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My father was changed twice, once as a Jew during the Holocaust when others tried to kill him, and again a few years later when he served in the Philippines and Okinawa, his strength having the intention to kill other people. The same is true of my mother’s father, Ojibwe, from the Leech Lake Reservation, who also served in WWII, but his war was much worse. He’s been bombed and shelled and frozen and forced to kill, over and over again. I don’t know if he was a nice man before, but he struggled to be so after his return. The whole relationship between aboriginals and military service seems to me to be a kind of simple arithmetic. We grew up collectively with a fair amount of pain, and then many of us joined the military and caused suffering which, directed at the enemy, bent back and affected us. Some more deeply than others.

Jim began to realize that he was an alcoholic. Power outages, DWI, dryness in the drunken tank. Finally, after a lullaby, he woke up in prison still drunk. He started to pray. “I said, ‘This is it. I’m finished.’ And since November 1990, I was done. I haven’t had a drink since. Whatever dry pit of pain Jim might have tried to fill with alcohol gradually began to fill with something else. He met his wife, Betsy, in 1992, and they’ve been together ever since. In 1994 he was sitting as a veteran on the Big Drum in White Earth. “If I hadn’t got involved with Betsy and her family, it would have taken a lot longer for me to get involved and put my life in order. I withdraw something from going to Big Drum. I have a good feeling in my head and in my heart.

There is a process that occurs sometimes (not always or even often) during the Great Drum to help end the grieving of a family called “washing away their tears”. As a rule, men wash men and women wash women. I have seen Jim do this several times over the years. A family is seated in chairs near the drum, and the veterans approach them with bowls of water, soap and combs. They literally wash the faces of the bereaved, comb and braid their hair. These great men, with their strong hands, wash and paint with a delicacy that one would not believe possible. In doing so, they wash away our sadness. Even though Jim didn’t wash me, I still felt a sort of calm come over me when I saw him helping others with their grief. My breathing is easier. My hands don’t play so nervously. I felt the same as I sat on Jim’s porch and listened to him talk.

He listened to me too. We talked about my mom and dad, and when I started talking about the death of my friend Sean, I was upset. Rather than cry, I fell into silence, or some version of it, as I gazed at the lake between the trees.

This old feeling, this feeling of being so small in front of my grief, kept me nailed to my chair. I finally managed to wonder out loud why the loss of my parents hadn’t rocked me like the death of my friend. I wondered out loud that maybe it was difficult to talk about Sean because he had come to replace all the losses: of my parents and other friends, my marriage, all that. Maybe, I wondered, the problem wasn’t that the ghosts were real but that there were too many, too many to deal with.

“Maybe,” Jim said. “It could be.” Jim is a lot of things – a veteran, a man of ceremony, a White Earther, a Viking football fan. But he is not a Buddha.

“My uncle had this black lab named Shine.” Then Jim’s voice broke. He stifled his tears. “There has been more than one Shine. But the original. The original Shine was a [expletive] Great dog. When we were driving that truck around town, Shine would get on the cab roof and drive like that. And he was hunting, and he was protecting us. He was a family dog. He was just a mutt born on White Earth. Kind of like Jim, I thought. Besides, a bit like me. Sometimes what hurts us and also what moves us, is deeply ineffable. For me, it’s maddening.

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