There’s No Place Like Home
There are days in my life that I suffer flashbacks from childhood. Memories of growing up in the big, white stucco house located in the center of town. The only house in Pine Ridge guarded twenty-four hours a day by a huge ceramic German Shepard permanently resting on top of the cracked cement porch. He has sat there so long that the bottom of his mouth rotted and broke completely off, and now he resembles Anubis, the jackal headed Egyptian god of death. Like everything else, time takes its toll. There’s no other place like home…
The living room walls are covered in terrible wood paneling dating back to the 1960s. Memories of the red shag carpet floor trampled upon by four generations of huge Janis’ feet fill my head. My grandfather, the family historian, owned this house for well over 40 years. Entering was like touring a settler’s of the Old West museum. The old spooky pictures of my dead ancestors watched the living who dared enter. I’m not sure if I want to say that my granddad was narcissistic, but he loved being surrounded by photos of himself. He was especially proud of the pictures taken while serving in the U.S. Navy. He was a man’s man, and each black and white still shot made him look like a debonair movie star of the 1940s—think Humphrey Bogart or Cary Grant.
A few years ago, my grandfather became sick. He was always a strong man, beating cancer twice, completing daily activities using one lung, and surviving the reservation life up until the age of 88. The life expectancy in this area falls around age 43. But, I could see that age had finally caught up with him. Now, he was severely balding, wrinkled, and feeble.
My mother knew that I had quit my job while residing in Denver and asked me to return home to help care for my grandfather. I remember being 12 years old and injuring my ankle in a sledding accident. I was not a small child by any means, yet my Gramps picked me up like a sack of potatoes and carried me into the local emergency room for treatment.
As a young child, I would pretend to have knee pain and he would rub me down with icy hot and wrap an ace bandage or an old rag over the area. After playing physician, he’d make us both a large glass of orange flavored tang and we’d gulp it all down in unison. It was just what the doctor ordered! He always played along. As I returned to help care for him, Gramps didn’t take it too well having a new and unexpected roommate. The last thing he ever wanted was to feel like an invalid who could not live independently. He didn’t much care for me moving in…or so he acted.
Now, I had my own issues of living with my grandfather. In fact, I even hated living in Pine Ridge. Residing together was a major step for the both of us. It wasn’t long after that my Gramps began to get sicker. He began falling and injuring himself more and more. Each time he’d fall I would become anxious and feel as though I wasn’t being a good caregiver. I was truly afraid of losing him. In reality, I knew he was dying. I just didn’t know when, and that became my biggest fear.
Death scares me the most. As a child, I remember crying and telling my grandparents “I never wanted die.” When my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer, I prayed to God to let her live. She was the only person who ever truly loved me for me, and I never wanted her to go. God either hated me, or was on a coffee break when I made my plea because she died three days later. Death was on his way back to the big white stucco house, and this time it was my grandfather, and I’d bear witness.
Grandpa Boob would talk about how life would be better for everyone if he would just die. I advised him that I would take him to mental health at IHS if he kept it up. He cringed his face and mumbled, “I really didn’t mean it. I’m afraid to die.” At that moment my world came crashing down. The man who once carried me into the emergency room sat in front of me in a wheelchair and confessed his biggest fear. It was such a vulnerable moment and it wore heavy on my heart. The strongest man I ever knew was afraid of death too. He was only human.
On one of the coldest days of the year, Gramps got out of bed and told me that he wanted to go to the hospital because his chest hurt. I got his clothes ready and helped him to the bathroom. He took a few steps and then fell back. I was able to catch him and prop him up onto the big white toilet seat. He took his last breath as I sat him down, and he died right there in my arms. As I held his warm, soft, bald head in my hands, I placed my quivering lips to his ear and I reminded him just how much he was loved and not to be afraid. He wasn’t going out alone! I’m not sure if he heard my words, as he was almost deaf in both ears. To this day, I tell myself he did. It reassures me anyway. I’m thankful that so many of my memories revolve around this old white stucco house located in the center of Pine Ridge. I know that my grandfather died with dignity that day. He was always there for me, and at his most important moment I was there for him. We always took care of each other in the place we both called home.
Darin Janis (Oglala Lakota) is a student at Oglala Lakota College where he is majoring in Lakota studies and English.