coming home

As threatened, every now and then I’ll post a bit of writing here that has been turned down for publication or that I don’t think is ready for a paying audience. It helps me if people read it, offer criticism or advice, tell me more than “nice” or “I liked it.” I’m always looking at the whys of things – what worked or didn’t. So take a look and let me know what you think. 

It’s part of a larger project. That’s all I can say for now. Anymore and I’d have to kill you.  😉

(shhhh… don’t tell the SQ i wrote that)

—————-

It’ll be five years on Sunday. 
I’ve never written or said anything about my younger brother to anyone in all of that time; nothing about how he lived, what happened to him during his adult life, or how he died. Part of the reason is because it’s painful. It’s a bleak portion of my life because we left home, went our separate ways, grew apart, and were never there for each other. Someday, I may hear the jokes, his laughter and see his smile again. For now, at this time of year, there’s regret, guilt, and sadness. 
Work took me away. I followed the example of my older brother and sister in heading out to find jobs. Unlike them, I stayed away, going home only for birthdays or holidays for most of my life. When Joe got old enough, he followed my lead. We saw each other during visits home or coming and going. I was amazed when I first saw his art. I was struck by his strength and his sharp, clear, unrelenting vision. I  was shocked by how much I’d missed.
The few times when we were alone, the talk was about mundane things. We had this river between us. Our attempts to talk over that got swept away by small slights and petty grudges; the kind that haunts all kids in a big family. Never a touchy-feely family, we grew apart and let those slights remain over the years. When Mom died, our family touchstone went too. Dad was there but he was the quiet, silent type just like the rest of us.
It’s strange that the further I get from his death the more I think about him, discover about him. A slip of paper he’d written, found folded between the pages of a book. A familiar face hidden away in a shoe box stares out at me. An article about him jammed into in a file folder is almost thrown out with the garbage, but is saved at the last minute. Someone recently sent our family a picture of him at a photo exhibit in Ottawa. It makes you wonder if maybe he’s trying to tell you something.
I once wrote a couple of paragraphs about him in a magazine article. It spoke to his ability to find and liberate faces in pieces of stone, or make colours sing on a piece of canvas. There was a lot more though. He had something to say. He could use his art to magnify society’s ills and reflect that back to Canadians. He could pull your eye on a dark canvas to a tiny bit of bright humanity way off in the corner. Unlike so much of so-called Indian art these days, he refused to copy Norval or Daphne or Alex. He learned from them, admired them, respected them, but he refused to make a career painting cute birds. He wanted to grab you by the lapels with his own style, and either hug you or scream at you to wake up! 
I don’t know how he got that way. Maybe that’s not exactly true. We knew, even as little kids, that there was something special about him. From the moment he was born, he was Grandma’s favourite. She said so. We might get chased off her porch with the broom, but Joe could stay for warm bread and real butter. Later, while the rest of us were growing like wild weeds, Mom and Grandma watched over him. It wasn’t that they loved us less, or him more. There was something that shone from within him. They saw it even if we couldn’t. 
Sibling rivalry was just a phrase but there was certainly some of that in or relationship, me and him, and probably with the others too. I’ve never asked. It was one of those things that set him apart. He grew up in solitude and even loneliness. But it’s difficult to separate the normal distance between brothers of different ages and the inevitable jealousies when growing up. I wanted to do things with kids of my own age, and there was this little kid who wanted to hang around. We were bigger, older, beginning to discover girls and do things that we didn’t want him blabbing to Mom or Dad. So he got left behind. Just as I got left behind by my older brother and sister. But I don’t think he ever forgot, even as an adult.
