The worst part of holding the memories is not the pain. It’s the loneliness of it. Memories need to be shared.
Lois Lowry, The Giver
Welcome to Into the Woods: Miya and Hunka Walk Together. My friend Miya and I were an integral part of each other’s lives for more than 30 years. We loved and valued each other, confided in each other, shared hopes, encouraged each other’s dreams, and together shared some unfulfilled dreams. I called her by the nickname Miya. Her Native name was Miyaca (mee-YAH-chah), a Siouan word meaning “prairie wolf, coyote.” She called me Hunka (hoon-KAH), a Siouan word meaning “relative by choice.”
In early Winter, Miya asked me to write down our memories, stories, and songs and to share them with her and others. She was dying from lung cancer that had spread to her brain. I honored her requests. I am grateful to her family and community for their kindness, love, and support. They have helped me with tribal history and facts integral to some of the writings I have completed and those I promised but have yet to write.
Over time, as I feel comfortable, I will be posting selected writings here on my WordPress® blog Into the Woods in the category Miya and Hunka Walk Together. My intention is to honor Miya’s wishes by making some of our memories, stories, songs, chants, and poems accessible to anyone who has an interest in reading them. Because the WordPress® community is welcoming and inclusive, it is the one place I choose to share my personal writings publicly. I do not advertise or promote my blog outside the social media platforms I navigate, and I limit my “friends and followers” to people with whom I have a connection, a mutually demonstrated interest in sharing our lives, or a shared interest in supporting our creative expressions, both written and artistic. Therefore, although my outreach may not go far, it may go deep.
I need to make a brief statement about cultural appropriation. Miya was an Oglala Lakota Sioux Native American Indian woman, born in South Dakota in March 1953. I am a White German-Irish European American woman, born in Ohio in October 1957. There is an obvious cultural difference, but there is no cultural appropriation here. These writings are personal. I speak with my own voice. I speak for myself, and for Miya because she asked me to, and from my own perspective. Each writing will reveal a life experience important to Miya and me, or to me in remembrance of Miya. Although I am gaining much through this process, I am not profiting. And more importantly, elements of the Lakota culture included in my writings are used with expressly stated permissions and wishes of Miya and members of her Lakota community. Sharing and learning about different cultures is not cultural appropriation; if done respectfully, it can be liberating.
Thank you for reading. If you wish to share a public comment or a private message about the writings, please feel free to do so.
I begin with an ending, Clearing the Way.
Clearing the way
How vain it seems to write, when one knows how to feel – how much more near and dear to sit beside you, talk with you, hear the tones of your voice. Give me strength…write me of hope and love, and hearts that endured.
Emily Dickinson, Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson’s Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson
I set everything aside and took Miya’s face into my hands. We looked into each other’s eyes. We leaned our foreheads together.
“Thank you, Hunka,” she said in a rattling breath. “I am ready to walk on.”
She lay back and rested her head on the pillow, the uncontrollable twitching of her jaw muscle subsiding and finally stopping as the medicine or mercy allowed her breathing to move more easily for several minutes. She slept, I cried, and then she died.
Her death is a heavy sadness. I was not ready. We loved each other. We made plans. We had dreams. Her death is also a great loss to her tribe, her community, her family, and all who knew her, loved her, and humbly walked with her.
Anyone who has ever been a loving caregiver to someone who is dying, or has assisted a family, a circle, a community, or a tribe with the work into, through, and beyond a death, knows they have been given a sacred assignment. We cannot possibly watch over those we love, discuss and attend to their needs, without awareness of the important responsibility we have accepted. We can’t be lazy about it. Called upon to give service, for whatever duration, we show up, ascertain and meet needs, respond to requests, pause to consider how we might do more, rest, and repeat. It is sacred because it is good.
In December my beloved Miya was diagnosed with lung cancer. The outlook was she would take powerful medicine, manage side effects, get through treatments, maintain follow-up healthcare, and live several years. In the spring we would ride horses together. And we would figure out a way to be together more frequently. That was the plan.
In January she phoned me and asked, “Hunka, do you remember when you told me that if I ever forget who I am, you’ll be here to remind me?” I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. I had said those words to her years ago. “Yes,” I replied. “I remember. I am here, Miya. You are love.”
The cancer had spread to her brain. The diagnosis terrified her. The prognosis devastated her. The most she could hope for, according to her doctors, was a year, but probably eight to ten months.
We were stunned at how swiftly her symptoms multiplied and magnified. “Every day I am losing myself,” she said. Then she requested something that initially bewildered me. “I want you to write something to help me find myself again,” she said. “Tell me a story. Do it soon. I want to be conscious when you read it to me.” She was desperately worried.
