across the street.
The chain link fence protected him from stray dogs and strangers with candy, but it was unable to stop the chill wind from reddening his cheeks and pudgy little fingers as he dug determinedly in the large sand pile that dominated the yard. A small patch of red fabric covered the wear hole on the elbow of his hand-me-down jacket.
The boy was out in the yard most days that Silvia took her cigarette break, and she watched him build his sand castles every chance she got. He dug and dumped, dug and dumped, happily busy in his world that didn’t include her, even though she was thirty yards from him.
Silvia took a last drag, then turned the cigarette in her hand to make sure none was left. She flipped it around with practiced fingers and tossed it halfway across the street as she took one last hissing inhale of the cold winter air through her front teeth. Her eyes darted from the path of the cigarette back to the small boy, narrowing as she noted that he had disappeared from her view.
The breath she hadn’t realized that she was holding escaped her chest as he tottered back into sight from the far side of the small mountain of sand, and the tightness in her throat relaxed. She rubbed her right eye, trying to convince herself that a speck of dust had flown into it, but knowing in her heart of hearts that she had yet to be done grieving.
The mourners filed from the cemetery, somber and solitary for all that they were together in a group. Behind them, the raw dirt peeked from beneath its faux green carpet, waiting only for the last one to disappear before being uncovered and dumped back into the hole from which it came.
On rainy days, the parade of black umbrellas was a notable difference, but everything else remained the same. The solemnity, the slowing down.
The little boy peering from his window on the other side of the fence watched them all. His mother hated it, couldn’t bear the thought that her precious little one was obsessed with the morbid, with the ruthlessness of death.
But she didn’t understand, and he was still too young to have the words to explain to her how it wasn’t the dead that fascinated him so, but the living. He watched the people who came to each and every funeral. He watched for their loves and their lives. He watched them comfort each other and refuse comfort offered.
From them, he learned to care, not just for those he knew and loved, but for everyone.