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Man the World Forgot
My uncle was a man fallen through the cracks of society. He was every story of self-obliteration you ever heard, a man whose potential was overwhelmed by alcohol. He crashed in the gutter— never quite pulled himself free. Those who knew him in his youth say he had a sharp mind. They say he was a basketball whiz. No reason he couldn’t have been as successful as anyone. Yet his demons imprisoned him, kept him from soaring toward anything greater.
Uncle always seemed morose. I felt so sad for him when I was a kid. I’d see him hobbling on the side of the road, when they’d say “there’s uncle,” as the car passed. He became a slave to addiction and was homeless most of his adult life. Family tried to help him. They gave him money to attend school. He disappeared into the streets; never even showed for the first day of classes. They gave him places to stay. He would take a few things to pawn and leave. Hungry demons sunk their talons deep into my uncle until there wasn’t much of the man left.
Yet he never forgot his family. He wasn’t selfish, or a bad guy—only addicted. He tried to keep himself hidden in his worst moments. When sober, if he saw us around town, he’d approach us to chat. He always ended those conversations by saying, “love you guys.” He had nothing in this world, only the little money he got from leasing his inherited land each month. Yet still he’d offer what he had, always wanting to know if we needed anything. Wanting to know if his nephews needed something to eat, or would like a soda from the store.
One winter evening, snowstorm sweeping in from the north, temperatures plummeting below freezing, my uncle sought shelter from the cold in a dumpster. The garbage collector, unable to hear his shouting, crushed him in the dump truck’s trash compacter. They didn’t find him until the truck returned to the waste facility. He clung to life, barely. The flight for life helicopter was called to the scene. My uncle died in the air, on his way to Rapid City Regional Hospital.
“Native American man dead in trash facility accident.”
A sensational headline grabbed attention in a small town that thrives on gossip. Seemed my uncle’s death was on everyone’s lips for a time. The Christian youth group I was forced to attend Wednesday nights prayed for his soul. There was empty talk about establishing a homeless shelter in my uncle’s name. The high school social studies teacher tried to incorporate his death in a lesson about poverty.
I said nothing. I don’t think they knew I was the homeless man’s nephew. Yet inwardly I seethed, because none seemed to truly care that a man had died so gruesomely. It was entertainment, chatter to distract from life’s idleness. The only gesture I found poignant was a memorial someone placed in the park next to the railroad tracks. My uncle slept there often, near the abandoned rail yard. For some time afterwards, whoever placed it there faithfully set fresh flowers next to the wooden plaque engraved with his name.
His funeral was held near the baseball fields at the town’s perimeter. Gray clouds devoured visibility in their damp chills. A gentle, watery sky hung above; a mist clung to the air like a lump in the throat. The weather, the elements, seemed to grieve for an old friend. As if the rain herself wore a black veil and stood at the doors, waving goodbye to a man who knew all the faces of nature well, from making a bed in the grass, looking to the cosmos above the train yard before sleep.
I thought then God was cruel. No shepherd of stray souls, but a torturer of the broken-hearted. If not, how could fate drag men like my uncle through so much pain, only to slaughter them brutally?
Into the waters the funeral procession trudged, bringing my uncle’s coffin to his burial plot. At the graveside, singers trilled a Lakota death song. Fog thickened until we could barely see as cars sloshed past on a nearby highway. Rain residue stuck to tears until the two could not be distinguished one from the other.
A middle-aged man, balding, somewhat scruffy and out of place in his suit, caught my attention. He seemed to be taking the funeral the hardest. He stood near the back audibly sobbing. After words were said and my uncle’s coffin was lowered into the dirt, I stood awhile longer, disoriented and exhausted, feeling the numb strangeness that follows burying someone. The crying man approached me.
“Were you related to the deceased?” he asked.
“Yeah. He was my uncle.” I replied.
His voice quivered. He looked away seeming about to collapse under the weight of his slumped shoulders.
“I was the one who drove the truck when he was killed. I’m sorry. God, I’m sorry. I didn’t know…”
The man’s voice trailed into sobbing.
He needed my forgiveness. Needed to hear—something— that to this day I can’t quite place. I wished he’d spoken to my grandma, to my other relatives, to anyone else. Yet here he was, in the rain before me.
Could I forgive him? Could I provide, whatever it was he was seeking?
I searched my feelings about this man and found no bitterness, found no ill will towards him.
So I said: “It’s a horrible thing that happened. But we don’t blame you. It’s not your fault he was in that dumpster, or that he lived the life he did. I’m glad you came today. It means a lot.”
He acknowledged my words with a nod, seemed to relax, subdue his sobbing. I walked away toward the cars, out from the mist, back to busy routines. He stayed. How long I don’t know. Alone, pondering my uncle’s grave.
Tom Swift Bird is an Oglala Lakota writer, musician, and activist. He attends Oglala Lakota College, where he majors in information technology and English/communications. He seeks to inspire creativity in others, while writing about issues facing the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He hopes to use his education to fill a need in his community.