BY: BAILEY Gaylin MOORE
In the midst of sorrow, sickness, death or misfortune of any kind, and in the presence of the notable and great, silence was the mark of respect. More powerful than words, was silence with the Lakota.
- Chief Luther Standing Bear, Oglala Sioux Tribe
In the holes we fill during silence, the earth speaks, a low hum where we can each find ourselves again. But it is before this silence when we may lose ourselves, perhaps lose one another, forgetting our names until driving with the windows down or breathing in the moment when we spread the last bit of someone loved. David reaches silence in the book of Psalms, waiting for God, waiting for salvation. In Buddhism, silence achieves whole mind, mouths unable to interfere with pure consciousness. Trappist monks uphold the virtue of silence in order to express isolation within a community, separate but together.
A man who visited a Benedictine monastery in New Mexico talked about his vow of silence. A cacophony, really, he said. You can hear your body if you listen head bowed, hands folded on the rivets of that hard skull. The biggest silence is the desert and sky molding together into nothingness, bare and untouched. The biggest silence of all, he explained, is death.
The Lakota word Oglala is translated as “to scatter one's own,” stemming from the six tribes separating to provide protection against outside tribes and white settlers. With time, the scattering of their own blurred the edges of the Sioux culture, giving birth to a thinner bloodline, descendants removed bit by bit. Descendants like my paternal grandmother, a woman who was taught to overlook those pieces of herself, parts of her identity her mother couldn’t connect to and her father wasn’t present to explain. Even with these things being forgotten, my grandmother, not recognizing it, carried on Lakota tradition with her unshakable pride and an unyielding value of family. Her ancestors breathed through her storytelling, tales expressed with both laughter and hands. For more than fifty years, the Lakota spirits nodded, firm and steady, behind my grandmother, saying yes when she kept my grandfather balanced with a deeply rooted heel, reminding him to drink iced Bud Light instead of dark liquor.
Even as a strong woman, however, the balls of her feet collapsed after a series of strokes in early September, her biopsy results showing late stages of pancreatic cancer. The doctor gave her two months, maybe until Thanksgiving.
Tomorrow is Halloween. I landed in Denver three hours and four glasses of Pinot Noir ago, but my grandfather is set on shifting the focus from the slow breaths on the baby monitor connected to my grandmother’s room, the old room they shared before she got sick, to someone else’s future, someone outside of this home where future implies something, anything. While we wait for Maa to waken, he tries to convince me to submit a story to Playboy’s contest for college writers.
“I’ve read some winners in the past, and I figured someone in the family could do better.” He says this three times over the course of fifteen minutes, as if rehearsed. As if the sentence could deter the things left unspoken, the quiet moments when the baby monitor coughs, and his eyebrows narrow deeper.
He says again: “I think you could do it.” The whites of his eyes become even more still, and though I have never sent him or my grandmother or my father or my Aunt Jill any of my stories, I pretend he means it.
The plane ride has made me withdrawn, awkward to speech. When I close my eyes, I can only see the edges of Missouri, the tops of its deciduous trees like dead broccoli crowns from the sky. When my lids open, my grandfather’s mouth continues to move, making different shapes of Kansas agronomy as he talks faster about the Playboy contest. He refills our glasses of Pinot Noir, avoiding the iced Bud Light, a staple drink they always shared together.
“Go for it, kiddo,” Aunt Jill says, taking a sip of a Corona.
“Why not?” I smile, and I nod. I say, “Okay, I’ll do it.” And I say this knowing I may forget in the midst of grading student projects, essays discussing burkas in Pakistan or Botswanan bushmen holding hands, stroking the hairs on their neighbor’s arms. I’ll tell my students: try to understand Other; don’t be so closed off. “Okay, I’ll do it.” I say it stiff, graduate school naps and limitless video streaming in the rear of my brains, aware I could get caught up in work for my seminar class transcribing Civil War letters written by forgotten names, forgotten lovers and brothers, sons and friends. And my grandfather and aunt know it, too. I can tell by the way he tightens his crinkled eyelids, the way she looks down at her Corona bottle – smile weak, eyes closed.
Despite this, I go to the basement to study, research that consists of flipping through decades of Playboy stored on the bookshelf by the pool table. Back in ’96, my grandfather had my brother and me organize them in chronological order, starting with the March 1978 edition featuring “Ralph Nader on Sports!” and an interview with Bob Dylan. Also, Debra Jenssen’s breasts.
