Papa left a little over a month ago, May 8th. The Star Tribune ran an article on him the day before his “Celebration of Life.” He didn’t want a funeral. The idea of everyone making that big a fuss over him didn’t sit right. Even when I was little, he’d tell me he planned to be cremated and that’d be the end of it. We got around his rule by putting on what was basically a funeral, but with no casket or monochrome, just a whole bunch of family at the Indian Center with a lot of food, a lot of pictures, and minimal tears.
One of his kids, Uncle Conrad, explicitly referred to him as “the Native Red Foreman,” and I think that says it all. If that doesn’t sum him up for you, I’ll offer a few quick touchstones on your behalf: he got the name Tuffy coz he was meaner than sin in his youth, and he got the name Papa coz we loved him. He called everyone “big dummy” but hung up his phone calls with “I love you bigger than the moon.” I never saw him dance, but those who have say they could watch him dance forever.
I called Grandma last night.
We should visit with old people more. They get so lonesome. They don’t like to say they’re lonesome, but they are. On the phone, she told me she’d been lonely, only that she was used to it because for months, it had just been her and Papa. No one called, no one came over, it was just them sharing one small space for days. Sometimes she’d drive up North to visit their grandkids, and he’d be staying in, too tired to move. She said she was okay with solitude but that she wants to be able to do stuff again, travel more.
They were gonna move up North, she said, back home so he could die where he lived. She couldn’t bear to take him away from his doctors, though.
“No, I couldn’t bear it,” she said. “Course, then his doctors wouldn’t do surgery, when that’s—that’s all we wanted. Said the risk was too big, he was too weak by then. He said he was willing to take that risk, but they still wouldn’t do it. Well, what good is it now, he’s gone! He’s gone and there was no point to staying after all. Oh, I don’t know. It was his time, I guess.”
“We’ll be out your way soon,” I said. “A week or so.”
“Yes, I suppose so. It’ll be your one year for that—that girl. That woman, won’t it? Oh, I’m sorry hon. It’s hard. It’s always hard.”
She’s a lot more talkative now than I remember her being. Aside from one really brutal November, when all three of us got sick through Thanksgiving, going over there meant her, Papa and I would just sit around quietly.
That all changed when I brought my Grandpa with me. He and Papa have been best friends since they were six and it shows, especially during those last few visits in February and March. Remember the polar vortex earlier this year? I was in the Twin Cities back then. I stayed with Grandpa and Nana, my dad’s parents. Papa was gonna drive over for more of the same: sitting around in companionable silence.
Nana was staring out the window at the driveway shortly after Papa had called. She twisted her hands a few times before she finally told Grandpa to take me over to Papa and Grandma’s.
“Why?” Grandpa asked. We were sitting at the kitchen table. Neither of us were keen on moving.
“Why? Gee, Lowell, because he’s gonna drive up that hill, slip on the way in and kill himself, that’s why.”
We pulled up to their apartment within twenty minutes. The Cities then were frozen, layered with smoggy snow and stained ice. It was the kind of cold that chokes your breath before it reaches your lungs. Across the sky was entirely white, bright to the point of blinding. Papa seemed to get his color back just as the world lost its vivacity. I remember he came all the way downstairs to open the door for us, his skin no longer ashen, but glowing golden brown. He never buzzed us in, no matter how sore he was. He smiled when he saw who I had with me.
I sat at the kitchen table and ate an entire bag of tortilla chips while my Papas talked. Their talk grew big and vibrant. Grandma naturally found her way in. She made Grandpa laugh so hard at one point, he almost fell off his chair. They got to talking about everything from computers to family to money problems.
“I get a hundred and twenty dollar Walmart gift card every Christmas from Sisseton,” Grandma said. “Just for being old.”
“That’s a hundred more than me,” Grandpa replied. “White Earth only sends their elders twenty dollar Walmart gift cards every Christmas, and sometimes not even that. You know, Porgy hasn’t gotten his for the past three years. It’s shameful, how they treat their elders, it really is–”
“That’s why I been trying to get these kids enrolled Meskwaki,” Papa cut in. “They say they can’t, coz their dad’s not Meskwaki. But they cover me just fine, five hundred a month, five thousand come Christmas. Obviously with taxes it’s more like four hundred, then four thousand, but that’s more than enough for me, with my insurance.”
“Did you already go through your Walmart gift card?” Grandma asked. When Grandpa looked up, she grinned. He snorted.
“Jeez, yeah, I gotta wait til next year,” Grandpa said. He chuckled. “Wait til next Christmas.” He looked at me. “You’re being so quiet over there, my boy. You should be in this chair, not me.”
I shrugged. “I like listening to you guys.”
Grandma answered after the third ring in a tone of voice that implied she didn’t know it was me.
“I’m doing alright,” she said, after I’d asked. “I miss your Papa. I know he’s still here, though. He whistled. I heard him whistle, over in his chair. He’d always do that, too, just sit and whistle his little tunes to himself. He’s out there. I know he is. He’s watching over you kids, too. Like that article said, all he cared about was you.” She paused. “I finally put up a picture of him. I never had any pictures of him up. Never knew why. I guess it was because he was always right there. I could look at him whenever I wanted to. He was always just there.”
“It’s funny,” she said. “He went nine years and two days after Clifford. Your Uncle Clifford went on May 6th, your Papa went on May 8th. Almost took Clifford’s day.”
“Uncle Clifford was waiting for him, I bet,” I said.
“Oh, absolutely. He got along great with your Papa. Papa took him hunting, fishing, all of it. He was into all of that. Conrad, not so much. He was an ole racket maker. They’d take him out, he’d be pouting and singing the whole time. They’d tell him ‘shut up, you’ll scare the fish away!’ He’d sing louder. Boy, he was a nuisance. Clifford, though, Clifford took hunting serious. Loved when your Papa took him out. Yeah, he’s happy to see him for sure.”
I’m not sure how to wrap up here. It’s a new thing for me, writing and then posting it, newer still with this website, my name on everything. So I’ll leave you with someone else’s eerily relevant words. I hope they resonate with you as much as they have with me these past few years.
There is little anyone can say that makes sense and doesn’t read as arrant foolishness. Dead is dead, and we all feel as if we’ve driven cross-country without any sleep or break, when someone we need is taken away.
Like Jack London, Jack Black, Josiah Flynt and Jim Tully, I was a road kid who found a way to get off the road. I learned how to write. It was mostly time alone. But there have always been friends and lovers who brought me back to the understanding that when it is all written, there remains nothing more important than the lives you touch, that touch you. You are not alone.from the introduction to Angry Candy, by Harlan Ellison
Thank you for listening.