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My Sister’s Winter Death

December 26, 2006

By CAROL HARVEY, PHOTO BY LUIS SNCHEZ SATURNO

SECOND PLACE: ADULT NONFICTION

Hokam

From the whispered information I overheard at the Santa Fe Indian Hospital, it turned out she had been living and working in the garment district in Los Angeles. Her daughter, Lisa, was 9. A hospital there had tracked down Moma, and said, “We think we may have your daughter.” As I sat near her, a tangle of tubes sustaining her, I said, “Jeanie, wake up. Come on, let’s go to Apache Canyon. We’ll climb the long hills without walking our bikes; we’ll beat the wind this time. Come on. Let’s go. We’ll spend the day.” I heard no answer. A nurse came in and said, “The only voice she probably recognizes is your Moma’s.” She was worn out, “hokam,” the Pima singular word for “all used up,” the plural, “hohokam,” described to them why the ancient Indians left an area. The ancient Indians, for us the Anasazi, had made tools and weapons, decorating their pottery with geometrical shapes, weaving willow baskets for which they were renowned, building villages of tiered masonry, carving mysterious, haunting petroglyphs, leaving behind their handprints emblazoned on their cave walls – then they had vanished, disappeared, “hohokam.”

The pristine rivers

The Anasazi ranged from Colorado to New Mexico to Arizona, nurtured by the Ro Grande (the Blue Mother River to some puebloans) and the Pecos River. The rivers flowed southward, commingling at Amistad, then coursing onward to the Gulf of Mexico. Over time the rivers that fed the families and crops of the Anasazi, that they drank from when thirsty, were transfigured. Hot dog wrappers, potato chip bags, candy wrappers, Styrofoam cups, soft drink and beer cans, tangled fishing line, dirty diapers, animal carcasses, rusting cars and trucks, toxic pesticides, metallic waste, industrial chemicals discharged from factories and plants, raw sewage, human and animal fecal contamination converged in their attack on the rivers before they ended their journey, comatose, at the gulf. Hohokam. Jeanie had been caught up in this onslaught. Her blood, the same blood in the veins of our rivers, poisoned, the pollution and stench unabated, her arteries choked. As she lay in front of me, her moaning echoed to me from the cesspool she had fallen into, alone. She lived like this for eight years. She lost weight, her body curled up into a fetal position, and she never regained consciousness.

The quest

The day of the funeral it snowed – dry, blowing, hissing snow, the snowflakes like sharp discs. Moma was running around at the last minute, as usual, 15 minutes before Mass, taking a bath in a thimbleful of water, trying to find her clothes, getting dressed, and I thought, “We’re going to be late, and I’m the driver. Great.” The church was dark and cold and so empty it echoed. No sunlight reflected through the stained glass, the only light coming from candles, flickering in front of hand-carved bultos, bleeding, weeping, Mary grieving as she held her son, St. Michael trampling on Satan, Jesus clasping the orb, rising into heaven. Particles of dust encircled the brocade-stoled priest as he prayed and lifted his gold- plated chalice high, singing the Gloria. He blessed us with holy water. Moma continued to cry. From Daddy, we had learned that it wasn’t dignified to cry over death: “When I die, I don’t want you to cry or carry on. I will have lived my life.” We stood still and silent, composed. We drove to the cemetery in even heavier, blinding, piercing snow. We moved as fast as the plates of rock ground against each other, deep beneath us. Still, Moma gripped the back of my seat and cried and begged me, repeatedly, “Please, Carol, please, slow down, please, slow down, for the love of God and Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Dios mio.” If I had been hopping on one foot, in the snow, racing the car, I would have won handily. I told her again, though, “Moma, I’ll try.” I drove even slower. When we got to the cemetery, we gathered under a solitary tarp shelter. Around us, pinon and juniper trees, laden with snow, stood out against the still and silent landscape. As my younger brother read a prayer, Daddy stood next to him, smaller now, his brown, creased face placid. Moma was still crying. I wished she would just stop. It seemed so inappropriate. I couldn’t look at her, afraid to see the cracked, convulsed earth in her face. I wanted to run away and take Jeanie with me to Apache Canyon, to trudge through the deep snow with her, making angels in the fresh, fallen, feathery down, dancing like blue spring butterflies, laughing as pine cones from the forest canopy twirled around us, spiraling downward, destined to feed the microbes buried deep below us. Instead, her coffin, with a single bouquet of white lilies, was lowered into her grave. The Blue Mother River carved its crescent meandering scrolls in the alluvial plain in front of us, etching its course in the Earth’s skin. Gleaming snowflakes covered Moma’s black mantilla. Each intricate, delicate, hexagonal, frozen crystal, burst forth from its nucleus, repeating its symmetrical harmony, trying with all of its might to transcend its structure, to explode, hurling its dust particles back into space. Instead, they finished their journey, gently melting on Moma’s gray hair.

Postscript

My sister’s only child died living on the streets of Albuquerque. Her body was cremated, her ashes unclaimed. No official death certificate exists for my niece, an act performed by a mortuary. She left three daughters behind.

Of Navajo and Spanish descent, Carol Harvey was admitted to the Colorado Bar in 1981; Texas Bar in 1991; New Mexico and Utah Bars in 2005; and Arizona Bar in 2006. In June 2004, she completed her bachelor’s degree in Spanish at the University of Houston. Harvey is the executive director of the Native American Holocaust Museum – www.nahm.org – and past chairwoman of the Center for the Healing of Racism. She is a frequent presenter on Native American and Hispanic history and culture. Her legal practice is focused on Indian and energy law. She returned home to Santa Fe, where she was born and raised, two years ago.

(c) 2006 The Santa Fe New Mexican. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.