It was October, and she was gone. I was 15 that year, and the last time I had seen her…. Well, it had been too long – maybe 3 years. My parents had traveled alone to California only 6 months before to attend my grandfather’s funeral. That was the last time they had seen her – my sister and I stayed home. Not long after he passed away, she had heart troubles that sent her to the ER, followed by a heart attack. She died on the way into the hospital. There was nothing they could do. I hadn’t wanted to go, I somehow felt robbed of that last little slice of her presence.
I cried. She had taught me to read. She had helped raise me.
The family had her body brought from California to the “rez” in Ronan, where she had grown up. We arrived in the afternoon, after the undertaker had so painstakingly painted her face. This was my first cognizant face-to-face with death. I had seen other bodies, but it was brief, and I was much younger – too young to remember well. But her… she looked like she had been assembled out of clay, not smiling like I remember. It was like she was sleeping, but there was something missing.
The dead are created from wax. Polished, then covered in powder in a macabre effort to seem lifelike.
We sat close to the box where she lay. Close to us sat old Salish women, creased and wrinkled like unfolded sheets of paper, long hair braided down their backs. They may have grown up with my grandmother. I didn’t know. I would never know.
She was gone. To know she was gone, and to watch as my father began to cry inspired such a deep sadness that I could literally feel my heart breaking.
Our Father. Ave Maria. Ave Maria. Ave Maria. Glory to God. Our Father. Ave Maria. Ave Maria. Ave Maria. Ave Maria. Ave Maria. Ave Maria. Ave Maria. Ave Maria. Ave Maria. Ave Maria. Glory to God. Our Father….. Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death…
And then the old women began to wail.
The wailing of Salish women during wakes is haunting. It was like the air in the longhouse had been sucked out, leaving us only with the voices of these women; wailing, crying, sighing and singing. It was impossible to escape. Impossible to forget. It is a sound that will haunt me for the rest of my life. And my grandmother – how could I ever forget the matriarch of our little family. She was gone, carried away on the voices of those old women.
The women kept at it for three days. Each time the women lamented, I would secretly sneak out of the longhouse. I would escape to no matter where – many times, to the old tree on the lawn outside the longhouse, watching as the Mission Mountains slowly aged.
Now I visit, 15 years later. This old tree. And I know that we brought her home, in the mahogany box, to a shady patch of grass where she rests with the rest of her family – mother and father, older brothers. Now, the echoes of the wailers remind me just how much we all loved her, and how much family means.
She’s home now; resting in her little patch of grass, in the land that raised her, under the mountains that watched over her when she was little. They watch over her now, even though she left them for the sunny shores of Southern California. Seeing everything, never missing anything, somehow I almost feel like they will continue to watch over me in her place.