Some thoughts upon saying goodbye to a dear mentor (draft)
I could taste the fine soil when I licked my lips and smell it when I took a deep breath of the cold February air. Six men, turn taking, tossed shovel full’s of the earth into the deep rectangular hole..the one into which the buttery smooth yellow cedar coffin had been lowered. They worked quickly. It was not more than fifteen minutes that we stood in silence, punctuated just now and then by a plaintiff song or drum beat, and watched the earth finally match the level of the undisturbed sod and then mound a little above it. This was final. The dear one’s body was in the box, the box painted on its interior with lovely colorful hummingbirds. The dear one is lying, as if an artifact of her own life, dressed in her fancy dance beads and buckskin with her eagle feather fan in her waxen folded hands. There is something ancient there in how she looked, something very ancient and at the same time timeless. We filed past and beheld her lying amidst the hummingbirds. Some placed gifts on the blanket that draped the lower half of the coffin. Someone put a dollar bill there because the dear one had worried she wouldn’t have money for the ferryman. A son cried, inconsolable. Be careful not to let a tear drop into the coffin we were told. The son is finally helped to leave the dear one’s side.
There was nothing romantic about the small cemetery in which we gathered after the service and the viewing. It was surrounded by chain link fencing, set behind a shop and bordered on both sides by large motor vehicles, truck bodies, auto shops. It was one of the small patches of trust land still owned by the people out there along the Puyallup River. The whole valley has been cut up, populated, desecrated. Progress sucks, someone says. This was the river that came down from the mountains, barely visible today in the near freezing clouds above us. Ugly billboards and power lines crowd out even the foothills. This was the river along which the people lived in their elegant villages and large cedar plank houses and caught their fish and raised their children. It has been destroyed, channeled, leveed, and polluted. Nothing is left of its free running, unbridled power and the life that poured through this floodplain. There are a few Douglas Firs standing still within the boundaries of the cemetery. Many of the tombstones are late 19th and early 20th century but a few are newer and there are, sadly, two freshly dug graves nearby.
The good father officiant tells us about our work. It is work we must do together here today he says. He tells us that the dear one was an embodiment of the kind of life we must have on this earth…the kind of teacher we must have. This is a teacher we learn from by watching…by watching their manner of living, the way they are, the way they behave. It is important to know, he says, that this is still alive in our world, this kind of teacher. Elders like this dear one are worthy of seeing and following. We must have gratitude and lift our hands to her nobility, he says. We all know that he speaks the truth.
There are moments when we feel pure pleasure…hearing that she liked some country music and some blue grass. Seeing pictures of her as a young woman, a young wife, with her children and with her grandchildren. So many of these photographs are faded and seem older than they are. A life I hardly glimpsed passes before my eyes in oddly framed images, the dear one with people I didn’t know dancing, traveling, and lounging. It must have seemed this brief to her, in a way, this passage of time which I see as mere flickers on a screen. And she is in her plain box, being her still and beautiful archived self, content with her own history, ready to be stored in the deep earth.
A drummer singer with the saddest face on earth instructs us, sings a keening kind of drum song. I love you I love you he wails in a high-pitched piercing almost cry. His face is long and dark like his body. He wears a ribbon shirt and his straight shiny black hair is pulled back into a knot, tight away from temples and forehead. His slit of a downturned mouth opens wide and with every vowel he intones his mouth becomes a dark cavern and his sad eyes speak even more loudly than his tongue. He tells us over and over that he is doing his best as if his best can never suffice.
A group of young men comes forward and sing, to my surprise, a drum song with the words happy birthday. This is a birthday for the dear one I realize. This is a birth into a new life. Happy birthday. They sing it by the grave and over the coffin.
We leave the dear one and the little cemetery and return cold and somber to the youth center where food has been prepared. We are not sure that we are hungry but we eat elk and fry bread and salmon and somehow cannot stop ourselves even then. There are pies and cakes and cookies and mashed potatoes and beans. People are invited to take more, to take it home. Boxes are passed out. And then the gifts are given. No one goes home without something.
I take the photograph of the dear one they’ve given to us all and frame it. I feel I’ve been on a long journey today and with this picture I will remember each step of it.