I was born big. Nine pounds thirteen ounces. My mother could not sit properly for two months. I was her first and only child. Dad couldn’t stay sober. I was the last of his litter of eight. John, Sherry, Gordie, JR, Kenny, me, plus two that died as kids. Our land on the reserve is the largest of any family. Grandpa Able was a horse master and medicine man. His herd was bigger than any in our little nation. I am allergic to horses, cats, dogs, and redheads.
Mom bought Dad a freezer because she loved him. It was a Sears catalogue special. One day he got drunk and blew it away with his rifle. JR told her to get out of there or Dad would kill her. She ran down the road while the bullets rang out.
I am seven years old. Dad is sixty. We are driving somewhere. I cannot remember where. We stopped at a gas station. I get out of the car and tell him we should play a game. I will pretend that I am not his son and he will pretend he is a kidnapper. He tells me no. I persist. He tells me that the people inside the store will think that I am not his son. They might take me. I am scared. I don’t want to go into the store. I stay close to him through every aisle and do not say a word to anyone. He is large and has long brown braids, a real cowboy Indian. I have no braids.
Mom travels to Ottawa to attend the National Council on the Status of Women. She is volunteering at the Women’s Centre. Her life is threatened. I am raised feminist. I canvass for the NDP, attend women-only gatherings and meet kids named Tia and Tree. I think I am normal.
I fall in love in the garden of a cathedral. It is summer solstice. We embrace and everything becomes nothing besides our mouths. I never had a first kiss. I only had one true love. Everything else was gravy.
Kenny’s nickname was Skin. They said he was crazy. He went to the St. Eugene’s Catholic School. Yes, it was a residential school. Now it is a hotel, golf course, and casino. #winning. Skin is standing outside of a music store. A complete stranger says he likes the Les Paul on display. Skin breaks the glass and gives the man the guitar. He wins a trip to Trail, BC where the electroshock treatment is free. One day he disappears. His clothes are found neatly folded on the bridge over the St. Mary’s River. The nuns would be proud. His body is never found.
I listen to CBC radio in Dad’s bedroom. There are two rifles on a gun rack by the bedroom door. A team photo of the Canucks is on a wall facing the bed. Dad played hockey at the St. Eugene. That is what you call it when you don’t want to feel bad that your parents met at the residential school.
My brother Johnny was a rodeo star. He won the bareback horse riding championship in the Indian Cowboy Rodeo Association. Dad taught him everything he knew. Grip. Patience. Drinking. Johnny was killed by a drunk driver in ’72. There were no Soviets involved, just a drunk white guy who the police let go scot-free.
I am visiting my mom in the Okanagan. She has all of my school material laid out in the office. I am 37. I find a journal from grade two. I read the first entry in 1985. “My Dad died on New Year’s Eve. It was sad.” I will never write anything better than that.
I am with Mom and Sherry. Corey Hart is on the radio. He is cool. We are visiting Dad in the hospital on the third floor. It is early evening. The elevator doors open and we hear a deep, low breath coming from one of the hospital rooms. It is New Year’s Eve. There are decorations everywhere. We get directions to the room from the nurses. They can’t meet my eyes. We find the room where he is lying comatose. The room is empty except for him and his struggled breath. He does not speak to me this time. He does not tell me to stay in school again or that he loves me. I cannot remember him telling me that.
He dies at midnight. Mom asks me if I want to go into his room and see him. I look in from the doorway. The lights are off. I cannot hear the breathing anymore. I say no and we leave. I don’t want to die in a hospital.
Back at the hotel there is celebration. People are partying. Mom, Sherry, and I wait for the elevator to come back to the lobby and bring us to our floor. It comes and we enter, stunned, broken, and beyond loss. As the elevator closes a hand catches the door and opens again. Three party people enter the elevator. They shout “Happy New Year!” I find hate in my throat and I yell, “Shut up. My Dad just died.” Their party ends until we reach our floor. We exit and go to our room.
It is early January on the rez. It is freezing out. My father’s wake is in the band hall. I am eight years old. It is the third funeral of my life. His body is in the coffin and his nose is bleeding. I think he might be alive. The funeral director touches up his face. Sherry’s daughter teases me. She is older than me. I take it as long as I can, then I push her to the ground and tell her to “fuck off.” I don’t get in trouble. I find my voice.
There is no memory like the one written in the blood. It boils you clean from all intention until there is nothing left but instinct. I am a writer. I live to be happy. I try not to find anymore strife or toil. I have had my share. When it does come to me, I know that there is an eight-year-old boy inside who is stronger than anyone I have ever met. I don’t hate Calgary anymore.
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