Through the haze of cedar smoke I saw grandfather take his drum from the end of the cot where he slept. The bold red, black and white pattern of the wool chieftain blanket draped over the buckskin covered drum. He settled back again on the low stool near the fire and began to tap the stained leather with his fingers and palms.
The dexterity of every slight movement in those gnarled hands reminded me of the forest behind our hogan. I could see the deep motion of a ponderosa tree swaying in the wind in the sinews of his forearms. The tap, tapping and alternation between his weathered fingers and calloused palms reminded me of the breathing and steady strength of a wild animal; so natural, so free, and so fluid with life.
His chant was tonal and rhythmic, not something that could be written or even recorded with accuracy. It was his own song that he said the Creator gave him. The song was like a name, a secret name that holds both identity and relationship to the one who gave it. No one had ever heard grandfather’s name-song but me.
He sang about the pattern of life, and how he saw himself in the pattern, and the beauty of it. I didn’t understand how life could be like a sand painting, a rug, or smoke in the air, but if grandfather said so, it must be.
“Someday you will have a song as well,” he said. “Listen for it. It takes time to become, and when you have become enough to hear it, the Creator will give it to you.”
I was only seven. I had a lot of becoming ahead of me. Secure as I was in grandfather’s eight-sided hogan, far out on the rural Navajo reservation, life as I had known it was about to burn away into something less than cedar smoke.
In the early morning hours, I stirred the fire, and added dry sticks to the coals. I peered out the small doorway over the canyon lands to the East. Red and white striped mesas dotted with pinon pine and salt cedar stretched for as far as the eyes could see. This vast and harsh beauty was the context in which I had been born and raised. A tiny dirt path wound it’s way down the mountainside to a paved road that showed no sign of traffic for hours at a time. Fifteen miles down that road stood a small gas station that sold basic groceries and had a tiny post office.
This was all of the world that grandfather and I had ever needed. From there he could pick up his government check, cash it, and buy what little groceries we needed. Twice a month we walked to the gas station and back again. Sometimes we got a ride in the back of a beat up Rez truck that belonged to our nearest neighbor.
Today was first of the month. Time to take the fifteen mile walk to the gas station down the road.
“Grandfather,” I called, turning back into the hogan again, eager for the excitement of the day to begin. He did not stir in his blankets; his old bones were less eager every passing month. I made coffee in a smoke-stained, enamelware percolator over the now-blazing fire. The fragrance of it filled the hogan and I smiled, knowing grandfather would awake for his coffee.
Then I set the cast iron skillet over the coals and toasted the last of the bread in it. I folded a few rounds of summer sausage inside of each piece of bread and poured grandfather’s coffee into his old tin mug.
“Grandfather,” I called again. “The coffee is ready. The breakfast is ready. Today is the first of the month.”
But grandfather did not stir at all. For the first time, I felt a chill of worry. Was he sick? I went over to his cot and hesitated, staring at his frail and boney back, covered with the Pendleton blanket.
“Grandfather?” I said in a hushed voice and put my hand on his shoulder. It was cold. He was cold through and through, but I withdrew my hand as though I had been burned.
“Grandfather!” I shouted and my voice stabbed me in the heart. I staggered backward and dropped his cup of coffee on the hard clay floor. It spread and soaked into the clay slowly, cooling, cooling, cooling. . . never to be warm again.
I stared at Grandfather’s unresponsive form for another minute, wondering what to do. I needed help. Someone older than me who could wake grandfather up and make everything right again.
I turned and ran out the door and down the steep pathway to the paved road below. It was a long time before I stopped running. I was probably almost halfway to the gas station before I stopped running.
I don’t know what I had been thinking up until that point. It was almost as though I had left my spirit behind while my body kept running. But it finally caught up again, and my first thought was that I should not have run away so fast. Maybe grandfather was awake now and wondering where I had gone.
But what if he wasn’t? What if he was. . .
I had seen death before in animals. I had seen road-kill lay on the road until the coyotes and crows picked the bones clean and white. No Navajo would ever touch death, so things that died of misfortune were left where they met their end. I stared at my hand, the hand that had touched grandfather. Who would bury him? Probably some white government people would come in and get his body. If he was. . .
A horn honked behind me. It was our neighbor who often gave us a ride.
“Where’s your grandfather?” friendly, fat Sunshine Morris asked through his rolled-down window. But I didn’t answer him and he didn’t ask again. When he saw my tear-stained face, he didn’t say another word. I climbed into the back of the truck and sat there huddled around my knees. It was some relief to be in the back of Sunshine’s truck though. At least I was not alone anymore. Sunshine would know what to do.
Sunny’s whole family was in the the cab of the truck with him. Six fat Navajos all wedged together like sardines in a can. It would be nice to be wedged in with your family like that. You would never feel alone. I knew they were probably talking about me and what to do about grandfather. I wished I could hear them without actually being there.
The truck stopped at the gas station. There were a lot of other Rez trucks there too. It was first of the month. Everyone had come to get their checks and blow it all in one day. What good is unspent money? Bad luck, that’s what it is. If you don’t spend your money when you have it, someone else will spend it for you.
For a moment I forgot this day was a bad day. For a moment it seemed like just another first of the month and I felt like grandfather was around somewhere, talking to neighbors while he ate an ice cream sandwich.
I’ll bring him back an ice cream sandwich, I thought to myself.
I saw Sunshine talking on the phone a lot that day. Every now and then he would look at me and his glance was always sad. Then he would turn away and sigh and shake his head and make another phone call. Other people that came in would talk to Sunny and some even cried. I felt worse and worse as the day went on. I wished I had never come down the mesa. I wished I had stayed in the hogan and just let grandfather sleep as long as he wanted.
In the afternoon, Sunny said it was time to go and I got in the back of the truck again.
Danny, the guy who ran the gas station, had given me all the regular groceries, and they sat around me in plastic bags, making the day seem alright again. I felt hope stirring inside of me for the first time since early morning. Maybe grandfather would be waiting when I got up the mesa with all those bags. He would be proud of me and impressed that I had done the whole day all by myself. I felt a pang of regret that I had dropped his coffee before I left.
But Sunshine Morris did not stop at the bottom of our mesa. He just kept driving. With a sick feeling spreading all through me, I realized I would never go back to the hogan again. Grandfather was dead.
I was a father and a grandfather before the Creator gave me my own song. It came one morning while I was holding my new grandson, trying to quiet him so the others could sleep.
I was remembering my grandfather and all of the things he taught me. His name song had implied that life isn’t always easy, but it is always beautiful. When he died, the beauty in life went away for a long time. But this morning. . .
I found my grandfather again, standing on the mesa beside me. Almost as if he had spoken it in my ear, I heard the words, “The sun rises for us today.”
Sure, a lot of life is hard. But the good stuff—the good stuff outweighs it all. That’s why we fight so hard to stay alive. Every sunrise and sundown is a gift I don’t want to miss. Every grandchild is a precious addition to my life.
Most of my name song is too personal to write down. I hold it in my heart, and sometimes I sing it to my grandson while I play the buckskin drum. But this part—I believe this part should be shared like the bench seat of a Rez truck:
Oh, yes, the sun rises for me
Oh, yes, in the east, it rises
I see, yes, I see it with eyes
Eyes that have learned how to see
How the sun rises for me.
And for you, my grandson, it rises
For my grandfather also, it rises
And for me this morning it rises
The sun rises in the east.