Joe didn’t die immediately. He was shot between the shoulder blades. Surgeons removed most of the bullet, but pieces remained in his neck and too close to his spinal chord. He lived in constant pain with no relief. He was in a coma for nearly a week. It was nearly a month before he realized he would never move anything below his neck. Although he’d later regain limited use of his arms and hands, it was clumsy at best. That part of the artist responsible for his clear voice in a world of mumblers died first. It went slowly, painfully. He’d long before driven away the family; including Dad, who may have been the last to let go.
It shouldn’t have happened. Some people say he brought it on himself. They point to a string of incidents before the shooting when he threatened to kill himself or asked others to do it for him. When quiet threats didn’t work, he made ever grander and more public gestures. He once laid on the road in front of a school bus daring the driver to run over him. He lashed out at the family, at my Dad mostly. He blamed us, or the Crisis, or the Canadian Army, or the drugs, or the booze. He knew his demons and they knew him. 
There’s a medical term for his behaviours after the so-called Oka Crisis; post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. He was one of the Mohawks swept into military jails after the barricades came down. He became a minor celebrity after a jury acquitted him and most of the rest for the most serious charges. Along with the attention came money for speaking engagements, and offers from people to pick up his bar tab or share their stash. This went on for years. He got caught up in a whirlwind that eventually, suddenly, collapsed when one of his friends, another of that summer’s warriors, committed suicide. My brother took over his friend’s house, and withdrew into a world of ghosts and spirits.
We knew he needed help. We also knew that he was a manipulator. He would play along until he got what he wanted, then the cycle would begin again. The threats to himself, screaming insults at Dad, and then withdrawing back into his shrinking world. But there were signs of hope and change. He planted flowers and a vegetable garden. He started painting again, accepting invites to shows and exhibits; the Smithsonian in NYC, the Museum of Civilisation in Ottawa. It ended when some kid tore up his garden with a four-wheeler.
Joe flipped a bird to the kid and threatened to knock him around if he ever came back. Around home, those kinds of threats are heard every day. But around home, with Joe, with a band council chief anxious to show the people in the community that he was the boss, a police chief anxious to throw his weight around, and reserve cops hyped up on action movies, that threat would lead to an 9-hour standoff, a police car full of bullet holes, and a village drunk used to lure my brother out to be shot in the back.
A justice of the peace, a Mohawk from Kahnawake, would look into the standoff that led to the shooting. The band council chief would claim that Joe had been drunk or on drugs, refuted by a medical report. But she accepted the chief’s version. The JP would note the use of the drunk as a decoy, to get my brother outside of his house. She would note but not condemn the tactic. The pleas from family to the police to wait for the situation to calm down, were ignored at the time and by the JP a few years later. The JP would absolve the band council chief, the chief of the reserve police force, and the cop who shot my brother in the back. Joe was devastated. He withdrew even further from the family, blaming us for not doing enough.
Then one day, he was gone. Dad had died a couple of years earlier, and that was the last time I saw my brother alive. We arranged to have him picked up and driven to the funeral. Otherwise, Joe had cut all ties to the family, and made clear at Dad’s funeral that he didn’t want to renew them. He went back to Montreal. I thought, I hoped, he might eventually get back in touch with us. I was wrong.
The phone call was from my sister. We would meet at a funeral parlour north of Ste. Therese where we would pay respects and mourn. It had all been arranged by his friends. They would coordinate the cremation, and the spreading of his ashes on the mountain at Kanehsatake. We would have nothing to do with it. His wishes.
It was a cool, sunny day. We took his friends to Joe’s favourite spot on the mountain. We took them to a large flat rock that overlooked the valley. This was where he went before the Crisis to contemplate whether to pick up a weapon and become a warrior. This was where he went afterward to try to find himself again afterward. This was where his ashes swirled about on the wind. This was how my brother came home.

