Shaking slightly, her eyes are as heavy as the sea. Sharp, painful outbursts vibrate from the pit of her core like the ripple effect of waves smashing into jagged rocks. She's still in shock, numbness and partial denial.Read Trevor Jang's Hang Onto These Words
Moricetown, Wet'suwet'en Nation
'Hang Onto These Words' is a book by Antonia Mills about my Great Grandfather, Chief Mikhlikhlekh or Johnny David. He was the first Wet'suwet'en Chief to present oral evidence in the historic Delgamuukw Land Claims Court Case, where the Wet'suwet'en and Gitxsan Nations took Canada to court and proved that they belonged to the land. The book is the complete collection of testimony from my Grandfather, where he describes our culture, traditional ways and oral history. Johnny David dedicated his testimony to his grandchildren and the next seven generations of Wet'suwet'en people.
His work lives on through us today, however our communities face intense social issues. Suicide and depression are among the most prevalent in our youth. I wanted to write a story that brings the reader into the mind of someone contemplating life and death, and how this decision can effect entire communities. As someone who's experienced both grief and depression, I hope to open the eyes of those who misunderstand psychological suffering.
When I feel down, I've learned my culture and spiritual connection with my Ancestors can provide guidance in my life. My Great Grandfather's final quote in the book was "...hang onto these words that I have told you, everything will be fine." I dedicate this story to Chief Mikhlikhlekh , Johnny David, my family and our Wet'suwet'en youth. May they hang onto my words.
Death. Grief does different things to different people. How long would Mama Bear mourn her lost Cub? As winter approaches this Boreal Forest Territory, would she carry that pain into the dreams of hibernation? Mother Nature doesn't allow time for grief.
Jon comes back. Thoughts of living another life echo through the valley. His suicide attempt years ago floods memories. He backs away from the Canyon. While the urge is gone, peacefulness of the river below keeps the ideation as still as the fog above. Another family member gone.
The suicidal wet blanket hangs over the Rez. Jon feels dampened with guilt. What could I have done? I should have helped sooner. He gets a little more numb every time someone in the community kills themselves. Whether it be drugs, alcohol or suicide. Except this time it was a little Cousin he watched grow up.
Driving into the Village Jon knew how hard this was on the youth. They were dealing with enough growing up on the Rez. Jon had always preoccupied himself with Basketball until he managed to struggle his way through college. Funeral aside, coming back here was always depressing. Much of the pain still remained. Turning past the school, the basketball court still had the bent rim.
"Morning," with a quick nod.
Awkward discomfort permeates the Band Office. No matter how common, each loss recreates the cycle of mourning. As per protocol, the community is preparing to shut down out of respect for the family. Not that Jon's family would notice anyways. He's not sure if his relatives will show up to pay respects, or enjoy the free food.
Anger and confusion of his parents drinking has now turned to pitiful acceptance. While his Mother has her good and bad days, Jon's father has only exploded with the shutdown of the Mill. Apathy through necessity controlled his mind state. Jon has his own life to worry about.
"How's the big city," turning to the friendly face of his Chief. A leader who guided him many times as a troubled youth. An icon.
"Crazy as usual," pausing for his frail embrace. "How's your health?"
"Doc says this pill here, those meds there," coughing out a chuckle. He breathes heavily, reabsorbing Jon's face. "How are YOU doing, young man?" Jon shrugs his discomfort.
"Good. I mean... more worried about his friends."
"Our community is hurting and the youth are shaken. I'm hosting a healing circle early next week, after the funeral. On the territory."
"Winter's coming fast, should you be sitting in the cold?"
"These old bones are the only ones up for the task!" Jon frowns.
"No Youth Worker?"
"Can't be a Youth Worker without a Youth Centre. Funding was cut months ago, amidst other things," the weary leader coughs again. Jon looks down, letting the situation settle into his conscious. "I've got a Chiefs Meeting," after the coughing subsided, "I will see you at the Funeral, young man. Welcome home."
The engine idles, Jon stares forward. Garbage and patchy grass guards the hole he was once forced to call home. "Visit your family, they miss you," Chiefs' words burn the back of his mind from their morning encounter. He turns off the car, noticing movement behind the stained curtains.
Jon pauses in his seat.
"You think I'll make the team next year?"
"Yea with that jump shot, but gotta' step up the D!" Jon drives for an easy lay-up. After hours of relentless one-on-one he was as done as the sunset. "Basketball is 98% mental. Had all the raw talent in the world at your age, but Chief really had to drill in the mental side."
"Thanks for staying out with me, Cuz, don't like being home. My mom's been a huge spaz," as the pair left the court. "Ever since my dad died."
Jon wasn't close with his Uncle, but felt the need to be there for the guy's son regardless. Yet he couldn't think of any words of encouragement. "Just keep working on that J."
A bottle smashes in the distance.
Screams of emotional distress come from the shack across the yard. Snapping out of his memories, Jon turns the ignition and speeds up the road.
Showering at the cheap motel the next morning, Jon drops his head and closes his eyes. Why didn't I help? He was reaching out that night. After a night of tossing and turning, this was going to be a long day. He steps out and into his black attire.
There's something interesting about a funeral. You never know how people will react. There are the distant relatives who never really knew Jon's cousin, besides judging his drinking problem. They're trying to not make eye contact with anyone. Then there's the Rez boys putting on a face, holding it together. They'll cry it out later in private. Jon spots his parents and younger siblings near the front of the Hall.
Then, there's his aunt. A mother without a son.
