Through the Fire: A Family Love That Will Not Die (A Tale of Two Funerals, Part 1) by Melody Fox

January 8, 2018, the family of Francis/Young loved ones that lost their lives as a result of the Bronx, New York fire of December 28, 2017, held a Thanksgiving Celebration in their honor. Their family of five represents more than a 1/3 of all those that perished from the fatal fire.

It ‘s nothing short of devastating to lose five family members at the same time (in such a tragic way) so it’s understandable that saying goodbye formally was an unwelcomed duty. No one wanted to be the first to go to the R.G. Ortiz Funeral Home on Monday, January 8, 2018 but the reality was inevitable. Family filed in and had to face seeing their loved ones all together again but in a different way—with them no longer able to infuse a room with each of their unique personalities. 2-year-old Kylie wasn’t getting her bounce on, 7-year-old Kelesha wasn’t sharing her calm and warmth, 19-year-old Shawntay wasn’t lovingly laughing and sashaying, 27-year-old Holt wasn’t flashing his bright smile as he did while watching his babies, and 37-year-old Karen-Stewart Francis wasn’t wearing one of her head-turning outfits—instead she was practically unrecognizable to those who knew her well. This moment was different for a family that loves hard and strong.

After hundreds viewed the bodies and shook their heads in disbelief, reality was finally settling in. Five that loved and were loved were no longer alive in the flesh. The service portion was drawing near and due to the high volume of celebrants in attendance an executive decision was made with the permission of matriarch Ambrozine Stewart to move the service in an adjacent chapel that would yield more space without the caskets. The positioning of the chapel would also give the overflow crowd at least some view of the service with the doors being kept opened.

There I was—a family liaison that only met the family a week prior on New Year’s day—at the vigil held in front of their former home of 2363 Prospect Ave. located in the Bronx, NY, the place of the fatal fire that directly claimed four of their loves ones and a fifth as he was taken off life support days later after sustaining massive brain damage. I was/am bonded to them because of our relatedness as human beings whose hearts beat for our loved ones; we don’t have to share the same blood or culture. It was time to stand for/with them as I did the night of the vigil and since the moment we were now in.

I was using my production wherewithal to now organize chairs being moved with the gracious support of some male family members and friends. We had to get as many chairs lined up as possible because so many were there to give thanks and pay respects. The attendance was a perfect example to ascribe meaning to the depth of this family’s love; it overflows. All those in attendance would be in for a service that they would not soon forget—a “Thanksgiving Celebration” that would profoundly evoke love, strength and celebration (even in the wake of tragedy).

Family friend and long-time religious affiliate, Pastor Joseph Downer opened the service with prayer and at his invitation, the crowd sang “How Great Thou Art” in resounding fashion. He then welcomed Jamaica Justice League President Sadie Campbell that offered to moderate the service days before. I was a stand-by to moderate but I was already going to be eulogizing one of the loved ones gone too soon. When Sadie’s voice couldn’t project loudly as she revealed getting over not feeling well and without the support of a PA system to bolster it, I stepped up. A non-Jamaican community member moderating the service for a proud Jamaican family was not a predictable outcome but a welcomed one—a post based in a love that had already been forged by being their family liaison.

I remarked about the strength, grace and dignity of a family that has so much love then welcomed Sasha Answer (niece and cousin to the transitioned) as she gave the 1st Lesson (Psalms 23; vs. 1-6); an excerpt of the passage reveals this family’s strength and spiritual fortitude. “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Resilience is an operative word as this family rebuilds in the wake of a dark valley (please support them) with love and faith lighting the way.

Ricardo Stewart took us all back to Jamaica as he recalled when his baby sister Karen Stewart-Francis was picking mangoes off the tree as a child. The determined little one he looked after and helped raise grew to be a wonderful homemaker that just wanted the best for her a family—a commitment born in Spanish Town. It is clear as the family shares, their loved ones will forever be etched in hearts and minds—as timeless as the photographs on the memorial poster collage near the podium.