 

It’ll be five years on Sunday. 

I’ve never written or said anything about my younger brother to anyone in all of that time; nothing about how he lived, what happened to him during his adult life, or how he died. Part of the reason is because it’s painful. It’s a bleak portion of my life because we left home, went our separate ways, grew apart, and were never there for each other. Someday, I may hear the jokes, his laughter and see his smile again. For now, at this time of year, there’s regret, guilt, and sadness. 

Work took me away. I followed the example of my older brother and sister in heading out to find jobs. Unlike them, I stayed away, going home only for birthdays or holidays for most of my life. When Joe got old enough, he followed my lead. We saw each other during visits home or coming and going. I was amazed when I first saw his art. I was struck by his strength and his sharp, clear, unrelenting vision. I  was shocked by how much I’d missed.

The few times when we were alone, the talk was about mundane things. We had this river between us. Our attempts to talk over that got swept away by small slights and petty grudges; the kind that haunts all kids in a big family. Never a touchy-feely family, we grew apart and let those slights remain over the years. When Mom died, our family touchstone went too. Dad was there but he was the quiet, silent type just like the rest of us.

It’s strange that the further I get from his death the more I think about him, discover about him. A slip of paper he’d written, found folded between the pages of a book. A familiar face hidden away in a shoe box stares out at me. An article about him jammed into in a file folder is almost thrown out with the garbage, but is saved at the last minute. Someone recently sent our family a picture of him at a photo exhibit in Ottawa. It makes you wonder if maybe he’s trying to tell you something.

I once wrote a couple of paragraphs about him in a magazine article. It spoke to his ability to find and liberate faces in pieces of stone, or make colours sing on a piece of canvas. There was a lot more though. He had something to say. He could use his art to magnify society’s ills and reflect that back to Canadians. He could pull your eye on a dark canvas to a tiny bit of bright humanity way off in the corner. Unlike so much of so-called Indian art these days, he refused to copy Norval or Daphne or Alex. He learned from them, admired them, respected them, but he refused to make a career painting cute birds. He wanted to grab you by the lapels with his own style, and either hug you or scream at you to wake up! 

I don’t know how he got that way. Maybe that’s not exactly true. We knew, even as little kids, that there was something special about him. From the moment he was born, he was Grandma’s favourite. She said so. We might get chased off her porch with the broom, but Joe could stay for warm bread and real butter. Later, while the rest of us were growing like wild weeds, Mom and Grandma watched over him. It wasn’t that they loved us less, or him more. There was something that shone from within him. They saw it even if we couldn’t. 

Sibling rivalry was just a phrase but there was certainly some of that in our relationship, me and him, and probably with the others too. I’ve never asked. It was one of those things that set him apart. He grew up in solitude and even loneliness. But it’s difficult to separate the normal distance between brothers of different ages and the inevitable jealousies when growing up. I wanted to do things with kids of my own age, and there was this little kid who wanted to hang around. We were bigger, older, beginning to discover girls and do things that we didn’t want him blabbing to Mom or Dad. So he got left behind. Just as I got left behind by my older brother and sister. But I don’t think he ever forgot or forgave even as an adult.

Joe didn’t die immediately. He was shot between the shoulder blades. Surgeons removed most of the bullet, but pieces remained in his neck and too close to his spinal chord. He lived in constant pain with no relief. He was in a coma for nearly a week. It was nearly a month before he realized he would never move anything below his neck. Although he’d later regain limited use of his arms and hands, it was clumsy at best. That part of the artist responsible for his clear voice in a world of mumblers died first. It went slowly, painfully. He’d long before driven away the family; including Dad, who may have been the last to let go.

It shouldn’t have happened. Some people say he brought it on himself. They point to a string of incidents before the shooting when he threatened to kill himself or asked others to do it for him. When quiet threats didn’t work, he made ever grander and more public gestures. He once laid on the road in front of a school bus daring the driver to run over him. He lashed out at the family, at my Dad mostly. He blamed us, or the Crisis, or the Canadian Army, or the drugs, or the booze. He knew his demons and they knew him. 

There’s a medical term for his behaviours after the so-called Oka Crisis; post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. He was one of the Mohawks swept into military jails after the barricades came down. He became a minor celebrity after a jury acquitted him and most of the rest for the most serious charges. Along with the attention came money for speaking engagements, and offers from people to pick up his bar tab or share their stash. This went on for years. He got caught up in a whirlwind that eventually, suddenly, collapsed when one of his friends, another of that summer’s warriors, committed suicide. My brother took over his friend’s house, and withdrew into a world of ghosts and spirits.

We knew he needed help. We also knew that he was a manipulator. He would play along until he got what he wanted, then the cycle would begin again. The threats to himself, screaming insults at Dad, and then withdrawing back into his shrinking world. But there were signs of hope and change. He planted flowers and a vegetable garden. He started painting again, accepting invites to shows and exhibits; the Smithsonian in NYC, the Museum of Civilisation in Ottawa. It ended when some kid tore up his garden with a four-wheeler.

Joe flipped a bird to the kid and threatened to knock him around if he ever came back. Around home, those kinds of threats are heard every day. But around home, with Joe, with a band council chief anxious to show the people in the community that he was the boss, a police chief anxious to throw his weight around, and reserve cops hyped up on action movies, that threat would lead to an 9-hour standoff, a police car full of bullet holes, and a village drunk used to lure my brother out to be shot in the back.

