Glad you’re back. Now sit down and brace yourself.
The story continues…now.
At a hospice centre in Delaware she was battling breast cancer. By then I was seventeen and hadn’t seen her in two years even though my father’s presence had become regular. When I saw her, she was as thin as a sheet and I couldn’t see anywhere for the cancer to take hold or even flourish.
My aunt was scared because the doctors had said that she had only six months to live, but to her credit she lasted two years. Closer to the end, though, the treatments of chemo had weakened her and she looked nothing like the southern belle who had headed north in search of a degree in civil engineering. And in the photographs she left for me, I was introduced to her parents, Deb and Stan, who still wanted nothing to do with her. Or me. Then there was a brother, Terry, who seemed more keen on the ladies and would try his luck in Vegas. But luck is a fool’s game; I had learned that early on when Cindy left me for some bloke who could bench press one-fifty. And as my father had shown me in the past, guys like us would always have to make our own luck.
I travelled west to Utah that day, after the treatment, with my mom to see some of her college buddies. People she no longer hung out with; but with whom she had joined the Free Indian Reserve. A group who prided themselves on the stoppage of government encroachment on reservation land. In fact, one or two of the women said that they were still members and that those days had been exhilarating. How they had managed to steal a smoke here and there between trips to the chief’s tepee to do conference. How even though the elders had held reservations they were ecstatic about my mother’s plan to embrace a tree that lay on a border.
How the day after her water broke, the land had managed to absorb her nutrients. How having me there in spirit had been a real turning point in brokering the deal that helped them keep 90% of their land because nobody wanted to encroach on anything sacred that was also seeped with amniotic fluid.
That night when we celebrated together was one of the happiest moments of my life, because even in her weakened state, my mother embraced me and I knew she was looking at me and seeing someone worthy of love. Something I had waited for, for so long. But we didn’t stay together for too long. One week later when my aunt and I left she was writhing in pain from medication that was too strong and would later cause her to go on dialysis.
I never asked my father if he had visited her although I knew that she had kept in touch with him almost as much as she had with me. That was something we had promised each other growing up: to keep the lines of communication open and the discussion going. Although with my father there was never really anything to talk about.
I remember one summer when I was getting ready to visit my father, I had taken up the habit of talking to rocks. I mean, other people skipped stones but I communicated with them in a way I couldn’t with my father. It’s not as weird as you would think, after all many people in my old neighbourhood skipped rocks. Here, I usually considered it as an unavailability of water thing. Besides, I could say more to those rocks than I could with my father, the Quiet Shaman.
One night though, I caught him writing in a journal and when I asked him about it, he challenged me to a game of arm wrestling, which I lost and was sent to bed. But I watched him, with his straggly beard and deep welts, wondering what great stories he was keeping for posterity, to share perhaps sometime when I was older and could appreciate the fabric of the yarn.
I would have liked to say that that changed everything about how I saw him. How I searched for that journal on every outing we took and tried to get stories out of him about his relationship with my mother. But like with everything else in his life, he remained silent. I knew nothing about the degree he possessed or how he had hoped to help his people. Nothing about his side of things and that tree-hugging incident in which my uncle swore he had refused to take part. In fact, after my mother passed away, we hardly ever saw each other again. And then I moved away from the area.
I would have forgotten about my people and my heritage if it hadn’t been for my daughter, Ki (pronounced as key), whose resemblance to her mother was more pronounced than mine. Except I saw glimpses of him everywhere, especially on the streets we had once travelled together, his six shooter still glued to his hip.
I met Chi at a petrochemicals rally in Caracas, the winter my summer abroad program took effect. She was the daughter of a Japanese banker from the Tohoku region who had fallen in love with Spanish. Her roommate, Maria was the one holding a large placard that read, Venga. ¡Venga la revolución! And at the behest of her friend and the excitement of the city, Chi had rushed out of the university, forgetting her phone. Something I remember now in hindsight as the organizers of another rally instruct us to join hands and we circled another building and sing songs of freedom.
In the end, after the other rally, nobody was arrested, because we were mostly international students who were for the greater good, helping the country’s economy. We were glad about our impassioned stance and the fortuitous end, and as a result exchanged telephone numbers while sipping on colas and munching on plataños. Chi and I communicating through broken Spanish and English, and crazy hand gestures, until we learned enough about how to be comfortable with one another.
I remember her hands holding mine as I had held my mother’s on the day she died, in my aunt’s basement, finally at peace with the choices she had made, hopefully grateful for what she had been given. Nobody outside our immediate circle came to the funeral, except a few of my friends who acted as pallbearers. Not her parents who had flown in for a christening or her friends from FIR, who had sworn that her quick-thinking had helped the organization. Or any other member of the Chippewa Indians. So in the end, I donned the official headdress of a chief that I borrowed from my uncle and gave counsel with the spirit elders, telling them to be as gentle with her as she had been with me. I hoisted her body up and helped position it in its grave; because she had borne me up and deserved better.
Now, when I talk to my daughter, I try to tell her what I know about life on the reservation. Things I had probably never fully understood. How the Native Americans had lost so many of their people before the country was fully formed. And how now even though some of them still subsisted on the land, they maintained old practices which were somewhat safer. And when she is five I will probably take her back there to meet her great uncle, Six Shooter, so that she can explore parts of her roots as my father had tried to do with me.
Only I promise not to remain silent. To not let the world take everything that I have away from me. And I promise to let every moment count, as it does when I am digging into the ground, on my search for artifacts.
And she will know with every beat of my heart, that she was wanted and planned for. That she and her mother are the keys of my life. That we can subsist together, even if we are in the South American jungles searching for natives in a strange land. Or fighting against big oil companies in Canada and Norway. That the race to go green has not outrun its course and that we will always have a purpose; even if sometimes we are on the other side of the law, engaged in subterfuge.
I hope you have enjoyed Subterfuge, come back next Wednesday for another story!