I constructed this poem sometime in 1998 or 99 and at that time had been aware of my brother’s contracting the HIV virus for (just under) 10 years – he’d been living with it years longer. I tried to workshop it in a UBC creative writing class right after I wrote it because I liked it but I could never get through it.
My brother Kelly was called Magpie because he was brash, loud, occasionally a pest…and beautiful. He and I spent time together in the same foster home as very small children and I remember us constantly running away and every time (for some reason) taking off our shoes and socks (which always made them SO mad, lol). We were split up for this and I was not to see him again until we were grown men by which time he had become ill.
It would be a lie to say we got along well all the time though we did have our moments. On rare occasions we sat up all night drinking at the rez and regaled each other with our exploits and daring adventures. The other end of our experiential equation is that for subtle and deep reasons we could almost never seem so get along. I was needful but not in the same way as when we were children and he clearly had basic needs of a kind we intuitively understood could not be met. On some level, I believe we were resentful towards each other for apparently leaving the other way back when (which of course is ridiculous), while at the same time angry at ourselves for feeling powerless to help someone (your own brother) so clearly in need of help. This kind of anger, frustration and unresolved feelings of futility are so prevalent in our community that it can make people lash out at whoever is near. My brother and I fought at a house party on the rez (which I had invited him to as a means of reconciliation). I came away from that encounter with a broken ankle and today I wear the incident as a badge of honor in some circles, and in others, it provides clear evidence of the the fact that often it is hurt people who hurt people.
It so happened in the palliative care ward of an Edmonton hospital one night (as outside a late spring blizzard was subsiding) that I was alone with Kelly for the last time in this life. Due to weather, timing and grace it was just my brother and I. These were the days of SARS-related health concerns and so hospital staff insisted visitors don all manner of protective-wear (latex gloves, gown, mask and cap) which of course I removed once we were alone soon after midnight. He was far past any ability to speak or communicate but I was aware he could understand me because tears would stream from the waxy hollows where his eyes had once been as I began to speak as I felt compelled to do once we were alone. I thanked my brother for looking after us as little boys in the best way he could and told him how good he looked (Magpies crave attention, you see) and how lucky he was to soon be with everyone who had come before us. His hands were cold as I held them and told him I had written a poem about him and though I could only remember the last part I would recite what I had memorized (the stanza beginning: in my dreams – we are boys again…)
It was, as mentioned, his last night on earth but it is the best of him which with stays with me, informs me, guides me, comforts and protects me. He is still my big brother. It is special on a personal scale but it feels like a blessed and pre-destined thing to have been with Kelly and to have been able to look after him, if only once and to know for certain there was love in his final moments. Art can be transcendent at times and is, I believe, spiritual practice.
and colored prints of fabric
I stand barefoot in wet grass -
traffic drowns out the sound of my voice
but I am speaking
and I am looking to the sky
Saying that you have gone south
and you still have the gun with you,
they promise me they will catch up to you
(who is to punish them for their crimes?)
I would believe them were it not for the knowledge
that none has ever been able to catch up with you
so hard and fast do you run -
and I am wary of promises
It has never been the way between us to agree
I want you to keep on running
With clenched teeth
I demand answers
(where there are none)
I demand answers!
In every direction that I look for you
I see faces committed to forgetting,
dedicated to relegating us to mere “social
constructs,” rejecting antithetical images
of what they think Indians are
boys stolen at 2 and 6 years old
boys raised by strangers without black hair, and then
boys who return home as strange men
boys sharing a mother poisoned by prescriptions
boys whose cousins hang in trees
boys finding uncles with shotgun holes in them
boys who have not forgiven their fathers – only forgotten them
boys who are bleeding
In my dreams
we are boys again
and running barefoot through city streets
our shoes discarded
It must be that you remember
a place worth running to -
I am scared
but you are older
and I will follow you anywhere
you are that dark bird
singing in the dead of night
waiting your whole life for a moment to arrive
I can feel a cold wind at my back
on this wind
will you fly over gray fields?
your feathers long, blue and black
along the river’s silent edge will you soar?
If only one good memory
is left in our hearts
I will meet you there
©2012 Champsteen Publishing