A justice of the peace, a Mohawk from Kahnawake, would look into the standoff that led to the shooting. The band council chief would claim that Joe had been drunk or on drugs, refuted by a medical report. But she accepted the chief’s version. The JP would note the use of the drunk as a decoy, to get my brother outside of his house. She would note but not condemn the tactic. The pleas from family to the police to wait for the situation to calm down, were ignored at the time and by the JP a few years later. The JP would absolve the band council chief, the chief of the reserve police force, and the cop who shot my brother in the back. Joe was devastated. He withdrew even further from the family, blaming us for not doing enough.

Then one day, he was gone. Dad had died a couple of years earlier, and that was the last time I saw my brother alive. We arranged to have him picked up and driven to the funeral. Otherwise, Joe had cut all ties to the family, and made clear at Dad’s funeral that he didn’t want to renew them. He went back to Montreal. I thought, I hoped, he might eventually get back in touch with us. I was wrong.

The phone call was from my sister. We would meet at a funeral parlour north of Ste. Therese where we would pay respects and mourn. It had all been arranged by his friends. They would coordinate the cremation, and the spreading of his ashes on the mountain at Kanehsatake. We would have nothing to do with it. His wishes.

It was a cool, sunny day in May. We took his friends to Joe’s favourite spot on the mountain. We took them to a large flat rock that overlooked the valley. This was where he went before the Crisis to contemplate whether to pick up a weapon and become a warrior. This was where he went afterward to try to find himself again afterward. This was where his ashes swirled about on the wind. This was how my brother came home.

 

[end]

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8 Comments

Filed under Canada, journalism, writing

8 responses to “coming home

  1. Thank you for sharing your story of your family and your brother. I appreciate the insight and delicate way with words in this piece. PTSD is a very serious issue that many people still do not understand. We are all supposed to ‘just get over it’ when a traumatic event occurs, and many don’t take the time to inquire as to how they can help. I have been privy also t band politics and not inquiring into deaths of loved ones and it is a hard pill to swallow. I wish you the best in your remembering and honoring of your brother.

  2. shmohawk

    When I read it again though, I wonder what it’s all about. Thanks for dropping by, and the comments.

  3. Shmo said…”It helps me if people read it, offer , tell me more than “nice” or “I liked it.”

    sorry guy I don’t have any criticism or advice for you ;),but I gotta say…powerful stuff

  4. Jennifer

    Somehow I never saw this beautiful piece before today, Dan. Nai:wen Kowa for writing it. The weekend before last Carole Beaulieu and I spent the better part of the day at Karl and Dale’s place, photographing Joe’s art and going through his sketch books, photos of art, notes and letters. I must admit I broke down when Karl showed me a metal box that Joe had painted. Inside was an anti-George Bush t-shirt that he had worn before he died. The smell of cigarettes was no longer evident after six years. I passed along digital versions of about 60% of the material to your sister Marie. I will revisit this passage of yours again as I write about Joe. We will likely make another visit to Karl and Dale’s to do more research. Ideas for finding a home for the collection are also being bandied around. More to come.

    Jennifer

  5. Jennifer

    You mention that even as a child he was separate – alone. I think that aloneness needs to be explored. This is a different thing from his reclusiveness – or not. I also want to know what he looks like – the colour of his hair, the size of his hands, his gait when he walked, what he wore, what his garden looked like.

  6. shmohawk

    Thanks for the compliment but I wrote this a long time ago, or at least it seems long ago. I couldn’t go back to it now if I wanted. Pass along Karl’s email if you have it. I wouldn’t mind talking to him sometime, like maybe the next time I hit town (which is in a couple of weeks in early Nov).

    dan

  7. Yves Assiniwi

    Hi Dan, I don’t know if you’ll ever get this, so just in case…
    I haven’t had any contact with my brother Chris since my Dad funeral in September of 2000. Even then, I hd not seen him since my son’s funeral in October of 97. I don’t know if your piece will change anything, if it will give me a push to try connecting with him. Nevertheless, it got me thinking. Your piece did its job. Meegwetch my old friend.

    Yves

  8. Eleni

    Thank you for sharing. I like to think that your brother was part of something bigger. Whether he realized it or not, he and others at Oka helped spark a resurgence of cultural pride. I see this in many of my students from Kahnawake who sign their papers with their Mohawk name given to them by the Longhouse. Aionia tou I mnimi.

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