When my brother and I got to the middle of 1985, my grandmother came downstairs in her eggplant-hued sweatpants and gasped when she saw my brother holding June – the cover of Roxane Pulitzer wearing a blue sequins leotard while holding a brassy trumpet, the pages danced back and forth as he thumbed through.
She paused at the foot of the stairs, turning sharply towards my grandfather. “For Pete’s sake, Pa. What in God’s name are you having them do?”
My brother was mortified – red-faced, guilty. My grandfather laughed, saying something about how she wanted him to clean up the bookshelf. She joined in, and, just like it always was, her laughter overpowered his with both infectiousness and strength. If Maa could make it to the basement now to see me researching past Playboy stories, overwhelmed by nipples and an excerpt from Lydia Davis, she would still laugh, even though it may hurt.
Back upstairs, my grandfather is sautéing garlic, another glass of Pinot Noir within reach. I take a seat next to Jill, who’s at the kitchen bar drinking her Corona, splashing more lime juice in the bottle every few sips.
Gramps says, “The uncertainty is the worst. The not knowing is the worst.”
Jill says, “I wake up three or four times a night just to see if I can hear the baby monitor. If it’s still breathing.”
I say nothing, shifting my weight on the barstool. I say nothing because I live in Missouri, in the lukewarm heart of the Ozarks, where the soft mountains look like goosebumps in comparison to the sharp angles of the Rockies. I say nothing because I am far away even now, a disconnected niece who has neglected the Lakota value of family, a granddaughter who hurries through phone calls with her grandparents. Because I am a person who does not yet understand the Trappist’s awareness of separate but together.
Standing Bear explains Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit, and how it breathed life and motion into all things, both visible and invisible. This spirit was over all, through all, and in all. It was great as the sun, and it was good as the earth. Nothing surpassed the greatness and goodness of the Big Holy. The Lakota could look at nothing without, at the same time, looking at Wakan Tanka, and one could not evade His presence, for it pervaded all things. It filled all space, the holes we fill during silence.
When I thought I had nothing to say to Jill and my grandfather, I should have said: Maa's laughter is Wakan Tanka, permeating through everything and everyone.
When the low breathing on the baby monitor turns to stark coughs and the whispers of a name, my grandfather and Jill leave the kitchen to check on my grandmother. I sit still and unknowing, unsure if I should help or if I will only get in the way of a hardened routine.
Instead, I pace around, breathing in the home’s history. A photographic evolution of Jill’s son and daughter, children with stronger noses and a darker complexion, flood the refrigerator. In my grandfather’s office, drawings done by near and distant cousins cover the wall lined with sunlight leaking between the blinds. There are illustrations of flowers and Superman, epistolary comments ending with their love, forever. Above his computer are my brother’s and my school portraits from 1997. We’re both smiling widely, blonde-haired and light-eyed. Our mother's Swedish blood seeping out our pores.
‘97. The same year Dad left Mom, the year I stopped coming to see the mountains as often. And as this connection flashes throughout my mind, I begin to wonder if my grandfather ever looks up from his work, remembering the time we organized Playboy magazines on the blue felt of the pool table. Remembering how Maa’s laugh echoed up the stairs and into the open space of the living room.
Wherever I go, I can hear the conversation on the baby monitor.
“Did you have her swish today, Dad?” Jill asks.
“I gave her Tylenol. No swish.” He says, “Do you want to smoke, Maa?”
“I’ll get her up, Dad. You just stay there.”
“Okay,” he says, his voice mechanical, but inconsistent in strength.
Then there are the just audible responses of my grandmother. Unsure responses. Responses in pain and discomfort. Disquieted responses. Responses in her home, in a cot, her limbs wrapped around my aunt while being placed in a wheelchair.
I walk in as Jill lifts a leg onto each foot rest, ankles angled unnaturally. I say, “Hi, Maa. I'm here. I’m so happy to be here.” The words are saturated with that awkward speech.
A call from Dad: Sorry I can’t be in Colorado with you. Have to catch a flight for work tomorrow. Remember that this will be a quiet trip. She still has a bit of humor; you can still see parts of her. But she hardly ate when I was there last week: a bite or two of fish, a shot of Ensure. Nothing the last two days. There is a lot of waiting. When she gets up, appreciate it. She will only want to be out of bed for twenty, maybe thirty minutes. She’ll smoke half a cigarette or so, take a few sips of beer.
I see the changes in her body more clearly the next day, the morning light making her look smaller underneath her fleece blanket decorated with wolves howling at the moon. She wears her golfing cap, eyes steady underneath. Maa smokes her Misty 120 with her left hand, her good side, as she looks beyond the backyard fence. Jill watches her, then she watches Gramps hovering over her with his body and his questions.
