July 23, 2012 - The Difference Between Living and Dying

By:  Ruth Hopkins

Death.  Some people spend their lives trying to avoid it, while others long for its release when they mistake it for an escape route away from the harsh realities of this mortal coil.  Either way, we must all face our end eventually.

As Natives, our ancestors were more prepared to meet death than we are.  Their spiritual beliefs provided a firm foundation for the lives they lived.  When death came, they met it bravely- head on, with a death song and full support from loved ones.  Many of us, as their descendants, still follow the same ancestral belief system they did.  Yet emulating their practices today is complicated by living in this crazy, modern world.   One only need look to the exceptionally low life expectancy rates, coupled with high suicide, homicide and accidental death rates among native populations to realize we’ve lost our balance somewhere along the way.

Like most Natives, I’’ve seen a lot of death over my lifetime- but experiencing death frequently doesn’t necessarily prepare one to face it themselves.  Sometimes overexposure jades you- and it would be a fair assumption to say this is what happened to me as a young person.  Seeing friends and family in coffins, who’s lives had been cut short before they’d had the opportunity to really live instead of merely exist, can turn your heart hard if you aren’t careful.

In young adulthood, I did everything backwards. I had a baby first,  got married second, and then I went to college.  In between getting married and going to college, I worked a series of low-paying jobs to support my young family.  One of the posts I held was that of dietary aide at a local nursing home.  At that minimum wage job, most of my days were concerned with peeling potatoes and washing dishes, but in between menial duties, working among sick, disabled and often dying elders taught me more about living and dying than anything I experienced before then or since.

From an elderly woman stricken with Alzheimers who sat by the window every evening waiting for a train that would never come,  I learned how short life really was, and that the bitter pill of regret was harder to swallow than any risk taken that may or may not have ultimately resulted in disapproval or failure.  The young man she loved was killed in action during WWII.  She was from money and he wasn’t, so her parents were against marriage between the two.  She spurned him and he went off to war.  One day she’d heard he was coming home, so she waited for his arrival at the train station- ready to tell him she had changed her mind and she would say, “Yes.”  He died before he could make that train ride home.  She never recovered from his loss and from then on she lived with regret for not taking that leap of faith and trusting her heart.

From a life-long bachelor and closeted gay man who lived at the nursing home, I learned that we must have the courage to live the life we want, and be true to ourselves.  This poor man had lived his life in disguise, fearful of the wrath of a judgmental society who would have persecuted and expelled him for being different.  He died alone still wearing his public ‘straight man’ mask,  stewing in his bitterness and resentment, childless and friendless.

A retired, grouchy businessman taught me that nurturing personal relationships with friends and family is more important than logging in overtime at the office.  Every weekend he waited for estranged sons and grandkids to visit him, but they never came.  While he had been a good provider for his children, he’d never bothered to give them quality time when they were growing up.  Likewise, when he needed them in his old age, they made it obvious that they had no time for him either.

Such is life. They say the true mark of intelligence is to learn from the mistakes of others, not just your own.  With that I hope the few life and death parables that I’’ve shared with you here will give you pause and that you’ll reflect on your own life and what you’d like to be remembered for as a result.

I encourage you to live with a sense of urgency, because none of us know how long we have here on Earth.  Life is a gift.  Don’’t deny yourself the joys of it.  The selfish extinguishing of such an invaluable, precious gift is what makes suicide so wrong.  To willfully kill oneself before your life has had a chance to play out is a slap in the face to not only the ancestors who fought, suffered and died so you might live, but also to any future children you might bear, as well as the Creator herself.   Remember there are millions of others who are sick and dying, who would give anything for just one more day with a loved one.  Don’t get me wrong, I know what its like to fall into a funk.  I’’ve had my share of traumatic experiences living on the rez as a youth, and for a short time after the birth of my third child I was diagnosed and treated for postpartum depression- but there’’s never a good reason to end your life.  If you ever have suicidal thoughts, don’’t act on them. There’’s no shame in getting help.  You’’ll be better for it.  Fight for yourself and your future.  Sometimes it takes more courage to live than to die.

As I stare down another birthday, above all I say, be happy.  Enjoy the simple things.  Take time to smell the Purple Coneflowers.  Taste the wojapi.  Dance.  Laugh.  Hold your children tight and tell them you love them.  Live a life so full of light that others will shutter at your passing.  As a native, you’’re existence is proof that Columbus was a failure and Custer lost.   You’’re a miracle. Revel in it.

Last Real Indians