Shaking slightly, her eyes are as heavy as the sea. Sharp, painful outbursts vibrate from the pit of her core like the ripple effect of waves smashing into jagged rocks. She's still in shock, numbness and partial denial. The full impact of her boy's suicide has yet to surface. When it does, guilt, anger and loneliness will consume her day-to-day life. Then she will settle into a state of constant regret. Then one day down the road, Jon's aunt may find some sort of acceptance. But grief never dies.
"I didn't make the team. "
Jon looks over to his booze-drenched cousin, blood dripping from his head and nose. Yup, that will stain his seat.
"Said I've been skipping too much, partying too much."
He felt for his cousin, but didn't enjoy getting called out at 3am. Especially for the third time this month.
"That sucks man. Hey, try and catch the blood on the tissue."
"MY LIFE IS OVER." I have NOTHING and NO ONE," with a kick of his scrawny legs. Jon was irritated with the charade.
"Just look to tomorr-"
" I SUCK at ball. I have NO DAD and a stupid Mom who DOESN'T CARE about anyone!" Jon pulled up to his aunt's house, and was done.
"Just sleep it off."
"I ss-ss-ss-sshould jus KKILL myself."
The crowd rose for a moment of silence. Jon's little cousin never ended up killing himself that night. That would come a few years later. Jon never took the threats seriously. What if I had?
The youth gathered in the forest clearing, their Chief directing them into a circle. Jon decided to help carry supplies out. All set to head back to the city, he thought he should spend some time with the only man who was ever truly there for him.
Jon admired his Chief, who's dedicated his life to his people. He spent decades in the courts fighting for his Nations' rights and recognition to the land. He worked with Elders, youth, coached Basketball and everything else within his power to revive a dwindling culture. He was one of the few fluent speakers of a dying language. Jon observes as the legend opens the healing circle.
"Dini ze,' Ts'ake ze,' Skiy ze'..."
It was powerful watching the man in a spiritual state. The youth cried and shared their collective loss of a cousin, classmate and friend. Jon cringed at the sight of cut marks on a young girls' wrist. He began paying closer attention to the kids. A number of the girls had the same cuts, a young boy as well. Jon sat on a rock as the group finished in prayer. Suicide is an epidemic, not a choice.
"Thank you for your help, young man," the elderly man slowly sat down. He looked more tired than usual. The group was gone, after enjoying a nice lunch. It was just Jon, his Chief and the land.
"No problem. I was planning on leaving tomorrow, had time to kill."
"Back to the big city," Chief smiles with another cough. "We are so proud of your successes, Jon." Jon just nods. He didn't feel he's done anything worthwhile. His leader could sense the raw moment.
"It wasn't your fault."
Jon freezes in his spot. He could hear the basketball hitting the concrete time after time as a bird chipped away at tree bark. Nothing more needed to be said on the matter. The only four words Jon needed to hear were said.
"There's a phrase in our language," changing the subject with yet another cough. "Though of course English can never due justice a true translation, but it roughly means," the suddenly withered Man pauses for a breathe. "My mind is happy, and the land is beautiful."
The bird stops chipping. The ball stops bouncing. The screams from his parents shack turn silent in one moment of peaceful serenity. Jon looks over to his mentor, shocked to find tears streaming from his face.
"The Doctors tell me I've developed late-stage Cancer."
Driving for hours, going nowhere. Jon couldn't reside in reality. "Four to six months," pounding against his skull. He drives past his Aunts' house, the Band Office, the School and the court. Finally he finds direction and heads towards the burial site.
A slight wind picks up as he walks through the City of the Dead. Spirits of the past swirl in the breeze, calling to Jon before returning to the land.
The troubled boy steps before his cousin, buried next to his father. "OKAY YOU MADE YOUR POINT," Jon screams to the stone. He slowly falls to his knees, bursting into tears. Finally.
After a moment of lonesome weeps Jon dusts himself off. "What a waste," Jon mumbles, feeling an intense jolt of guilt. He thought of his Aunt. He thought of his own suicide attempt all those years ago. Finally, he thought of his parents. How could I be so selfish?
Driving back to the motel Jon makes a sudden and dangerous U-Turn. He speeds up and roars throw the Rez. Slamming on the breaks, Jon halts before the garbage and patchy grass. He doesn't wait. After four years, Jon walks up to where it all began. For once he doesn't hear distress or chaos from the other side of the door. Jon takes a deep breath and walks in, closing the past behind him.
The last of the ice falls into the rushing river. Embracing the fresh Mountain air, Jon closes his eyes. He had come to the canyon a lot in the last few weeks. Six months after his cousin passed, his Chief was the next to go. Jon holds onto a parting gift from his mentor. It was a dictionary, well, a partial dictionary. Chief had started a language database in the hopes of saving their native tongue. Jon had been speaking from it every day.
He also held another book, a journal. All of his Chiefs' thoughts, dreams, poems and visions for their people were written in one book. Anytime Jon was feeling down, he returned to the words. The community was in pain, but he was there. The youth needed him and Jon knew he made the right choice accepting the job at the Youth Centre. No matter what the challenges, he wasn't about to run.
Standing up, he takes one long look at the canyon. Jon was having dinner with his mom tonight. He observed Mama Bear coming out of hibernation, awakening from the spirit world. The long, dark days of winter were slowly warming up. He looks to the final page. "For Jon, hang onto these words that I have told you, and all will be fine."
Jon closes the book. Looking to the sky as the fog clears the mountain tops, his mind smiles with the beautiful land. He sees his cousin and Chief shining down upon his people. Jon walks back, calm and happy, knowing that his future is his Ancestors' past.