Pasu’s death has put me in a perpetual state of reflection and remembrance. His absence is profound and sad, but I am at peace with the grief experience as it is. And this experience, while a singular beauty and heartache in many ways, has inspired me to look back at other experiences in my life that left me not having what I wanted, yet grateful.
Today I am remembering my dear Roberto Kentake (Bobby, to me), who died from bone cancer about three decades ago. It wasn’t a battle, not something he fought, won, or lost; it was a difficult journey to which he gave his courage, strength, patience and tolerance, and one day it ended.
I met him at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, California, when I stopped to listen to music he and his buddies were playing. I was doing what I was apt to do on a nothing-much-to-do night, wandering around the city and listening to music, poetry readings, and theatre spilling out from open doors. McCabe’s was a funky, comfortable place to visit, try out instruments, and listen to acoustic and folk musicians, famous and just starting out.
It was his voice — the melancholy of it — that made me stop outside the guitar shop. I’ve always been drawn to the somber side of things. His voice didn’t make me want to curl up and cry myself to sleep; it wasn’t that. While it had angst, despair, and heartbreak, it awakened both longing and deep satisfaction in me. It prompted reflection and contemplation. I felt ultimately uplifted and peaceful in my soul. He was singing the country blues, picking and strumming his acoustic guitar like Kelly Joe Phelps.
I don’t know how long I listened, but after growing tired of leaning against the building, I decided to leave. As I was walking away, Bobby called out to me. Standing a bit hunched over in the doorway, he thanked me for stopping and invited me to come back the next night for a full set. I thanked him noncommittally, told him I liked his music, and walked away. He watched me for a half block or so and then yelled, “Hey, I didn’t get your name!” And I replied without turning around, “I know!”
As it turned out, he liked my cautious reserve. Certainly not everyone does. He could tell that the great sad music had taken me light years away and I wasn’t ready to come back just yet.
The next night I drove the 60-mile return trip to hear his full set. When I stepped into that storied, garage-sized shop that gave musicians a place to jam, practice, and perform, Bobby and the band had just started. So, I quietly slipped into a chair under a wall of guitars and vintage string instruments. He noticed. And he made sure to ask me my name when he and the band took a break. He said he wanted to get my name “before you go away again.”
I gave him my name, because he had made a vivid, distinct impression by paying attention. Thus began our adventures belting out folk and blues songs together as we drove his old Ford truck to and from reservations in Arizona and South Dakota to teach school and play baseball with the kids.
Bobby was a towering man of 6’2″ with skin the color of vintage bricks – a rich copper brown with subtle red undertones. His hair, long and coarse, was the color of black tea leaves. He wore it pulled back from his forehead and tied in a braided leather cord. He frequently changed the feather he stuck in the end of it. The soft, flat, leather cord is one treasure I still have of his, a gift from his family to me after he died. And I have feathers.
Bobby was Cherokee on his father’s side and Mexican on his mother’s side. Traveling together, we encountered prejudice and racism in the Southwest and South Dakota. Derogatory remarks about people who came from reservations, misinformed ideas about government handouts, hurtful comments about his cultures, gross stereotypical assumptions that he was an alcoholic and a drug addict (he was neither), even jibes about his hair were frequently within earshot.
These ignorant insults, along with unsolved murders of homeless Native Americans and so many good fights lost by the tribes, were a source of deep pain in him. He wanted people on the reservations to have a chance at meaningful work, something with purpose, connected to place and people, reflecting their spiritual and cultural values. He hoped for everyone an opportunity to do something creative with their life.
The sadness and other emotions he harbored inspired the music he wrote. Singing folk and country blues brought him joy, and he liked seeing people connect with what he was singing and playing.
Bobby wore a lovely color palette of cotton smocks and pants his mother had dyed and sewn for him. He combined colors that reminded me of desert sunsets and wildflowers, summer skies and polished gemstones. He was like a mountainside superbloom of plume shrubs, primroses, sun cups, lilies, lupine, and verbena. I wore a couple of his shirts until they were threadbare.
Bobby’s Cherokee name means “Setting Sun.” Sunset and twilight were his favorite times of day, hours of soft light and darkness, warmth and coolness, when the dying light feels magical. He and his parents gave me a Cherokee name that means “Night Rainbow,” and refers to a rainbow produced by moonlight rather than sunlight. Some folks call it a “moonbow.” He said you have to act fast if you want to catch it because it is a short-lived offering and rather faint in the darkness, but all the colors are still there nonetheless. You need a long-exposure photograph to catch them all.
He was patient with me and accepted my personal limitations with warmth, humor, and enormous heart. He saw both what I was capable of revealing at the time and what I wasn’t. It took me a long time to grow into my colors, as my Oglala Lakota friends on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation would tell me.
Bobby and I shared some of the loveliest and saddest moments of my life. Ours was a relationship of sunscreen (or not), straw hats, hiking boots, dirt roads, callused fingertips, and jukeboxes. Love, compassion, and sympathy were a kind of meditation that helped us do the hardest things and the sweetest things.
He was abundantly talented and beautiful. Cancer sucks. Love is love. I’m grateful, and my gratitude grows.
Ga li e li ga (I am thankful)
Si gi ni ge yu (We love each other)
O sa li he li ga (We are grateful)
Ah ho (It is so)
Composed July 21-August 5, 2017 – after the five-month anniversary of the death of my dog Pasu and about three decades after Bobby died