“[I]t is not the oral tradition as transmitted from ages past alone which is the inspiration and course for contemporary Indian literature. It is also because of the acknowledgement by Indian writers of a RESPONSIBILITY to advocate for their people’s self-government, sovereignty, and control of land and resources; and to look also at racism, political and economic oppression, sexism, supremacism, and the needless and wasteful exploitation of land and people, especially in the U.S., that Indian literature is developing a character of nationalism which indeed it should have.”
With this framework, I carry out my responsibility as NAS 5 instructor, inspiring students to see Native literature for what it is worth: an expression of Indigenous people’s integrity and intellectual sovereignty.
Despite the importance of these goals at the political, intellectual, and artistic levels, little was I aware that I would be touched by Native literature at the very profound personal and emotional level. Not that I was not touched by it personally, but it achieved that effect to the deep level when a personal experience struck me overwhelmingly in the very midst of teaching Native American literature in Fall Quarter 2014: the death of my beloved mother. I started teaching the Fall Quarter 2014 in early October, when in mid-October I heard that my mother had to be hospitalized after being found unable to rise from bed one morning. Her health kept declining ever since, and each of my nights afterward was filled with an earnest prayer, asking God to save her for I was not ready to see her go. My lifetime of being separated from her was much longer than the time I had spent being with her. Not that I abandoned her, but the pursuit of my education had taken me to places hundreds and even thousands of miles away from my homeland.
And her condition worsened every day. She was still able to speak with me on the phone the first days she was at the hospital. Then I saw a picture of her sent by my brother in November, and what I saw was heartbreaking: chapped (but more like charred) lips, blackened hands, a mouth that remained open, eyes that remained closed, and an entire body that was as stiff as a log. In the very last week of November, I received a call from my brother: “She had two [what were assumed to be her final] wishes: to see you [me], and to see me [him] being married.” I rushed home with my wife and 2-and-a-half-year-old son, taking flights that encompassed half of the world to see her, probably for the last time. Arriving at the hospital, what I see of my mother was much worse than what I had seen on the picture. After taking care of her for almost three weeks, she passed away on December 22nd, 2014. I was the first person to discover that she had left all of us. I may have been the last person on earth she had seen on her deathbed, in her own home.
What I reflect on this experience of being with my dying mother and in the presence of her death is the empowerment and strengthening of soul I gained from reading and engaging with literature produced by Native authors. It was in the midst of reading each of my students’ introductory paragraphs and essay outlines that I found myself profoundly inspired and sustained by poems written by Native poets. This was the moment when I realized that what I had always engaged with intellectually and artistically could touch me at the deep emotional and spiritual level. I did rely on my prayers to find personal strength, but I know full well that I relied on these poems for powerful and meaningful sustenance at the moments of my mother’s illness and death. There were hours that I spent in the Reading Room at Shields Library when I had my mind genuinely exploring into the very essence of each poem, thinking how my students would develop a critical essay out of it, as well as finding myself carried away in (somehow) delightful meditation. Indeed, I coped with the possible and eventual death of my mother through engagement with these poems.
I was not able to determine what kind of grief I was dealing with. Deborah Miranda aptly expresses what I felt at the death of my mother: “Maybe all loses before this one are practice: / maybe all grief that comes after her death seems tame. / I wish I knew how to make dying simple, wish our mother’s last week were not constructed / of clear plastic tubing, IVs, oxygen hiss, / cough medicine, morphine patches, radiation tattoos, / the useless burn on her chest.” I wish my mother had not had to endure the acute diarrhea that made her reel in severe pain for hours after consuming even a very little morsel of liquid food given through a plastic tube that ran through the tunnel in her nose. I wish I had not had to change her diapers for almost every two hours and pour iodine and bandage on her constantly-bleeding buttocks. I wish I had not had to see her in crushing disappointment after she found out that, against her wish, she was not able to rise from the bed as cancer had put her legs in utter uselessness.
