You have too much to offer to let this gift go. This gift is a blessing, but it can also be a burden and a curse. When Jake plays the piano, there’s something in there that makes me cry. Every single time. Your drawings and your artwork have that same power. When you create something, it shows others what is inside you. But more importantly, it shows them what is inside them.
In the Spirit of Medicine features the essays of Dr. Arne Vainio, an enrolled member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and a family practice doctor on the Fond Du Lac reservation in Cloquet. His essays on life, work, medicine, and spirit are published on Indianz.com and you can find the transcript of this story below.
My brother died this morning
By Arne Vainio, M.D. January 30, 2014
Christmas was two days ago. Ivy and Jake and I made a 150 mile or so round trip to put ice candles on my Finnish grandmother’s grave. A year ago my brother Kelly met us at the cemetery as he only lives a block away from there. I was surprised he showed up as he has never been one to show his softer side and we stood under the stars as grandsons with the candles flickering on the gravestone. He had a stroke due to uncontrolled diabetes almost 7 years ago and has been unable to use his left arm since. He told me he’d had a heart attack a few years before that.
No one hires someone who can’t use his left arm and he hadn’t worked in years. He used to be a welder and he built big trailers for hauling pulpwood to the mills in northern Minnesota. Now he struggled to cut his own firewood. After our mother died, Kelly took out a mortgage on her house and then the economy went bad due to dishonest home loans. His was one of them and the bank took the house when his mortgage payment skyrocketed and he couldn’t make the payments.
I was rounding in the hospital when my phone rang. Ivy knows never to call me at work, so I knew it was important. “Jesse called. Kelly died this morning.” He would have been 54 in less than 2 weeks. We buried my older sister Shelly almost exactly a year ago and Kelly was at the graveside telling stories as we were digging and I had not seen him since. He has called me a few times and I didn’t always return his calls as often times he was broke and wanted money. He was never able to pay back what he borrowed and I honestly never really expected him to.
I spent the morning remembering us as kids. In the summers we would be gone on our bicycles all day long and we swam in the gravel pit without supervision. We build rickety tree houses and we fished along the river banks and we hunted partridges and threw big rocks off the bridge into the river.
We were always together.
When we got older, we drifted apart. He got married, but it didn’t last. I used to pick up his son Jesse and his daughter Julie when I was a firefighter in the late 1980s. Jesse and Julie were about 8 and 6 years old and Kelly wasn’t really a part of their lives. I took them to amusement parks and Christmas shopping and then I went on to chase medical school dreams in 1988 and even we drifted apart.
An Ojibwe funeral is a complicated process and things have to be done the way they’ve always been done. Kelly needed to be washed in cedar water to cleanse him for his journey and it had to be done by the men closest to him. I drove to the funeral home and Jesse and Julie and I met with the funeral director, then Jesse and I went to wash Kelly.
Earlier that morning, I prepared cedar water and I had a porcelain basin that had been given to Ivy. Jesse had some sage and sweetgrass and I had offered asemaa (tobacco) to the creator in Kelly’s name before I left home. Kelly was on a stainless steel embalming table and covered only by a sheet.
I poured the cedar water and the only sound in the room was the water splashing into the basin. I looked at Jesse. “Are you going to be OK?”
“Yeah. I’ll be fine.”
I put the basin by Kelly’s head and Jesse and I each picked up a towel and a washcloth. I dipped the washcloth in the cedar water and squeezed out most of the water. Jesse followed suit.
We washed his hair. As kids we usually had fairly long hair and one time a friend’s dad got drunk and gave Kelly and Cameron crew cuts. It was the hottest part of summer and they rode up on bikes and they were both wearing winter hats. Now Kelly’s long hair was completely gray. I took off his glasses and we gently washed his face and I started to talk.
“After our dad died, our mother raised seven kids by herself. Those were hard times and our people still suffer. Your dad did. I can’t believe he was able to get by in that shack without electricity or indoor plumbing or running water.” The temperatures had been well below zero and were predicted to get much colder.
I pulled the sheet down a little farther and started washing Kelly’s shoulder.
“Your dad was strong, Jesse, but he wasn’t stronger than poverty. No one is.” Kelly had a stroke when he was 46 and Jesse was with him when it happened. Jesse started washing Kelly’s withered left arm. Kelly cut his own firewood and I really don’t know how he did it. Starting and running a chain saw with only his right arm had to be difficult at best.
We continued to wash him and I continued to talk. At 35, Jesse had needed to hear these words all his life.
“Your dad had a gift, Jesse. He was very, very smart. Your grandfather had it, too. I’ve talked to people who knew my dad and every single one of them said he was the smartest person they’d ever met. But he didn’t use that gift. Neither did your dad. Maybe he didn’t know how or maybe no one ever told him he had it. My son Jake has that gift. His music and his writing will take him places, but only if he uses them. I also have that gift. There are times when I’ve thought about not writing and at those times I’ve gotten messages that my words changed someone’s life.”
Jesse has been an artist ever since he could hold a pencil. Even as an 8 year old, his drawings were incredible. The owl picture is one he drew for a friend in just a few hours. His sculptures are unbelievable, but I haven’t seen anything from him in quite a few years.
“You have that gift, Jesse. Even when you were a little kid I knew you were smart and your heart was pure. Poverty and drugs and alcohol have a way of taking that away from people. When I came to visit you in the hospital a few years ago, I could see your suffering. My father committed suicide when I was 4 years old and that still colors the way I see the world. It also affected your dad, but we never talked about it. I saw your dad in you in the hospital that day and I saw my father in you.
And I saw me in you.
You have too much to offer to let this gift go. This gift is a blessing, but it can also be a burden and a curse. When Jake plays the piano, there’s something in there that makes me cry. Every single time. Your drawings and your artwork have that same power. When you create something, it shows others what is inside you. But more importantly, it shows them what is inside them. In the course of growing up and taking on responsibilities, people forget to look up at the stars. They forget the wonder of seeing the world as a beautiful and magical place. They forget the gift of just one more day. The creator sent certain people to make us see the world through eyes that still see that magic. You, Jesse, are one of those people.”
We finished washing Kelly and we dried him with towels. Then we smudged ourselves with sage and we smudged Kelly.
I drove home with the sunset to my right. Venus was bright and the moon was just a crescent following the sun. On my left the sky was purple as it blended into the snowy swamps of northern Minnesota. These colors are only there in the winter and are part of the beauty that comes with the harshness of living here.
I thought about Kelly all the way home. Fifty-three is too short to be on this earth. He wouldn’t have any more sunsets like this one and I hoped Jesse was watching it for him.
How often do we get so caught up in our worries that we fail to appreciate what we’ve been given? My father did have a gift. So did Kelly. So does Jesse and so does Jake.
I have it, too. And so do the rest of us. One of the messages given to us at our traditional funerals is that all of us were put here for a purpose. Each of us has a gift to share and if we find that gift and share it, it grows and it fulfills us.
One more day. That’s all we really get and we get to decide how to use it. Do we worry and complain and hold grudges or do we use the gift that’s been given to us? We do need to think about the future, but not to the point that it drowns today. The past is gone. Tomorrow will come whether we’re ready for it or not and with it comes another chance.
I should have told him one more thing.
Trust the sunrise, Jesse.
Always trust the sunrise.