Frank is a 29 year old Navajo man who’s dying of AIDS. I spend time with him several days a week at the near by hospital. It’s part of my volunteer work, and I’ve been reading poetry and Coyote stories to him, coming to understand that he’s smart and funny, not to be toyed with or patronized.
Walking into the room of a very sick stranger requires some combination of courage and audacity. Who the hell am I to barge in? Who is this middle-aged white woman?
Frank has a private room and it’s small like a cave. I’ve come to like it. Hospitals usually seem like the hell realm to me – no place to relax or rest, full of noise and disaster. But Frank’s room is down a hall that’s not too busy, and there’s white noise in there, and he keeps the lights low. He’s hooked up to a lot of stuff – about three machines on wheels with red lights and numbers and tubes going into his arm. He has to take all this with him when he goes to the bathroom, including something that goes up his nose. He’s also hooked up to his iPod from time to time.
One of several inspiring things is that Frank is in charge of all this, sometimes telling the nurse how the equipment works. Quiet and weak, a lithe and dark young man underneath a pile of blankets, he has come to seem to me more like some wounded potentate than like a patient. He laughs and smiles, a great smile – big broad mouth and something metal shining on one of his front teeth. His head hangs a little and his voice is soft; the disease has been an exhausting foe. He has to cough up phlegm into a vacuum tube and he’s slow moving. But he’s fully present, even after getting the pain meds.
A couple of days ago he was listening to some Navajo chants on a CD that the formidable woman who runs the program I volunteer in brought him. In the little cave of his room, lights dim, we listened and I asked him if I could read a few Coyote stories that I’d brought. I read the one where Coyote is dancing wildly in the dark with what he thinks are other dancers by a lake; Coyote is thinking that he’s really cool, a great dancer. But as the night wears on, he can’t believe the other people aren’t quitting. He keeps dancing away, not to be outdone, until he can hardly lift his arms or feet, continuing to think to himself that he’s really going to impress these people. Finally when dawn comes, he looks around and comes to find out he’s been dancing like a fool in the middle of a bunch of bulrushes blowing in the wind.
Frank and I find that amusing. Then Frank starts telling me about Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “Shay”) near where he’s from; he draws a map of where it is in the Four Corners area where New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado meet.
For some reason, and I suspect it has to do with the unseen entities that are enticed to play with sincere and strange encounters like the one Frank and I are having, I think of horny-toads. It occurs to me that 32 years ago when I moved to New Mexico, I saw a lot of horny-toads. These animals are very cool in my opinion. They have round squat bodies about the size of a child’s palm, spikes all around their bodies, little lizard legs, and a wide dragon-like head. My cats used to try to mess with them, but never could quite comes to terms with the spikes and some noxious red liquid they excreted. But it’s been a long time since I’ve seen one.
Frank said to me, “Yeah, horny-toads, we used to call them grandpa. You pick one up and place it over your heart and it makes your heart strong. And when you put it back you have to put it down exactly where you found it.”
I’d never heard that story before.
After visiting Frank, I went to the bookstore and got a book of photos of canyons in the Four Corners area to take back and show him, so he could tell me about the places in it, like he told me how to pronounce Navajo words in the poetry I was trying to read.
But when I went in with the book today, Frank wasn’t doing well. He was in a lot of pain. We only looked at the pictures a little, and then it seemed better to just be with him.
I wondered if I should leave, if I was too much a stranger to share the intimacy of terrible pain and weakness. I asked him if I could stay until the nurse brought the pain meds, and he said, “Please do.”
During a respite, we talked about our families, I read a couple of Joy Harjo poems and I did some puttering around for him, feeling like an idiot because I had such a hard time hearing his weak voice. I hated having to ask him to repeat himself when it took all his energy to speak in the first place.
One of the things that got him to smile was a story I told about my brothers giving me “Indian burns.” It amused us both that this cruel twisting of the skin, done by thousands of white boys to their sisters throughout the mid-twentieth century suburbs of America, was attributed to Native Americans – kind of like the innovative European tradition of scalping, which came to be standard behavior for Hollywood Indians.
I want to thank my brothers for giving me stories to tell Frank. Suffering sometimes has its reward.
But Frank’s suffering just seems pure cruel to me, and I hate it.
As I was walking my bike home, I could feel the urge to cry, but refused to make Frank’s suffering my drama. I told myself, “Hey, this is the work you signed up for. You start sobbing about it and you’d better switch to bake sales.”
Respect. That’s what I want Frank to get. I’ve lifted him up and put him against my heart, but I need to always put him back where I found him.