Remember My Father

Dec. 9, 2009

December, and my thought as always turns to my father.
   It was this week, a decade ago, that he left this world to join his ancestors and sing songs silenced long before he was born. In some hereafter which I cannot imagine, there are drums thrumming notes and rhythms older than the oldest European hymns.
   Sometimes, father, you and I
   Are like a three-legged horse
   That can’t get across the finish line
   No matter how hard he tries and tries and tries
  
The years of adolescence and a decade beyond still haunt me. I realize now that it was partially both our faults, but we are all blameless. I was raised entangled in confusion. On the one hand, I was beseeched to learn and remember and preserve many, many things about who I was…and yet in the next breath told to be careful of it, that I had to “fit in” and that, outside the reservation, I had to be able to survive.
   Eventually the agony became too much, and I turned my back on the drums, deafened to them, and threw myself into this world, your world. It would be a scant few years before my father died that I came full circle, because everything an Indian does is in a circle. It’s just the way of things.
   Before he left, I heard the drums again.
   My grandfather and his brothers all moved away in search of jobs and anonymity. Only my grandfather returned, to become chief. My father, born in Ft. Worth, never laid eyes on the reservation until he was a teenager, but was so compelled by something he couldn’t fathom, he moved there after his service in World War II to take up the leadership himself. He decided to preserve, rather than throw away.
   Sometimes, father, you and I
   Are like a warrior
   Who can only paint half of his face
   While the other half cries and cries and cries
  
They both heard the drums. I hear them, and that’s why I came full circle. Why I am still here.
   My father and four other men created a document that would preserve our nation, back in 1968-69. Those five men rekindled a flame that had gone cold centuries before, and chose not to throw away, not to forget.
   I’ll never be the man my father was. If you had seen him, in buckskin and turquoise and feathers and silver, you’d have known at once he was a warrior of a different sort. A champion of legacy, a mercenary for memory. My father was not self-conscious; he wore his regalia with pride. I have it, and I have never put it on my own body. I am afraid the power in it would erupt in a blinding, white-hot tsunami, and sweep me away forever, leaving only ash.
   Since 1980, I have worn a silver ring on my finger. It was made by Hopi, and I got it when I visited that tribe for a summer. It was, for many years, a reminder to me that the world is far larger than I wished it to be, and that my insolence and isolation was in my own mind alone. Recently, the ring came unwelded at the seam, separated. It is a broken circle now. I held it in my palm, and the incompleteness of it was striking. Now I understand it was a message: The work is not done. The drums must continue to beat.
   My father was laid out at Ibert’s in a blue suit and crisp white shirt. Instead of a necktie, he wore a bolo tie of abalone and silver; in his hands he clutched an eagle feather. And I saw at last that what I considered the dichotomy of him, the division of him, was truly the strength and magnitude of him. Only as a child of two worlds did he achieve greatness. He was buried in the Franklin Cemetery and my brother, as the elder, put cedar, tobacco and a dry biscuit in the dark hole in the earth before the casket was lowered down, as sustenance for the old man’s journey to the place of his ancestors.
   Sometimes, father, you and I
   Are like dirty ghosts
   Who wear the same sheets every day
   As one more piece of us just dies and dies and dies.

   So I’ll ask you to remember my father, even if you never knew him. I’ll remind you of him from time to time, if I think it’s been long enough that you might need a little jog. I’d like you to remember that he was an icon, a sum of his parts, a Sun and a chief. I’d be honored if you’d remember that he carried a sacred flame for half a century, and that he left this world secure in that he had done all he possibly could to tell stories and preserve, rather than throw away.
   Please remember that he chose the hard path, the rough road, rather than the easy one. That he was a warrior, nothing less. That when he took up his fight, along with his allies, there was no casino, no police department or health clinic or softball field, only a handful of shotgun houses, a bad road and utter desperation.
   Now can I ask you father?
   If you know how much farther we need to go
   Now can I ask you father
   Do you know how much farther we have to go?
   Father and farther
   Father and farther
   'Til we know…

   Nease. Thank you, Dad. For the patience. For the wisdom. And for the drums.
   ——
   (A grateful appreciation expressed in borrowing the lyrics of “Father and Farther” by Jim Boyd and Sherman Alexie.)