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It must have been cold; after all it was winter in North Dakota. I looked around the mass of people and realized that some were sitting in their cars to keep warm while others stood outside bundled up in blankets. Anticipatory breaths escaped me, and I watched as the fog of my warm exhale lingered in the air and then lifted up into the sky like a prayer. There in the sky I caught my first glimpse of the airplane. Nerves shivered inside me. On cue, people crawled out of their cars to join the others already outside. In unity the mob moved forward, waiting for the plane to land. I smiled in appreciation for all those who had come to welcome my brothers home.
Just five years earlier my two brothers had come home from basic training for the National Guard. It was August, and we had prepared to have an honoring for them at the powwow when they returned. As usual, my family was rushing to get ready. For months we had saved blankets for the giveaway. My brothers had stood tall in their Class A dress uniforms as they waited for their always-atthe- last-minute family. My mom and aunties rustled through the blankets and pulled out the best star quilts and Pendletons. The blankets were draped on each of my brothers’ shoulders. Beautiful, genuine warbonnets sat on top of their heads. In that moment it occurred to me that my little brothers had become men. Exactly when the transformation happened I had no idea, but more clearly than ever before I realized they were not boys anymore.
The honor song was about to start. Grams stepped up and instructed my brothers.
“Now you two dance,” she said. “You come from a dancing family so don’t just walk, hold your heads up and dance.”
The song started, and my brothers entered the circle. The veteran post followed them and then our family. As we filled the arena I cranked my neck to watch my brothers and see if they had listened to Grams. Without warning tears fell from my eyes as I watched my brothers. They marched in unison with the veteran post, and their feet were also one with the drumbeat. They were the perfect marriage of Native-soldier.
Pride filled my heart so much that I thought it was flowing out of my pores. I wanted to rattle my tongue. Since I had never rattled my tongue I decided this wasn’t the first time to try for fear of sounding like a cat being strangled. So I kept quiet and danced proudly in honor of my brothers who had become men.
Now we gathered to welcome them home again. The plane had landed, and its door had been opened. Finally, I spotted my brother stepping down the stairs. He wore no jacket, and I thought it must have been warm in Afghanistan. He walked towards us and we toward him. When it was my turn, I embraced him. I held my brother more tightly than I had ever held him before. I wanted to say something, but as words raced through my head, nothing seemed right. I opened my mouth and out spilled the only phrase that was certain.
“I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you.”
I don’t know how many times I said it, but the more I repeated it the more it didn’t seem like enough. I wished there was a word stronger than love. I wished there was a word to explain all the love in the world for my little brother, my best friend, who I was so proud of and never wanted to let go.
We turned and waited for my other brother to get off the plane. The belly of the plane opened, and the wooden coffin was rolled out. The American flag was draped over my brother’s casket, and the drum group sang a memorial song. Broken-hearted cries erupted around me. My brother’s coffin passed in front of me, and I searched for a sign that this wasn’t real. The only signs that surrounded me were those that confirmed this as a harsh reality.
The veteran post followed the coffin and then my family behind them. My heart split into two jagged halves that pierced my soul. One half was beyond thankful for my brother who had lived, but the second half ached so much it paralyzed me with the truth that my other brother had died. I didn’t want them to be men anymore.
The honor guard put my brother’s casket in the hearse, and my remaining brother got into the passenger’s seat. The hearse pulled out to start the long journey to our home for the wake and funeral service. I watched my breath disappear into the sky. I looked into the sky and shook my fist at God for making this one such a bittersweet homecoming.
Tamsen Star O’Berry (Hidatsa/Dakota) is in the Practical Nursing program at United Tribes Technical College. After graduation she will continue her education to become a registered nurse. She belongs to the Prairie Chicken Clan and is a child of the Low Cap Clan. Her Hidatsa name is Chief Woman.