SCHUYLER, Neb. — Four white caskets in the church. Four white caskets lowered in the ground.
One was for the pregnant mother who lost her life in a car accident in the fog earlier this month. The three others were for her sons, school-aged boys excited to welcome a baby sister due next month. The boys were with her when a pickup plowed into their sedan outside Fremont.
On Thursday, Valentine’s Day, mourners packed into St. Augustine Catholic Church to say goodbye. They crowded around the gravesite. They filled a parish hall for chicken soup and quiet comfort and the well-wishes of the children’s classmates scrawled on paper hung on the walls.
All of it was a communal love letter to Maria Cristina Menjivar, the baby in her womb already named Luna, and the three boys: Julian, Adrian and Angel.
The funeral program listed their ages right down to the days each breathed on this earth.
Maria, 32 years, 5 months, 18 days.
Julian, 10 years, 9 months, 8 days.
Adrian, 8 years, 8 months, 12 days.
And the youngest son, a boy named Angel. Angel was 7 years, 9 months. To the day.
All died in a three-vehicle crash just west of Fremont at dusk on Feb. 2. Maria had been heading west on U.S. Highway 30 when an eastbound pickup that rear-ended a left-turning car in front of it careened into the westbound lane. Maria and her three boys were killed.
Both drivers of the other two vehicles, plus passengers in the first vehicle struck, were hospitalized but are expected to survive their injuries.
It was a horrific scene that sent the community of Schuyler, about an hour and a half northwest of Omaha, into shock and mourning.
Though born in Los Angeles, Maria had graduated from Schuyler High School in 2004, lived there with her sons and was working at Henningsen Foods in nearby David City as a safety coordinator.
The photographs on her funeral program and displayed in the parish hall during the luncheon that followed show a strikingly beautiful woman, with sparkling dark brown eyes. Her boys appear to share the same sparkle. Also displayed was an ultrasound photo captioned: “It’s a Girl.”
Hanging on the walls were notes and letters that the Schuyler Elementary classmates of the boys had written. Their grief, captured in marker and pencil, was raw and beautiful.
“We will miss you,” “We will remember you,” they wrote to Julian, who wore glasses and had dimples.
“I am sad,” wrote a boy named Michael. “You are the best why did you guys have to leve (sic) so soon. You are my best friend,” a child named Omar wrote to Adrian, “the goofy one,” according to his heartbroken father, Leo Saldana.
One child drew a picture of an angel. Perhaps for Angel, “the sweetheart,” his father said.
Saldana said Maria and the kids had planned to go to Omaha to attend a festival. He had planned to go too but was too tired and stayed home to sleep instead. He awoke to learn that Maria wasn’t home and found urgent messages from his sister, who said he needed to get to his family’s home in Madison, Nebraska.
“I don’t even have words,” he said after the funeral on Thursday. “My world is shattered. The beat of my heart. Everything is over.”
The message at the funeral Mass was that suffering happens. Terrible human suffering. And it’s not up to humans to find earthly answers.
“We cannot understand the reasons for pain and suffering, and we are called to loving trust in God’s providence,” the Rev. Gerry Gonderinger said during a homily that was in both English and Spanish.
Gonderinger noted that the suffering was immense. He called the deaths “one of the worst nightmares we can imagine.”
“I don’t think there is a heart so hard that it has not been moved to sorrow at the news,” he said.
Readings drew from the Old Testament book of Job, which Gonderinger explained is the attempt to describe that faith and God persist even in the depths of despair and human suffering. When the 23rd Psalm was read, the audience responded: “el Señor es mi pastor.” The Lord is my shepherd.
Gonderinger said it is impossible to understand why a mother and her children would have to perish.
So he instructed mourners to focus on what they can understand and know: that God is loving and merciful. That God can transform “even the tragedies in our life” to something good and that in the end, life is a gift from God.
Gonderinger blessed each of the four white caskets. He blessed Maria’s casket and Julian’s casket and Adrian’s casket and Angel’s casket. And as the caskets were wheeled out of the church, mourners sang a song in Spanish.
Más allá del sol.
Beyond the sun.