“Your dad collapsed and he’s unresponsive, we need to go.”
My mom, to me on April 11, 2008
Like my mother, in times of extreme stress or emergency, I go into delayed reaction. ‘What is most pressing now is what’s important; we can deal with emotions later.’ The first time she told me about this was when she told me how she was shot at while she was a matron and radio dispatcher at the Bureau of Indian Affairs jail back home in Rosebud in the 1960s. An officer was toying around with his gun and it went off, grazed the chair she was sitting in and made a whole in the wall. She simply walked over to him, grabbed his sidearm, said, “give me that, it’s not a toy,” and locked it up. Later that night, she lost it when she realized how close she came to being shot.
She told me to drive to my brother’s house while she took the passenger seat. I knew it wasn’t good because mom always drove whenever she was able. In the minutes that followed, she began sobbing while all I could do was keep an eye on the road, holding her hand while we barreled out from Reno proper to the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony’s Hungry Valley housing, about 15 miles away. When we arrived at my brother’s house, the looks on the faces of our family were telling. I followed her in and we saw my father’s body on the floor, shirt open with plastic wrappers around him where the EMTs had tried to resuscitate him.
The minutes passed like days as we sat by his body. To see such a mighty oak of a man felled called into question everything I knew about the world. The night before, he had disembarked his first plane from Rapid City to Reno, kissing and hugging us in greeting, smiling and happy to see us all. That day, he was simply gone, leaving behind a fragile, empty shell. All I could do was to hold his lifeless head in my hands and kiss his cold forehead before sobbing. The tears came then and did not stop for years.
Fathers and sons are one of those mysteries about human nature that we try to solve from one generation to the next. Fathers do the best they can to prepare their sons to be honorable men in the world while doing less than honorable things to ensure their children’s future. A son can reject his father while simultaneously needing his father’s approval and validation. Society constructs its own expectations of fathers and sons and both try to find the middle ground between what everyone else expects and what is manageable for them. There are too many important things left unspoken and too many trivial things passed between the two.
Above all else, my father only wanted to love his family and for his family to love him. As an arrested alcoholic and someone who probably suffered from bipolar disorder, that made life difficult at times for him. In my early years, I only knew the sweet man of blessed memory, the father who loved, the father who hugged, the father who provided and affirmed. In my young adulthood, the disapproving and angry father returned, always expecting and pushing for more. It wasn’t until his final years that the sweet man returned and we could be reconciled from years of bitterness.
In his rage and anger, he told me I wasn’t his son, that I was the product of my mother’s imagined infidelity. In a drunken stupor, I told him in Lakota that I was gay, and he said I broke his heart. But in the high steppe of northern Nevada, we would be reconciled when one day he said simply that he loved me and was always proud of me. All was forgiven, all was in the past and we had no more bitterness between us.
Though the process of understanding my father as a human being took years after his death, there isn’t much about his character that surprises me. Mom would tell me about him as a young man, how he was a swift and nimble Grass Dancer before he became a Traditional Dancer in his 50s and 60s. She would tell me about how they first met at the Rosebud Fair Wacipi; while she wanted to talk more with him privately, her parents being the Lakota parents they were, refused to let her out of their sight and he respected that tradition, which stood out to my grandfather. Conversely, she also told me about how, in his own sweet, misguided way, without a car or horse to see her, he would get drunk and start fights in Norris just so someone would call the cops on him. He would then be hauled the 30 miles in a squad car, booked and put in the jail where she worked as a matron and radio dispatcher.
It would be six years of separation before my mother would go to join him. During that time, she told me about how she missed being able to tell him things she’d seen and done during her day that reminded her of him or that he’d find funny, and she missed his laughter and his smile.
On this day, in that infinite moment between life and death, it’s my hope that there exists a place where my father and my mother are sitting at the table, drinking coffee and tea, talking again of good things, seeing relatives again and surrounded by all that makes up love. It’s my hope to join them one day, when the time is right for me, and I can tell my father how proud I always was of him.