After nights of fervent prayers, should I be angry with the Creator who had put my mother in such relentless agony that she almost could not handle? Should God be my enemy? Should I find strength in other places? It was at these moments of questioning that I was brought to Miranda’s words: “Each grief has its unique side. / Choose the one that appeals to you. / Go gently. / Your body needs the energy to repair the amputation. / Humor phantom pain.” Indeed, I had to find the unique side of my grief, since it was not the one I could understand by maintaining the same wish in the same regular prayers. Perhaps I needed to pray in a different way. Other ways may appeal to me more. I did need the energy to repair my life’s amputation after my mother’s departure. Was there humor in these moments of grief; what was my humor, or was it simply phantom and pain? Any worthy suggestion to handle grief in out-of-ordinary ways? Miranda continues, a few lines forward: “Read your grief like the daily newspaper: / headlines may have the information you need. / Scream. Drop-kick the garbage can across the street.” I did not scream since silence spoke louder for me. I screamed when I was most silent. I should have probably kicked the door of my car, not to ease grief, but simply to do something different. But I did concur with reading my grief like the daily newspaper. Life is never divided between dead and life; my mother did not pass away but she passed on, entering a different realm of life that everyone will take. No need to think of heaven or hell.
I will think of a gathering in the Milky Way, a powwow at the very end of the world. Do I need to grieve in a time like this? Is death ever-powerful? No, said Sherman Alexie: “Crow rides a pale horse / into a crowded powwow / but none of the Indian panic. / Damn, says Crow, I guess / they already live near the end of the world.” In the face of death, I need not panic, just as Indian people in Alexie’s poem do not panic with the arrival of the crow riding on a pale horse. Death and destruction has lost its sting, and we are all already at the brink to the next world. In this case, death is a nonsense inculcated in our brain; fear is instilled by our enemy, the colonizers of the land and the soul. Sherman Alexie: “I am told by many / of you that I must forgive and so I shall when I am dancing / with my tribe during the powwow at the end of the world.” I was told by many that I should grieve, but I would grieve in a way that no one had ever done before. So I shall grieve distinctively when I am dancing with the spirits of the universe near the bridge where I see the gathering of dancers as they welcome the presence of my mother.
As Joy Harjo speaks to my mother: “You will travel through the membrane of death, smell cooking / from the encampment where my relatives make a feast of fresh / dear meat and corn soup, in the Milky Way.” I envisioned a feast that my mother was invited to, where she would share the joy of a hearty meal with our relatives. Rather than an intersection of heaven and hell, she would encounter a gathering of beloved souls, a “kitchen table” defined by Harjo as the place where “the gifts of earth are brought and prepared. Set on the table. So it has been since / creation, and it will go on.” A welcome party would have been waiting for her, and she would be embraced by everyone: my late father and grandfather, my grandmother (her mother) who would no longer be insane, and her cousin who had been a faithful pastor his whole life. My vision is to join the feast with them one day, when death is nil as I pursue my way to the sought-after Milky Way. As I make my own map to the next world, I know that what I will encounter is “red cliffs,” which are “the heart / they contain the ladder.” Afterwards, “[a] white deer will greet [me] when the last human climbs from destruction,” and this white deer is a gift for everyone taking the journey to the next world, the fifth world for the new generation of Indigenous children, as well as a gift for anyone daring to leave behind a destructive (and destroyed) world, a world of pain and death, a world of, in Harjo’s observation, “paper diapers, needles, and wasted blood.”
Our hand-crafted map will never be perfect, and our journey will always be tumultuous, but Miranda advises me in my grappling with grief: “Approach grief with determination. / Pretend the finish line doesn’t keep receding. / Lean into pain. / You can outrun it.” And yes, I was and am determined to approach grief with full tenacity. I will not run from it, nor can I outrun it. I will make my own map and read grief like the daily newspaper. Not that it is simple; it never is. But I will breathe it as I breathe fresh air every morning. It will be as fresh as my son’s little steps in the morning as he opens the door and says, in half drowsiness: “Good morning, Earth. I love you.”