Gramps asks. “Do you want more of that cod? A few more shots of Ensure? Do you want to stay up later and watch the trick-or-treaters?”
Jill says, “Give her a break, Pops.”
Maa says, “No, no – too tired,” with an eye roll and a soft shake of the head. I spy a grin at the left corners of her lips even though my grandfather can’t see it as he puts out the rest of her half-smoked Misty into the ash tray. I move forward in time – a week, maybe a month – and picture him struggling to toss the partial Misties away, wondering how long it will take for him to throw them out once she is gone. Will it be fast and all at once, or will he throw them out, bit by bit? If the latter, will he finger the edges of the cigarette where her mouth once was, sucking in the smoke, remembering the first time he kissed her next to a pool table in a mountain bar.
Maa slowly asks about my life. I tell her about graduate school and teaching, how it’s really demanding, but that I’m learning so much. I tell her about the Civil War letters I’m transcribing for my linguistics seminar, how Sergeant Charles Lutz wrote to his brother every week, his letters asking him to look after the rest of the family, letters saying how he heard the war would be over soon, letters always ending with his love sent – how the shape of love’s “L” and the curl of the “C” in his name are imprinted in my brain.
“It’s like I know him so well,” I say to her.
She shakes her head – slow and sad – looking up to the mountains.
The Medicine Wheel, a circle with a cross, holds great significance for the Oglala Sioux, the circle representing a ceaseless pattern of life through death and the cross creating four distinct directions of Being. These directions are marked by a color to demonstrate these paths, and, in the center, Wakan Tanka balances all things through connectedness. In the east, the yellow sun gives light to all of the Great Spirit's creations; it generates new beginnings. When wisdom and growth is needed, they look to the white north to bring guidance, while the west offers introspection through the black solitude. Life begins in the south, marked by red to embody life after death. The south signifies the move into Wanagi Makoce, the neutral spirit land. As a Sioux Indian nears this death, the tribe paints her face red with vermillion, a symbol of smooth transition into her next phase of life.
Maa is sleeping longer. Jill wakes her once at noon to have her swoosh, rinsing her mouth to prevent sores, and then goes back to bed. At six, she wants a cigarette and a sip of iced Bud Light.
Outside, my grandfather asks her again about watching the trick-or-treaters, and he clenches his jaws, eyebrows slightly raised, when she surprises us with a nod.
In his relief, he starts talking fast, uncontrolled. He prattles on about Halloween when Jill and Dad were young and how the cousins would come over. The neighborhood would be full of kids he reminded her. He reminded her: Zuni Street today was still full of kids even though a lot of them were from that apartment filled with Mexicans, but it made everything more colorful, more alive.
Changing direction, he talks about the last time we all played Asshole, her favorite card game, while she bit the edges of rainier cherries and spit the seeds into her empty can of Bud Light. And how, when she finally won a hand, she yelled with her mouth and her hands, “ME! I’m el presidente, and you’re the asshole, Pa! El presidente,” emphasizing every letter in the word and how much he loved that she emphasized every letter of the word, and he speaks quicker with every word like he wants to breathe it all in at once and not ever let it go back to bed, face bare or painted red.
After the last of the trick-or-treaters, she’s ready to go back to sleep.
“I did good,” Maa says to us.
“You did good,” Jill says.
I smile. I nod back.
After she has been in bed for an hour, the breaths on the baby monitor falter. My grandfather doesn’t move, doesn’t speak, until the breathing becomes steady minutes later.
“I think it’s time for bed,” he says, and he goes downstairs, past the pool table, past the Playboys.
When I say my goodbye’s, I tell my grandfather that I’ll write the Playboy story, and perhaps I will after saying it a second time. I tell Jill thank you. To my grandmother: I love her, I will try to call more, more than each week like Charles Lutz. I tell her I will see her on Thanksgiving.
“I love you forever. Love ya, love ya, love ya,” Maa says, the word love always, always stronger than the rest, even though it may have hurt her to speak it louder.
“She may not make it until Thanksgiving,” my father tells me on the phone.
“She may not make it until the end of this week,” my grandfather says.
On the flight back home, I try not to think about Thanksgiving or leaving Colorado, away from these mountains, away from the slowing breaths on baby monitors or the memories my grandfather is holding tight, fists clenched firm. Next to me is a tall, handsome boy in dirtied cowboy boots who doesn’t say a word until we are up in the air.