Kadian Blake eulogized the youngest of the transitioned, her cousin Kylie; she managed to muster some laughter during sweet memories of the baby she experienced as if she were her own child. Kylie’s “happy feet” were a spectacle for all to see. I eulogized Kelesha with the help of her cousin Jeremiah Blake; in addition to me saluting the biological mother Isadora Nembhard for birthing the beautiful girl, I acknowledged the family that embraced “Sweet Kelesha” since her father Holt brought her to the states from Jamaica. Jeremiah Blake remarked how his cousin, a fellow PS 205 Fiorella LaGuardia elementary student, “just had this calm about her,” surely a remarkable attribute to designate to any young child. He will surely miss harmoniously playing with his cousins as they regularly did.

Opal Stewart’s voice rang out as the only solo song tribute formally on the program for the eve. The talented vocalist filled the room with outstanding technical ability but it was secondary to the passion she exuded with heart-felt memories of her family by marriage as a backdrop. She will be there as she was in this moment—comforting the surviving loved ones, particularly supporting her husband Anthony Stewart in quiet moments when hundreds aren’t listening on. Opal was soulful and connected. Love was in the building.

Ernesto Sewell eulogized his sister-in-law Shawntay Young; in simple words: “she loved her family.” Shawntay’s mother Elaine Stewart sat with her husband Howard by her side and the surviving sisters and brothers tried to keep their heads up while bearing a pain that was undeniably present. Earlier in the eve (post viewing), Elaine could barely stand as she shouted out: “Mi Baby”; however, during this service moment, she was listening and praying while being surrounded with love. Shawntay will be missed for sure.

There was a song offering from Khamor Lambert and he “raised the roof” as he lifted the family. Remarking how family members such as Carmeleta Halladene-Sewell (Shawntay’s sister) made it to church even with traveling a distance; love knows no bounds. And what greater love then that of a mighty God that will keep you during some of the darkest moments was the vocal testimony from a talented young family friend; Khamor’s voice and heartfelt offering was a light.

Pastor Jonathan from Mt. Caramel asked to share a few words. He had been there since the night of the fire and said his heart was with them still. As he couldn’t stay because he was in route to be with another family too, “Will you keep me?” was his closing plea after brief remarks. The rhetorical question occurred as a pledge of support to the Francis/Young family beyond this moment of finality in New York. They will need love from all that can extend it.

After providing the 1st Lesson earlier, Sasha Answer returned to do a tribute to her family through song as she beckoned for her mother “Shevy” as she affectionately called her. I went to get Ethel a.k.a. Shevan as she had a challenging time at the viewing earlier in the afternoon and was right outside the doors still regrouping. When I returned with “Shevy,” Sasha took the lead to lift her voice with the Whitney Houston song, “I Look to You.” The lyrics told the hard story, which is really a heart story, belted by a love one. “Winter storms have come / And darkened my sun / After all that I’ve been through / Who on earth can I turn to.” With her head to heaven, this was a point of breakdown for a niece and cousin; she wasn’t just singing but rather pouring her heart out. When she couldn’t do it alone anymore, her aunt-in-law Opal Stewart came in and finished the song while embracing her and her mother. “I look to you / after all my hope is gone / in you I can be strong / I look to you.” Yes. This family stands for each other when it seems like all hope is gone. The love is deep.

Reverend Steven didn’t come prepared with formal words but he had his heart to share. He remarked that he didn’t have the “right words” to say when he learned about the fire. He could only lift the family up and remind them that they were covered as Kylie was in his jacket when he christened her as a newly born baby. He extended his love and encouragement for a family that he has known for years.

Iholt Francis eulogized his brother Holt Francis and couldn’t speak loud but his heart filled the chapel. He shared how he was planning on coming to the states and having his shared 28th birthday with his brother Holt and that instead he had to come prematurely and authorize the hard decision of taking his brother off life support. In those final moments of speaking to his brother at the hospital, he was hoping by some magical feat, that his fraternal twin would awaken from his coma. He said he feels like “nothing is there”—the closest he could describe no longer having the one he literally came into this world with. Iholt went through moments of deep pauses to being able to share memories of face-timing and talking on the phone to his nieces, most significantly baby Kylie that he didn’t get to see in person until this eve as the tiny little one lay in her casket. He never got to hold his youngest niece but it’s clear the love he has for his family will be held forever.

The New Bronx Choir were the perfect lift after someone from the audience, shouted, “let’s pray for him.” Through song, the angelic voices lifted the vibration with spirituals of encouragement.