I reminisce the dark brown earth as the diggers started to swing their hoes over my mother’s grave. She was returning to the earth that had nurtured her. She loved the people as she gave her life, her whole life, to sustain their hearts through her sermons and ministries. I imagine myself, as I read Esther Belin’s poem, being one of the diggers: “I dug into the earth. / The ground weakened beneath the strength I put into the shovel / pounding the ground / smooth and moist at first / then cold and solid.” I do that as I knew that my mother would fall into the embrace of the earth, not as an end, but as the beginning of a journey to a beautiful world. I exerted my strength in digging and covering the grave with dirt as an act of honor, the very last gift for a nurturing mother, a mother I always returned to whenever I wanted to hear the soft breeze of my homeland. As the grave was covered with the dark soil, I “felt her heat / tissue and blood and life / squatting with bloodied hands and cold earth / bringing [my mother] home.” I knew she was home in the brown earth, the everlasting peace. That was the beginning of the journey, at the end of which she would be presented with a feast and many gifts. There is never the end of the world, for what I believe she had seen, and I would see, is a place where, as Harjo describes, “we sing with joy, with sorrow. [Where] [w]e pray of suffering and remorse. We give / thanks.” We will not see flaming brimstones, the Apocalypse, but a table of dinner, of feast, “while we are laughing and crying, / eating of the last sweet bite.”
In the aftermath of destruction, of grief, we will not encounter an absolute demise of everything; instead, we will find beauty in its most fragile but enchanting forms: “the seeds to plant and the babies / who needed milk and comforting, and someone / picked up a guitar and ukulele from the rubble / and began to sing about the light flutter / the kick beneath the skin of the earth / we left there / beneath us. / a warm animal / a song being born between the legs of her / a poem” (Harjo). I heard that song in the last seconds of my mother’s funeral; I recognized as the light flutter the ruffle of the graveyard’s leaves in the afternoon as rainclouds were gathering, and I left under the brown earth the body of my mother whose spirit was indeed like a warm animal, as I heard her singing the song to the next world. While she continued to sing, I had a new poem being etched right in the soft spot at the center of my memory. Luci Tapahonso makes an appeal: “Hector, light a candle for me,” in times of trial and suffering; in the same manner, I light a candle every time memories hit me as I look at my mother’s picture on the wall, a photograph captured during my brother’s engagement ceremony. To be present in his engagement day, she had to walk with pain in her legs due to bone cancer, and yet, she showed a happy face. I should thank the camera, for it was because of standing before it that she had no choice but to smile despite the pain. She smiled because my brother was engaged, and soon he was to be married.
She was indeed present in his wedding ceremony, held in an emergency fashion in the hospital where she was being treated, less than two months after his engagement. She was the only person present that had to lie on her bed, assisted by nurses and the oxygen equipment, with every guest having to cover their faces with masks for fear of adding more viruses to my mother’s already frail body. So, I light a candle in recollection of those memories. I light a candle every time I hear her scream her loudest screams to God to release her from the unbearable pain a few hours before she died. I was informed that for a person with cancer, every cell in their body explodes right before they die, and I guess that was what happened as she shouted her last cries in that room: God, help me! I can’t take the pain anymore!”
I believe I have to “[r]evel in contradiction,” as Miranda consoles me. I believe in the words of Wendy Rose: “falling is not / falling but / offering.” I see my mother’s death as an offering that enables me to see death in a good way. I see her not as ending but as continuing, as embracing what awaits everyone of us at the end of our journey. At the verge of my life’s end on this world, I will be dreaming of a table, a kitchen table, a gathering of food and people, a reunion of beloved relatives. I will see all my relations, all my relatives, as I believe my mother has encountered by now.
The teaching of Introduction to Native American Literature has given me the opportunity to engage with the political, intellectual, artistic, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of Indigenous people’s lives as well as my personal life in a significant way. In the event of my mother’s death, it has taught me, in both profound and unique manners, how to cope with death in a good way. I see the journey in front of me as a journey of life and hope. What I need is a song, a song sung by Deborah Miranda at the death of her father: “I need a song like a hurricane, / spiraled winds of chaos, / a snake-charming song, / a bullshit-busting song, / a shut-up-and-listen-to-the-Creator song. / I need a song that rears its head up like a granite peak / and greets the eastern sky.”
Poems incorporated (in no particular order):
- Joy Harjo’s “A Map to the Next World”
- Deborah Miranda’s “Our Lady of Perpetual Loss”
- Joy Harjo’s “Perhaps the World Ends Here”
- Deborah Miranda’s “Advice from La Llorona”
- Luci Tapahonso’s “Light a Candle”
- Esther Belin’s “Bringing Hannah Home”
- Wendy Rose’s “Buckeye as You Are”
- Deborah Miranda’s “The Ghost Road Song”
- Sherman Alexie’s “Crow Testament”
- Sherman Alexie’s “The Powwow at the End of the World”