In The Company of Others
Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, SD – When my sister died up here a dozen years ago, her daughter, Tracey, laid a red telephone inside the casket with her. After an initial surprise, people smiled, knowing Wasonna, and thought it appropriate, because she’d spend hours on the phone in a single call, your ear turning a burning red, and she left an outstanding bill of $650 for Nelson, her husband, who after tying up loose ends, followed her six months later to the spirit world.
The only time I had seen my father cry was that day, when upon seeing her laid out in the casket, he made an abrupt turn in the doorway of the viewing room, sputtering out in a quaking voice, “I can’t do this,” and returned to the foyer.
My mom was composed, slope-shouldered and vacant at the burial, standing off to the side, vulnerable and alone in her thoughts, and oddly not standing beside my dad. I put my arm around her and squeezed her, and my sister Marilyn, the one who thinks I’m a pagan, stood with dad. Tracey and Nelson stood together, everyone zoned out with sadness.
From Omaha and Pine Ridge, Indians and black people, our people, our family’s mixed heritage, were all gathered around a hill on Holy Rosary cemetery, and someone, a lone voice, sang a haunting spirit departing song that was incredibly beautiful. Wasonna danced through life, and several of her young Pine Ridge students were there, leaving tears and flowers on the grave of their dance teacher.
It was ironic that she preceded my father in death by two years, since she was always the one talking about ‘when daddy dies’, the way siblings do when talking amongst themselves about who’ll take care of mom.
Earlier that morning, twenty family members sat around a long banquet table for breakfast, cheering one another and laughing over eggs, pancakes and sausage, disconnecting from the sadness of the event.
Marilyn and her husband Gabriel, looking the part of a born-again Hassidic Jew with flowing white beard, proclaiming the Messiah on his sleeve and the twinkle in his eye, would often end his sentences with, ‘In The Name of the Lord.’
At one point in the adult conversation, his nine-year old son pestered his father with, ‘Dad, I gotta pee. Dad, I gotta pee,’ yanking on his dad’s sleeve, and the non-stop talking Gabriel, already engaged in a profound religious conversion with whomever was sitting beside him, turning and shouted with exasperation, “Well, go pee in the name of the lord!”