As Miya explained in the days that followed, it was crucial that she take the stories of her life with her in the continued journey of her spirit. Based on her Lakota Indian beliefs, she was concerned that the cancer in her brain would prevent the self-knowledge needed to release her soul for its journey to Wakan Tanka, a spirit world in the sky in which the dead are free of pain and suffering. She feared being forever lost to herself, making her soul journey impossible or long-lastingly difficult.
I recognized this phenomenon because I had witnessed something similar in my mother during the last year of her life. Diagnosed with dementia and congestive heart failure disease, my mother grew anxious as her confusion deepened, her memory declined, and her strength and alertness decreased. Comforted by her Christian faith, my mother spoke of going home to “be with [her] Lord.” I watched and listened as she mentally, emotionally, and spiritually sorted through the stories of her life, decided what she wanted to take with her, and re-told her stories with newfound understanding, acceptance, forgiveness, humor, and love. It was remarkable to witness.
Listening to Miya express her fear, I didn’t know how to respond. I stumbled with statements like, “Your soul is strong, Miya. It is wise and whole.” Searching for words of comfort, I tried, “You are worthy of a swift and beautiful soul journey.” I declared to my dear friend, “You are love, Miya. You haven’t lost what you are. You can’t. You will never lose what you are made of. You are love.” And further, “Great Spirit knows who you are, Miya, and will travel to meet you right where you are and take you home.”
But Miya was hurting, sensing losses, and searching for them. With cancer growing darker and more destructive, she was growing more anxious that she would not remember familiar people, places, animals, songs, and things precious to her. Her situation was extremely difficult and painful to process. She expressed a need for calm, stillness, truth, harmony, hope, reminders of her joyful life, stories about the land she loved, and, as she put it, “something to make the sun come out again.” So, I told her a story, a sweet memory about us.
Not knowing what to expect next from cancer and becoming increasingly uncomfortable and anxious, she said, “Hunka Cheryl, please tell me another story. So I can sit back, relax, and remember.” I did, another and another and another. With an abundance of stories to draw upon in my own memory – one not ravaged by lung cancer, brain metastases, pain, and fatigue – I began a routine of storytelling with her across the miles. Some days I simply sang to her, including chants taught to me by Miya and the Lakota, Dakota, Cherokee, and Navajo peoples we have known.
To honor Miya’s request that I help her compile stories of her life, together we decided I would write several short pieces about our experiences together – what we shared, valued, and loved, and what she taught me. The interesting, the extraordinary, the funny, the unusual, the sweet, the sad – she said it was all fair game and she wanted me to share it. The exception was I was not to write about her family; their stories are their own to tell. And I was not to write an obituary; someone else would write that. She wanted me to share songs and stories.
Protectively trying to support and comfort her, I wrote our memories, dug up old songs, chants, and poems, and read and sang to her in short intervals on good days, as good days go with stage 4 cancer. I also sent a few writings to her caregivers in Rapid City so that they could read them to her. Between Oregon and South Dakota we talked on the phone as often as possible. And then I got on a plane to South Dakota to be with her and take her home to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Providing care and fulfilling Miya’s wishes to ensure her a good death were my focus; in other words, the tasks at hand. I stole moments in between tasks to sit beside her, talk, read, and sing to her, or just be in silence with her. Although I do not know all of what Miya was able to hear or comprehend of those stolen moments with her, I do believe that even the smallest vibrations and all the love reached her somehow. And when I couldn’t get words out, sometimes I signed to her in the universal sign language of the Plains Indians, “May Great Spirit make sunrise in your heart.”
When Miya asked me to share our stories with others, I was hesitant. Our stories felt too intimate to share. But I got over it. Miya believed that through shared storytelling, we change people’s hearts and minds, we create love, we grow closer to each other, we heal each other, we take better care of ourselves and others, and we are motivated to heal the land. She devoted her life to her tribal community and the land. Her belief that sharing our stories has healing power is reason enough for me to share them. She deserves that. This is not a time to allow hesitation, timidity, anxiety, fear, or other inner turmoil to stand in the way. It is a time to “Hanta Yo!” (Clear the way!).
I believe Miya’s soul has been released at peace – whole and in full knowledge and guardianship of all of her life stories, her beauty, her wonder, her love, and her goodness. As she journeys home to Wakan Tanka, may she be at peace with All Her Relations. Perhaps that is what Coyote was telling me in our encounter on March 17.