“Geeze, I’ll be damned,” he says. “Look at all those clouds. Seems like we’ll never get out.” I nod, and I smile, just like I do moments later when he asks if he can read me a poem he has just written on our journey, counting syllables on his left hand and shaking his boots when something wasn’t right.
As he reads me the poem, I drown out the images of horses and evergreen trees. His voice blurs into the hiss of the air conditioner. While he fades, all I can think about is the whiteness of the clouds and the whiteness of the wings of the plane and the whiteness of my thoughts, wondering if that’s what the edges of a clock, the blurred edges of time, look like against the blankets of our own eyelids.
And this is all I can do because I don’t want to imagine how the smile of a rugged poet I met on a plane ride is more convincing than me telling her, “Love you, Maa. I’ll call when I get back home.”
The Lakota uphold the body as a temple for the spirit, a place that must not be disturbed in order to fulfill the next transition to the neutral spirit land. Because of this, the tribe chooses to have burials rather than cremate the body. In the Keeping of the Souls ritual, the body is dressed in fine clothing and ornaments. The grieving family takes a lock of their loved one's hair, tucking it into a buckskin cloth, where her soul will live in a sacred place in their tipi. In a year, the celebration of wanagi yuha allows the purified soul to be released, while the tribe commemorates the spirit through stories and gifts. In the beginning of the ritual, the Shaman says to the mourners:
You are now keeping the soul of your own loved one, who is not dead, but is with you. From now on you must live in a sacred manner, for your loved one will be in this tipi until her soul is released. You should remember that the habits which you establish during this period will remain with you always. Your hands are holy; treat them as such! And your eyes are holy; every day and night your loved one will be with you; look after her soul all the time, for through this you will always remember Wakan Tanka.
On Thanksgiving, my father and brother stare out the car window, the Rockies filling all the space. The Rockies Wakan Tanka. When I consider spreading her ashes, a knot in my stomach grows with the question of how far she will drift down into the town of Golden, if any of the unknowing people will breathe some of her in as they pass by. What part would they receive? Her pride, her cheekbones? Her love for iced Bud Light? Her laugh.
On top of Mount Lookout, we head up the walkway leading to the M made of white stones. The M represents the School of Mines, the college both my father and aunt went to, each of them carrying their own white rock their freshman year to build on the tradition. Here, she will go south on the Medicine Wheel, her wisdom keeping my grandfather balanced when he looks to the M on his morning walks where, like David, he reaches silence as he looks for a new kind of salvation.
We take turns carrying her up the mountain, her body only a few pounds of dusty bones held in a plastic bag. The Colorado air is thin, but heavy with what is unsaid. At the bottom of the M, we wait for my grandfather to speak for several minutes in the silence. He falters several times before finding a solid ground of resolve.
In the paused stillness, we pass her around, pouring her out bit by bit. A scattering of our own. When it is my turn to speak, I say I love you with my jaws tight and head bowed, ashamed at the brevity. What I really mean to say is: I love you now like I love the desert. Untouchable, bare. I love you like Wakan Tanka, like the Rocky Mountains and the open sky molding into one another, into nothing and everything all at once.
With each pour, the sky fills with you, the wind not knowing what direction to take. I feel your body, your laughter filling all space in the silence. A cacophony, really. You don’t float down towards the busy people below, into their noises or foamy lattes. Instead, the wind carries you into our own nostrils, into our own mouths. But this doesn't stir a knot in my stomach or cause a cringe in my side. You're simply there, continuing in us all: in our tightened throats, the corners of our eyes and lungs.
When you have come full circle, you're back in his hands one more time before he lets that last bit go. And he stares at you hard as he waves the bag up and down and north and south and to the sun and to the earth, until your dust, a film of everything we knew, is gone. When he is finished, he holds onto that empty plastic bag, looking at it as if he could just put in his pocket, like he could take it with him anywhere he went.
On the drive back, my grandfather tells me that this, that everything, was endearing, repeating the word slowly and purposefully – endearing, endearing – with a gasp of a smile in between syllables. He shakes his head in disbelief, as if no word in any other language could have been more fitting. Endearing. He rolls down the car window, waving his hand in the cold mountain air, saying it again. How endearing, how endearing, the words pouring into the all-embracing silence.
Bailey Gaylin Moore is an emerging writer, who received her MA in English at Missouri State University, where she taught fiction and composition. Currently, she is an MFA candidate studying Creative Nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Bailey is an assistant editor at Moon City Review and reads for Boulevard Magazine. This is her first publication.