This is indeed a challenging time so it was apropos for the 3rd Lesson (Ecclesiastes 3vs 1-8) which speaks to time, to be delivered by Rudolph Stewart before his brother eulogized their sister. “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build.” This family must hold on and rebuild; the love that binds it would have it no other way.

Last of the eulogies, was Anthony Stewart remembering his sister Karen that he grew up with in Spanish Town, Jamaica. Remembering that she completed high school and then migrated with her brother (name) and father to join her mother Ambrozine in the U.S. in order to make a better life. Stewart shared that Karen later married Holt Francis who brought to the marriage daughter Kelesha and that the loving couple later welcomed his youngest niece Kylie. His voice shook as he spoke of the caring mother, wife and sister. Barely able to speak as he remembered the “baby” of the siblings, a group of them joined him at the podium. He acknowledged their mother Ambrozine Stewart; other brothers: Winston, Rudolph, Dennis, Ricardo and Kevin; sisters: Andrene, Carol, Elaine and Ethel and a host of their other relatives and friends. This family love has spanned countries and experiences over a lifetime.

Pastor Joseph Downer encouraged all through his spirit-filled sermon about God providing, making a way out of no-way and forging ahead in the face of the inexplicable. At the conclusion, Pastor Downer bid the crowd to give thanks for the service’s moderator: me; how humbled I am to have been of service in this deeply personal way for this incredibly loving family; yes, God does provide. As all the attendees were standing—vowing to get through the eye of the storm, shouts of “Amen,” “Jesus,” and “Hallelujah” were the mantras and marching orders as the formal service concluded. Love filled the air; how could it not after the echoed sacred promise: joy cometh in the morning.

When the majority of mainstream press wasn’t there to cover (save a few that patiently waited for a closed casket pic), and most attendees were already up the block at the repast destination (a local restaurant), a few family members said their formal last goodbyes on this soil (the final homegoing is in Jamaica on January 21, 2017). This is not just about the tragic passing of loved ones; this is about life, as it was known, being forever changed. The viewing room was no longer bustling with the hundreds; it was virtually quiet, however, the sound of love reverberated.

Gwayne Blake (related by his marriage to Kadian) went around to each casket with a special message for each—talking audibly as if they were having a “regular” conversation. He went to baby cousin Kylie and talked about her bouncing and affectionately addressed her as: “Mi Baby.” He spoke jubilantly to each and it could occur as if he was just talking to the bodies in the caskets, but a deeper look revealed he was speaking to each soul—the essence of which won’t soon be forgotten. Cousin and niece Kadian said her goodbyes as her husband Gawayne stood as a protector. She walked to each while shaking—clearly remembering their love—and coming to grips that the covers coming down on the caskets signify a reality that she is not yet prepared for—their bodies no longer being on this earth. She will miss their hugs, kisses, family vacations and more.

One of her surviving cousins Leo Halladene said his goodbyes to his cousins, sister, uncle-in-law, and aunt. He wept as he went to each one; sobbing in disbelief at his sister Shawntay’s casket and finally buckling over at his Auntie Karen’s; it’s clear they were close. I held him in my arms tightly and placed my right hand on his head as he collapsed on my shoulder; my eyes began to well but I tried my best to stay composed; these are human beings that have suffered a tremendous loss and then to not even have their own beds to rest their heads when they leave this place, it is a difficult moment to be in especially for a young person. They deserve love, dignity and respect. A testament to the aforementioned, Shawntay’s stepfather Howard wanted to know where his daughter’s chain was—one that was supposed to be around her neck (it was missing); they check for one another even in passing. The love is everlasting.

Andrene Paul was in the back of the chapel taking care of some business with the funeral home, filling the role of leadership although her mother Ambrozine is the senior of the lot; the sobering reality, as witnessed in that moment, there will still be so much to handle in days, weeks, and months to come. The inevitable contrast of grieving, giving thanks, and having to take care of business (namely placement for some) is a simultaneous reality that is inescapable. In a convo I had with Andrene’s younger sister Shevan, she said, “Boy, you have to be strong all the time in America,” and I bid her to be encouraged but to avail herself of vulnerable moments and rest (however compromised in the moment). But how can you completely rest when you still don’t have a bed of your own? This is a family rocked because they are/were each other’s rock; their love is solid.

To quote one of the program hymns: “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” It is a call that is made with spiritual reverence and one I’ll extend to a family that has been through the fire but has a love that will not die.