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A vigil for the living

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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.

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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.

Their mother lived so long that in their own old age, they continued to care for her. They would cook for her and take her wherever they went. Tony used to hold her hands and rub them to keep them warm.

One day, Angela Vasquez fell and was hospitalized. In May 2004, she died.

One of their sisters, Connie Vasquez, asked them why they constantly went to the cemetery.

Her Christian faith told her that their mother was not there, that she was with God. The only thing that remained underground was her “shell,” she said.

The brothers got angry, especially Tony.

“The Lord decides what she is, a shell or whatever else,” Tony told his sister.

So every day, Benny greets his mother by kissing her headstone and telling her he loves her and misses her; and every day, before he leaves, Tony rubs the cold headstone, like he did his mother’s hands.

“Her hands used to get so cold,” he said.

Tony began cleaning the graves around his mother’s plot and trimmed the grass growing around the headstones of lonely plots. He would go up to anybody and just about everybody, making friends.

Soon, people began to join the brothers, people like Ernie Serrano, 74, grieving for his wife of 53 years, and Joe DeAnda. The 85-year-old would stand or sit above his late wife’s plot. Soon after they showed up, he was talking with Tony, and soon after that, he began to pull a seat, and together they would form a semicircle around Angela Vasquez’s grave.

“We call it the Cemetery Club,” DeAnda said with a smile.

“I didn’t realize it at first,” DeAnda added, “but I was coming here just to talk to somebody else because I didn’t have anybody else to talk to. So it’s like a reunion every morning.”

Tony would duck out from time to time, wandering around the cemetery whenever the club broached topics that he found too heavy.

“You know what they’re talking about right now?” Tony said one day as he stood on the asphalt road. “They’re talking about insurance, burials and money. I walk away when they start talking about that.”

Still, others were drawn in from their solitude.

Oscar Lopez, 48, of West Covina said he didn’t talk to anybody when he first came after his wife of 30 years died. They had been childhood sweethearts growing up in Boyle Heights. He would stay for hours and cry, angry at God.

One day, a priest there for a burial walked up to him and asked Lopez why he was there, making himself suffer.

“He said, ‘She’s not there,’ ” Lopez recalled. “I said, ‘Well, maybe her spirit is not there. But I know I put her there, so I know she’s there.’ It upset me that he said that to me.”

Eventually, Lopez opened up to others.

“Tony started talking to me. He talks to everybody,” Lopez said.

*

ON a January morning last year, a 22-year-old woman showed up at the cemetery looking for the grave of her best friend.

Coral Arias was the last person to see my sister Michelle alive. They had been walking from our childhood home in Boyle Heights to Olvera Street when an unlicensed teenage driver rammed another car, causing it to slam into Michelle.

“I was crying at the sight of her name,” said Arias, who also was injured. “Tony just came up to me and asked who I was visiting. I told him. One thing he said to me was not to worry about Michelle. That he would watch over her.”

For the Vasquez brothers, there is something life-affirming about keeping vigil.

“When somebody that you’re very close to is suddenly taken away, you’re looking around and looking around, and you’re all by yourself,” Benny Vasquez said. “And you start coming here, and you can see her in a way, and you start feeling good again.”

The presence of the brothers became more comforting as I got to know them. It felt good to share stories, and they made the experience of going to the cemetery less lonely.

I did end up having a talk with Michelle. It didn’t really resolve anything, and I’m not sure it’s really supposed to. But there will be other talks.

In any event, the brothers’ presence is no longer a block for me. I’ll cry or talk to Michelle whether they are there or not. It’s really nothing to be ashamed of. And because they’ve learned something of the quality of Michelle, the brothers will know that any tears shed for her are well earned.

Maybe Tony will even tell someone a story about her one day.

There were times I felt guilty about how infrequently I visited my sister’s grave when the club members were there most every day.

Tony Vasquez was quick to reassure me.

“You don’t have to come. You’re busy,” he said, tapping my shoulder.

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed that my sister’s headstone bore the traced outlines of letters and postcards left behind.

Tony suggested simple water would do the trick. Another visitor, Augie Sanchez, 42, took a hose and connected it to a spigot yards away. His 9-year-old daughter Samantha wet the marble as Tony bent down and wiped it with a rag.

Then he edged out the soil and grass around the headstone. I told Tony he didn’t have to clean my sister’s headstone. He waved me off.

“It’s OK. You’re a busy man,” he said. “Just watch -- by next week I’ll have it really nice and clean.”

*

hector.becerra@latimes.com


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